A few weeks ago, the gas company started digging up the road outside my house as part of major works to replace gas pipes in the village. Days after starting the work, holes filled with water and a muddy stream gushed out across the pavement and down the street. Belatedly, the water company turned up and promptly blamed the gas company for the problem. They were unable to do any repairs owing to a submerged electrical cable fizzing away. The electricity company wouldn’t do any work until they knew who would pay for it. Several days later following intervention of the local highways department the matter was resolved. But the mud left on mine and my neighbour’s drive, the pavement, and the street had to be cleared by me and my neighbours. Not cost effective to clean up I guess.
What rapidly became apparent is that the driving force behind the work and the argument over who pays is profit, not public service, purely finance. Friedman (1962) advocated that the only duty of a business was to maximise profits for the benefits of the company and its shareholders, it had no responsibility to the public or society. I don’t have problem with this ideology, business is about making money not providing public services. So, who has responsibility for looking after the public’s interests, well that’s government surely. After all, as Locke advocated in the 17th century, it is government that has a duty to ensure ‘the peace, safety and public good of the people’ (Locke 1689:299).
Much of what the public need, in the way of welfare, health services, social services, criminal justice, education and a myriad of other service provisions are not profitable, in fact they are in a true business sense not financially viable. It is government that needs to take the lead on these and it is government that needs to ensure that the services are run for the public good. So why then do we hear every service state that they are in financial difficulties, that they need to cut back services, that they cannot cope? Because government has not done its job. It doesn’t really matter what flavour government you prefer, left or right, conservative or labour, socialist or capitalist, over the last half a century, government has quite simply failed to deliver. Instead it has abrogated responsibility to business, social enterprise, voluntary organisations, and the public. It blames society, the poor, the underclass, the immigrants and youth. It blames those running its own apparatus, the police the prisons, the schools, and the health service amongst others. Government has become self-serving and introspective, it has taken on a business ethos. It sets its own agendas based on not what is good for the people but what is good for government and those that serve in it. Government congratulates itself on its own defined successes and glosses over disasters. Government has forgotten its true purpose.
The small hiccup in my road is inconsequential compared to the recent tragic events in our country but it served as a reminder, if ever I needed one, that business and the business of government are a toxic mix. Government would do well to remember ‘Salus populi suprema lex esto’, ‘Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law’, (Locke 1689: title page).
Friedman, M. (1962) Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth anniversary edition, reprint, London: University of Chicago 2002.
Locke, T. (1689) Two Treatises of Government, reprint, London: Whitmore and Fenn 1821 [online] available at https://archive.org/details/twotreatisesofg00lockuoft [accessed 26/6/2017].