Public service, private provision


There was an excellent article in The Guardian yesterday by Geoffrey Wheatcroft.

The piece was inspired by a fire that occurred while he was holidaying in Switzerland. The owner of the guesthouse Wheatcroft was staying in had been called out at 4am one morning to deal with a raging barn fire – the point being that in Switzerland, as in much of the US, fire-fighters are part-time volunteers, rather than paid state employees. As he noted in his article, the same is true of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution over here: they do a fantastic job fulfilling what is undoubtedly a public service, but without receiving any state aid.

And yet most people would assume that fire-fighting and life-boating are precisely the sort of things that will not be effectively provided in a free market, and that the state is required to step in. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise.

Of course, there are plenty of other examples of things people think only government can provide, but have historically been provided by the private or voluntary sectors. Did you know, for instance, that the UK had higher rates of functional literacy before public education was introduced than we do now? Or that the vast majority of manual workers had health coverage (through Friendly Societies) before the National Insurance acts were passed? And what about the fact that most major hospitals were charitable until they were nationalized?

There is in fact a whole history of mutual aid, self-help, co-operatives and voluntarism that has been crushed by big government. The great shame is that the one thing the political left and the trade union movement could really be proud of  – the historical development of a 'welfare society' – was so comprehensively destroyed by their 20th Century adoption of Marxist-inspired socialism.

All that said, there are growing signs of a renaissance in this 'private welfare'. Here's hoping it will be a thing of the future, and not just of the past.