Public Services: Excerpt from Economics in Two Lessons

As we saw in Section …, Lesson 1 does not apply to public goods, which can be used all, without any diminution of their usefulness, and for which no price can be charged. Many of the core activities of government may be regarded as providing public goods. These include public health measures, the control of air pollution, urban planning, police services and national defense.

More abstract services such as the legal system, the definition and enforcement of property rights, systems of weights and measures and so on are also public goods. Less obviously, macroeconomic management is a kind of public good (or sometimes a public bad). The level of economic activity, the rate of inflation, exchange rates and interest rates affect everyone, though in different ways.

Most advocates of Lesson 1 recognise at least some of these forms of public good provision as essential. The big disputes arise over services such as health, education and welfare services, which have long been provided, or at least funded, by governments. These services are commonly referred to as ‘human services’, and typically involve a personal relationship (doctor-patient, teacher-student, caseworker client and so on) between the service provider and the recipient.

Although these services are sometimes referred to as public goods, they don’t, in general, meet the criteria economists use to define public goods. A hospital bed or school place provided to one person isn’t available to others, and prices can be charged for access to these services.

On the other hand, neither do these services the standard conditions of Lesson 1. There are two central problems that arise. First, these services are expensive and recipients are rarely in a position to pay for them directly. As a result, all of the problems of risk and insurance, discussed in Chapter 10 …, apply to the financing of these services.

The second problem is that the relationship between providers and recipients typically involves an imbalance of information, power or both. A student is not in a good position to judge whether the education she is receiving is good or bad. Similarly, a patient must rely on their doctor’s expertise and professional ethics to get the appropriate treatment. In other cases, such as that of police services, there is also an imbalance of power, which may be misused.

Advocates of Lesson 1, such as Milton Friedman in Free to Choose have generally accepted the need for public funding to overcome the problems of financing education and, at least in some instances, health care. However, Friedman and others have assumed that any other problems can be overcome by market competition and consumer choice. Indeed, they have argued that market competition will help to prevent corruption and abuses of power that arise when governments provide services directly.

As a result, market advocates have favoured policies based on concepts such as ‘contestability’ and ‘contracting out’, in which for-profit firms compete to provide publicly funded services. The archetypal example is the perennial proposal for school ‘vouchers’, that is, funds allocated to students or their parents which can be paid to whichever school they choose to attend.

This idea was elaborated into a complete ‘reinvention of government’ by writers like Osborne and Gaebler in the late 20th century and implemented, to a large extent, in the wave of market liberal reform led by the Thatcher government in the UK. As a result, we have accumulated plenty of experience of market contestability and for-profit provision.

Theoretical analysis doesn’t give any clear answer as to which model of provision is likely to be best for services like health and education. However, after several decades of experience with market-oriented contestability, the empirical evidence is stark. For-profit provision of such services is at best problematic, and at worst disastrous.

The only other model with success comparable to that of public service provision is not-for-profit provision by organisations with a charitable or activist mission. Church-run schools and hospitals, and activist-run services like women’s shelters and services for the unemployed and homeless, have complemented the public sector, meeting needs that have been unrecognised or underserved.

The issue is not, in the end, one of public versus private. Rather it is the fact that market competition and the profit motive inevitably associated with it is antithetical to the professional and service orientation that is central to human services of all kinds.

That was quick

Not long after the election, I perceived the signs of an emerging semi-formal coalition between the LNP and One Nation. Less than three months later, here’s Jeff Kennett, generally seen as a relative moderate in the Victorian Liberal Party, endorsing the idea.

To repeat what I said then, I remain convinced that this will prove a path to disaster for the LNP in the long run. One Nation is already repeating the history of meltdowns we saw in its first big run, and making clear that it stands for nothing beyond incoherent gesture politics. That’s true of rightwing identity politics in general, which is why I think it can’t last. It can, however, do plenty of damage in the meantime.

The economics of open borders

A colleague recently sent me a paper on the economics of open borders, by John Kennan, which I hadn’t known of before, though it came out in 2013.
Kennan’s conclusion is striking

Liberal immigration policies are politically unpopular. To a large extent, this is because the beneficiaries of these policies are not allowed to vote. It is also true, however, that the enormous benefits associated with open borders have not received much attention in the economics literature.20 Economists are generally enthusiastic about free trade. But if free movement of goods is important, then surely free movement of people is even more important.
One conclusion of this paper is that open borders could yield huge welfare gains: more than $10,000 a year for a randomly selected worker from a less-developed country (including non-migrants). Another is that these gains are associated with a relatively small reduction in the real wage in developed countries, and even this effect disappears as the capital–labor ratio adjusts over time; indeed if immigration restrictions are relaxed gradually, allowing time for investment in physical capital to keep pace, there is no implied reduction in real wages.

So, is Kennan right about the benefits of open borders? And if so, is there a way of transferring some of those benefits to already-resident wage earners who would otherwise lose, or at least not gain, from expanded migration?
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