I got a little riled this morning by a comment at the bottom of Zoe Williams’s article about privatisation of public sector services. I thought the article
was excellent and asked some insightful questions. It seems that a significant fraction of the new private sector jobs are simply jobs created by the outsourcing of public sector jobs, in which case we’ve essentially saved nothing (or more correctly, these new private sectors jobs don’t indicate any real private sector growth).
The comment that annoyed me was this one which is essentially the fallacious argument that the private sector creates wealth and public sector soaks up wealth. It’s complete nonsense and I’ve blogged about this before. Essentially, as far as I’m concerned, the primary difference between the private and public sector is that the main goal of the private sector is to make a profit while the main goal of the public sector is to provide public sevices at a cost that fits within a preset budget. Many people assume that making a profit equates with wealth creation, but it does not. Wealth creation can lead to increased profits, but increased profits does not necessarily lead to wealth creation.
If we were to provide healthcare in a manner similar to that in the US, the total cost of healthcare would increase from about £100 billion to somewhere between £200 and £300 billion (this is assuming that we didn’t simply decide to not provide healthcare for the lower half of the income distribution and to simply let poor people die when they become ill). In this scenario there would be many companies making substantial profits. If this increased spending on healthcare resulted in the UK population becoming incredibly healthy and so able to work without taking days off and allowed everyone to be more productive, the increased spending could potentially generate wealth. Judging by the typical health of an American, this seems unlikely. This increased spending would, essentially, destroy wealth. Hundreds of billions of pounds that could have been spent on food, holidays, cars, or any kind of luxury would now be spent on healthcare.
Sure, there’ll be plenty of healthcare companies making substantial profits but essentially they will be providing a healthcare system similar to what we have today for 2 to 3 times the cost. Essentially my argument is that wealth creation requires efficiencies and it needs to be relative to previous costs. We need to work out how to provide services at the lowest cost that doesn’t damage quality. The public sector is a crucial part of this process as it provides education, healthcare and infrastructure that allows the private sector to then go and make their profits. Wealth creation is about more than simply making a profit and it’s time that people started to realise how important the public sector is in providing a foundation for wealth creation.