Socialism is much more than public ownership of productive enterprises. Still, if there is one policy that clearly distinguishes socialists from their (or rather our) opponents, it is support for public enterprise as a way of organizing large-scale production, and, in particular, as the preferred model for industries characterized by natural monopoly or other major market failures. The opposite view, dominant since the 1970s, is the market liberal framework that favors comprehensive private ownership, with “light-handed” regulation as the response to market “imperfections”.
Now that I’ve explicitly adopted the term “socialist”, I’ve been struck by the fact that I seem to be pushing against an open door. Consistent anti-socialists are pretty hard to find these days. Most of the Australian right favors the compulsory acquisition of the Liddell power station, on the grounds that they don’t like the business decisions of its owner. On that basis, it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t nationalise the entire financial sector.
As regards public infrastructure, the Institute of Public Affairs, once our leading free-market thinktank, has become an advocate for publicly-funded dam projects in Northern Australia, the most notorious of all pork-barrel projects. Malcolm Turnbull is pushing Snowy Hydro 2.0.
These examples illustrate a problem. Having started by rejecting public ownership on principle, market conservatives have no theory to work on when they lose those principles. So, they naturally support the worst kinds of boondoggles, based on political expediency.
As a socialist, I support a mixed economy in which both public and private ownership play important roles. The evidence of the past century shows, in my view, that most large-scale infrastructure should be publicly owned, and operate on a statutory authority model, accountable to the public through governments, but with politicians kept at arms length from day-to-day decisions. On the other hand, small business should be left to private ownership. That leaves a large share of the economy to balance between large for-profit corporations and public enterprise. The design of a mixed economy involves getting that balance right.