Monday, 19 April 2010

Volcanic Ash and the Paucity of the Conservative Vision

If ever there was a working metaphor for exactly what is wrong with the Conservative Party’s vision of a decentralized Britain, with basic public services put into private hands, it is the current travel crisis.

With Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, sending dangerous plumes of ash into the skies of Europe and air-space now locked down, leaving thousands of people stranded across the world, the Labour government have decided today that it is time to call in the Navy to try and bring people home.  Alternative commercial carriers – ferries, Eurostar, coaches and cars – are simply pushed to capacity, and there are more people needing passage than there are seats, so the plan is to send out three Royal Navy ships to help repatriate those that the private sector have had no choice but to leave behind.

The lesson here is stark: for all the good-will in the world, the private-sector is not perfect, and we cannot rely on private enterprise when it comes to providing necessary public services.

Sometimes, as has happened here, human need demands more than the private sector can offer.  The system breaks down, or is ill-equipped to deal with requirements that extend beyond the basic drive for making profit, and we need some form of public, not-for-profit, intervention to perform the function unburdened by cost-benefit analysis.

Train, ferry and coach companies are not evil – but they are not able, by market economics alone, to cope with the sudden influx of needy passengers desperate to get back to jobs and loved ones across the sea.  They can only do what they can do, with the limited amount of tickets they have left to sell.  Meanwhile, it makes perfect economic sense, as demand for their product grows and grows, to start charging ridiculous amounts of money for the few tickets they have left; to exploit the needy and desperate willing to pay anything to get home.

Government cannot just sit back and let private enterprise perform its tasks for it.  It cannot abdicate its responsibility and hope the free-market will sort it out.  Sometimes, it has to act – to send in Navy ships where commercial ferries are failing, to regulate banks who are not regulating themselves, to impose fines and taxes on persistent polluters who don’t care about the environment they are poisoning so long as they make money, to provide welfare and housing to those the private sector has left behind.

We really are all in this together, and, until the perfect anarchist utopia materializes, part of that means creating some sort of permanent and responsive central safety net – or government – for when things go wrong…or, better still, for ensuring things don’t go wrong in the first place by allowing that central safety net to oversee the smooth and continuous running of various laws and regulations that protect citizens from harm, be it harm from natural disasters, or the harms that are more man-made.  This is something the Conservative Party do not understand, and just another in a long line of reasons why you should not vote for them on May 6th.


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