Profit is good


Anton Howes is spot on. The next government must not only implement a Swedish-style school reform in Britain, it must retain its essential features. In addition to allowing parents and children to choose a school (even outside their area), it must facilitate the establishment of new schools, including ones set up for profit.

One reason why the Swedish scheme has attracted massive parental support is that nearly all applicants gain their choice of school. That has meant a huge programme of school-building, spearheaded by private firms seeking profits. Without investment and energy from that source, a British reform would be vapid and half-hearted, and would fail to attract the support needed to make it irreversible.

There is still in Britain a resentment of profit, probably surviving from wartime and postwar collectivism. There is a still-widespread view that public services should rely on a dedication to public service rather than the pursuit of more personal motives. This is misconceived. It is the profit motive that spurs people to supply goods and services that people want and need. Services that depend on motives which lack the incentive to satisfy customers are prone to producer capture, and end up with unions and administrators doing a self-serving pas-de-deux which excludes the recipients of the service.

The supply of food, no less important than education, is provided for profit. It would be very different if its supply were decided by civil servants, funded out of taxation, and available only from approved outlets. The 1980s saw many goods and services moved into the private, profit-making sector, and improve immeasurably in consequence. Now is the time to extend the same advantages and improvements to some of the areas which still lack their benign effects. Schooling will be the first and most important, but others must follow.

Dr Pirie's latest work, 101 Great Philosophers, is available to buy here.