In a recent article, The Vultures Are Circling – Bring Out The Slingshots? Professor Jane Kelsey, high-lighted an interesting distinction between ‘Privatisation’ defined as “transferring ownership of an organisation from the public sector (government) to the private sector (business)”, with a broader definition that involves a fundamental paradigm shift aiming to transform public bodies from constitutional or quasi-constitutional entities that provide services in ways that advance social progress and foster participatory democracy into producers of commodities that are given an economic value and then bought and sold on an internationalized market.
The distinction is important because the ConDems often claim that they are maintaining a commitment to the universal state provision of certain public services (health, education and prisons for example) while simultaneously and comprehensively attempting to privatise the actual provision of those services.
The principle justification for this is instrumental; that private market mechanisms are universally more efficient in providing goods and services than bureaucratic central state planning.
Even if we accepted that for certain consumer goods and services markets are indeed more appropriate and effective mechanisms for distribution this does not entail an acceptance of the universal benefits of markets. Public services are not synonymous with specific, marketable commodities. Capitalist market mechanisms inevitably create social and economic instability (boom & bust) and are hugely wasteful because competition inevitably gives rise to winners and losers, with businesses, large and small, failing every day as part of the economic churn entailed in markets.
Businesses also have only one overriding legal function – to earn profit for shareholders. Providing a good service is not therefore an aim in its own right and only becomes important to a business when not to do so would dramatically diminish profit. Naturally, this gives rise to an emphasis on a certain concept of financial efficiency that only perceives staff and ‘customers’ as vehicles for the generation of profit – rather than as thinking, feeling human beings in their own right, to whom we, as thinking, feeling human beings in our own right, owe a duty of care.
The commercialisation of public services, even when still paid for the state, is not simply an instrumental question as the free-marketeers would have you believe, it is a profound political and moral question, signified by the change from describing us as citizens, patients or students to the universal description of us as customers.
To be a customer is always going to serve the interests of the wealthy. If I am a customer inter-acting with a business, then the quantity and quality of goods and services I can accrue is almost entirely dependent upon my ability to pay. This is simply the logic of markets and business and no amount of tinkering with mechanisms can overcome it.
By contrast being a free citizen in a democracy necessarily entails the concept of equality – one man, one vote; free speech; equality before the law, equal opportunity and meritocratic entry to Higher Education, the Civil Service and political office; all undermine the rich man’s sense of superiority and entitlement and diminish the power of the wealthy.
This equalising democratic momentum can however be slowed or halted if we can all be persuaded to become customers, rather than free men in a free country.
Finally, is it too outrageous to suggest that there are simply things that it is not morally appropriate to buy and sell for profit. Is it acceptable that already wealthy people get richer on the back of a poor persons illness?
I Am Not A Number
Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society
 A topic covered in depth by American moral philosopher, Michael Sandel, particularly in the 1998 Tanner Lectures on Human Values, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.