By Alon Harel
Barbara and Mary are happily married. Barbara wants to buy Mary a new ring for her birthday. The problem is that Barbara knows nothing about jewellery. Fortunately, their neighbour John is an expert. Barbara can ask John to select the ring, or she could invest the time and energy to learn about gemstones and alloys herself, and choose the ring on the basis of her own judgment. What should Barbara do?
One answer might be that, given John’s expertise, Barbara should delegate the power to select the jewellery to John. After all, he’ll probably make a better choice. Another equally compelling answer, though, is that Mary might care not only about the beauty and quality of the chosen ring, but also about who selected it. Mary might want Barbara to engage in the task of buying the ring, even if Barbara’s choice is ultimately inferior to John’s.
This little fable illustrates something that’s often missed in debates about a very different subject: privatisation. The project of selling state or public assets to be owned or run by private businesses has always been controversial. What characterises the controversy, though, is that both advocates and opponents tend to cast it in instrumental terms. That is, the identity of the body or entity doesn’t matter in and of itself; what matters is whether or not they achieve a good outcome or do a better job. Whether or not something should be privatised, then, appears to depend on who is more likely to make the right decisions for the right ends. What’s more, the mainstream conversation about privatisation assumes that civil servants and public institutions are mere tools, more or less, for making these decisions.
But that view is shortsighted. We don’t just care about what the decision is and whether a decision is right, just, efficient or good. We also care about who makes the decision. As the story of Barbara, Mary and John shows, we often feel strongly not just about which ring gets chosen, but also about who chooses the ring. Similarly, a public institution differs from a private one not only in the quality or justness of the outcome, but also because decisions made by a public body are attributable to citizens – as a matter of fact, they are the decisions of the citizens. Only a public agent can speak in our name. So mass privatisation doesn’t simply shift decision-making away from public institutions to unaccountable, private entities; it also undermines shared civic responsibility and the very existence of collective political will.