Breaking Public Service Monopolies

This speech was given on Oct 14th at Freedom Meet Vancouver, organized by Freedom Meet Vancouver. Photo courtesy of Philip Johnston.
I’m the leader of the BC Libertarian Party, but what I do to pay the bills is work for company that provides project management services for construction. A couple weeks ago, I attended a presentation by one of my company’s furniture suppliers. I didn’t expect much—some pitch about the latest $1000 ergonomic office chair perhaps—mainly I was there for the free wine and cheese. But the presentation wasn’t really about furniture, it was about how technological trends are reshaping the workplace, and it was fascinating.
In the 20th century model, office workers were rooted to a single workstation, surrounded by co-workers who performed the same function, with a supervisor nearby.  In the 21st century model, employees bring their tools with them, and can work from a variety of places within or outside the office. And the culture of companies that have adopted the technologies to allow this are undergoing a cultural change in terms of what work looks like.
One example the presenter gave is of a large tech company that, rather than assigning new employees a seat next to their team members, HR tells them to sit with whoever they feel comfortable with, regardless of whether they do the same kind of work, whether that’s the friend who helped get the job, the other new hires they did their orientation with, or people who all play fusball together at lunch.
Another example of how technology has changed and workplace culture is shifting in response is in AV. The old model for a conference room was to have specialized equipment fixed in place ($20k Cisco video conference system) that users had to learn how to operate. Now the concept is that users bring their own equipment (a laptop with Skype) and the system in the room can intuitively interface with that equipment.
These are just a couple examples of how the culture in the corporate world is shifting away from a command and control model to one where the comfort and preferences of individual employees is given priority as way to attract and retain the best talent.
Of course, there’s also been a shift in corporate culture in terms of serving the unique needs of individual customers. Going from Henry Ford saying “you can have your Model T in any colour as long as it’s black” to the thousand ways you can customize your Converse sneakers, the culture has evolved to seeing individual customers as complex beings with varied preferences.
Some sectors of the economy have been faster to catch on to these trends than others, but of course there is one sector which is a serious laggard—so far behind the pack that it makes you wonder if it’s even competing in the same event. You all know what that sector is and I’m sure you can appreciate the irony in the fact that it calls itself Public Services, and its agents Civil Servants.
They can call it what they want but it doesn’t change the fact that under their old paradigm, we’re supposed to serve them, not vice versa. And we can feel it when we interact with agents of the state. Sure plenty of them are pleasant people and our interactions with them are similar in tone to those with the clerk at the local supermarket. But once in a while (or every day probably if you’re unfortunate enough to be living on the street), they’ll say something that will reveal the paradigm. The most recent time that happened to me was on public transit. I was changing busses at Phibbs exchange.
When I do so, half the time the driver isn’t even on the bus. And if he is, more often than not he’s settling in after his break and not paying much attention to the passengers coming on board. He knows that 99% of them are transferring from another bus, and have already paid their fare. So when I got on the bus I reached into my back pocket for my bus pass but realized it wasn’t there. So as not to block those behind me, I took a couple steps forward and one to the side and proceeded to search my backpack for my pass. “Sirrrrrr…” the bus driver says. “Just a moment” I reply, having found my pass and making my way towards him. “Bad form,” he says.
I swipe my pass and take a seat and begin to ponder this interaction. If this had been a private bus, and I had not paid my fair upon embarking, it’s entirely likely that the driver would call me out on it. But would he have passed moral judgement on me by saying something like “Bad form”? There’s no way in hell he would. Either you pay to your fare and ride the bus, or you don’t and you find another way to get there—the customer’s form, good, bad or ugly, is only something the driver need concern himself with if it’s threatening him or other passengers.
So what is it, at root that facilitates this sort of attitude by agents of the state towards those they’re supposedly serving, even if, in the case of the bus driver they’re employed by quasi-private organizations? It’s their monopolies. As soon as people have the option to get their public services from another provider the consumers of those services will be treated with more respect.
Fairly obvious stuff. What isn’t so obvious is how these monopolies can be broken. Only the state can grant a legal monopoly, so removing a monopoly requires political change. This is an import reason for remaining in the political process and having instruments (like the BC Libertarian Party) ready to push for legislative change when the time comes.
But, people won’t vote for the removal of monopolies until they have an idea what the alternative looks like. This is particularly true in areas like healthcare and public transit that have been state run for long enough that few people living today remember what it was like when markets delivered these services. This effect, which makes it very difficult for people to imagine possibilities beyond government ownership and control, has been called The Statrix (the state + the matrix, Trevor Burris from the Cato Institute coined the phrase I believe, in episode 138 of his podcast called Free Thoughts).
How do we red pill people and get them out of the statrix? Well, we can talk until we’re blue in the face about the problems with the current system and how one with a reduced or eliminated state would be superior. But, unless we can show people viable alternatives, they won’t believe it’s possible. Other speakers have touched on some ways that we can do this. What I’d like to look into with you are some areas where I believe there may be room to start building these alternatives.
SMLXL

So it’s not simply that some public services are monopolized by the state, and others are handled entirely by the voluntary sector. For most services, there’s a spectrum, from total monopoly to some kind of oligopoly (usually maintained through a licensing scheme), to regulated providers, and in some cases unregulated providers.
Because none of these services are completely monopolized by the state, there’s room for citizens to expand the scope of the Voluntary Alternatives. However, if they grow beyond serving a handful of people, they’re likely to get attention from the state (in a bad way). So the question I’m hoping you can help to answer is:
“How do we scale up these voluntary alternatives while avoiding fines and imprisonment?”

[see hyperlinks below, blue ones have video. Most are courtesy of an organization called Pressing the Button which lists voluntary alternatives to state-delivered services]
The approach to breaking the monopoly will be different in each case, but there are broadly 4 steps:
  1. Create the alternative, and get it operating in the legal grey zone.
  2. Demonstrate to the governing body that the alternative service meets the safety requirements of the statute/regulations.
  3. Ask the governing body to opt out of the government service, be exempted from the licensing scheme, and/or receive a tax credit for value of government services no longer used.
  4. When these requests are rejected, make it a political issue and lobby for legislative change to allow for opting out.
Let’s not kid ourselves, this is a massive amount of work. One of the biggest hurdles is convincing people that it could be in their best interests to give up tax-funded services in favour of self-funded ones.

This is where choosing our battles becomes very important—we need to focus on areas that are both important to people, and where we can demonstrate that the government delivered services are performing poorly compared to voluntary ones. Taxis vs. Uber is a perfect example. People travel to nearly any other major city in North America and they can experience this alternative. Auto insurance is another—people only need to go to Alberta to see a market based system that offers more choice and lower prices. There’s already enough popular support (over 50% of voters) for allowing ride-sharing and removing ICBC’s monopoly on auto liability insurance, there just needs to be a coordinated lobbying effort to get the legislation passed to make it happen.

Alternately, you choose an area that is perceived as low risk and under municipal jurisdiction, such as maintenance of public parks. Let’s say you formed a residents association for your neighbourhood and started volunteering your time picking up trash at your local park. If you found a few of your neighbours to join you in this, you could scale it up to doing grounds-keeping, starting with work the city currently isn’t doing.

Once you’ve demonstrated to the residents that you’re able to provide a level of service comparable to that of the city, do some research find out or estimate how much it costs the city to maintain the public areas in your neighbourhood. Divide that amount by the number of households in the neighbourhood to come up with the per-household cost. Then put together an estimate of what it would cost to do the maintenance with volunteer labour. With this info, you could then survey your neighbours and ask them if they’d be willing to volunteer their time and make voluntary contribution of money to maintain the public areas if this would entitle them to a deduction on their property taxes.

If the survey results show enough buy-in, you could start negotiating with the city to opt out of their grounds-keeping services in exchange for a tax break for all property owners in the neighbourhood. But it isn’t just about paying less tax, it’s also about letting individuals and local communities determine what services they want and how they’ll be delivered.

The 20th century paradigm is one of standardization, but the 21st is all about customization to the needs and preferences of individuals. The old way is command and control, the new way is collaboration. Government monopolies are a symptom of this industrial era paradigm which is slowing being edged out by a new paradigm. We can help that transition along by creating voluntary alternatives to those monopolized public services. The idea isn’t to yank people from the statrix so fast that they go into shock. Instead it’s about offering glimpses of another reality to pique their curiosity to look beyond the old paradigm.