Posts tagged ‘Commerce City’

The Danger of Government-Owned Commercial Enterprises

I am always flabbergasted by folks who support government ownership of commercial assets based on the idea that the government is somehow more accountable than private enterprise.  This argument is, frankly, insane.  Commercial entities are held accountable by two things:  1) the ability of a customer not to purchase their product or service and 2) the ability of new competitors to enter the market and take away their customers with a better price-product package.

All enterprises naturally try to resist these pressures.  In the long run, there is not much a private company can do to evade these pressures.  Even bald attempts to monopolize the market have always failed (at least without the support of the government for that monopoly, as in certain utilities).

But government enterprises are entirely different.  The government has the legislative and regulatory power** to stifle competitors to themselves and to compel consumers to use only their product or service.  In other words, the government, uniquely, has the power to totally void the two sources of accountability in the market.

And the government uses this power all the time.  They use it to protect favored airports, to protect cigarette makers who pay them loads of settlement money, to protect wi-fi revenue, and of course to protect the good-old US Post Office. Via Reason, comes this story of the government even making life worse for drivers in order to protect their toll revenues:

When E-470 opened in 2002, some people thought it was a strange
coincidence that, about the same time, the speed limit on nearby Tower Road, a
paved, 2-lane, rural highway, dropped from 55 MPH to 40 MPH. Several apparently
unnecessary traffic signals also appeared. This, in spite of the fact that after
the toll road opened, Tower Road would have even less traffic than it did

Well, it was no coincidence.

The lower speed limit and extra traffic signals, which make Tower Road slower
and less convenient to use, are required by a "non-compete" clause in an
agreement between the E-470 Public Highway Authority and nearby Commerce

The goal is to impede traffic on Tower Road so drivers will decide they are
better off using the toll road. This protects the revenue stream from the tolls,
thereby protecting the interests of the toll road's investors.

Once government gets into a particular sphere, they are never ever going to voluntarily let anyone in, no matter how bad their product or service becomes.

** This power is not really constitutional, and has only emerged post-1930's, but that is another topic.

Update:  Just to anticipate the argument, observant readers will note that several of these examples represent "public-private" partnerships that split returns between private investors and the state.  The wi-fi example and the toll road example are of this type.  The fact that these government endeavors include private money does not change the problem one bit.  The problem is the government using its unique legislative authority to intervene in an industry to protect its own rents, which can occur with the government as a 100% investor or as a minority investor.