The public, the private and the thermodynamics of wealth

As I was meandering home from late-night shopping on Thursday, the man walking in front of me started to do a Charlie Chaplin walk, before fumbling around in his groin area and then stopping for a slash, right there, in public. OK, the street lighting wasn’t great but even so, I could clearly see him pissing in the street. Throughout the week I seem to have been haunted by the public, the private and the people who can’t tell when the two should be united and when we should respect a division between them.

I’ve worked in the public sector, the private sector and social enterprise. They each have their strengths and weaknesses and of course none of them is perfect. Having seen private sector models applied to the public sector, I’m far from convinced that perfection lies in the wholesale adoption of the private sector’s methods. Vital public services should not be left to private companies, for I do not wish to see public services allowed to go to the wall if they fail, as a private company would. I would rather they were supported and run efficiently in the first place, and not expected to be productive in the sense of making a profit. To me, a public service is productive by its very nature—the clue is in its name. How can performing a vital service for the public be unproductive? It won’t produce material wealth for you, but if you place the value of something above its mere price, you can see that the public sector is productive.

And yet the Tories and the right wing press (which in the UK is practically indiscernible from the press) are out to divide and conquer where public and private are concerned. It’s even clearer that they are succeeding. They routinely portray the public sector as inefficient, ineffective and a drain on resources. In this portrayal, the healthy happy few are saddled with the unnecessary baggage of the work shy and unwashed. Private enterprise they argue, is where it is at. The private sector is seen as creating wealth, the public sector as a parasitic life form holding it back. And thus this government relishes a battle with the public sector and create an atmosphere in which strikers, instead of being allowed a reasonable voice, are painted as lazy, unproductive and demanding.

However, it is easy to reframe this story. It seems to me that the private sector rarely sells me anything that I particularly need. Oh it will sell me stuff that I think I want, but not what I really need. Consider what humans need in order to live. We can assume a relatively oxygen-rich supply of air is freely available, although I will admit that in polluted areas that is a big assumption, and I wouldn’t have put it past Thatcher’s government to try to privatise the atmosphere. I assume it’s beyond the wit of Cameron to sell fresh air, but that’s because so much is beyond the wit of Cameron not because he wouldn’t try if he thought of it. So, we need water; food; shelter; warmth; some clothing and someone to tend us when we are sick. Beyond that, we don’t really need anything in order to live. These are our primary needs.

Presumably there is more to life than just the bare necessities. So moving on from those primary needs, I can see secondary needs that are not quite so essential, but which make life more enjoyable. Things which make your home more comfortable, things which speed communication, many of the things which aid travel, are not far from essential. Education is all but essential, and some kind of culture, art, music, literature, make our existence something more than the merely animal. If, as part of the public or private sector, you are trying to provide me with these things, you are doing something essential or close to it. But as for the rest, many of the services that the private sector tout are about as far from vital as it’s possible to be. The private sector may well need to admit that it is trying to sell me goods and services which are basically tat, and if I decide to buy them, I am doing the sellers a favour. Invention has become the mother of necessity.

So in this reframed picture, those who provide us with food, water, warmth, somewhere to live, and medical services, are of primary importance. They are the real source of all that we need. They must be at the heart of any community. Beyond that, anything else that is offered is unnecessary. If you’re selling me handbags; scented candles; insurance; DVDs; a TV; the latest wii game; Sky plus; table lamps; croquet sets; Christmas crackers; those tacky ornaments you see advertised in Sunday supplements or one of those foot snuggly things I keep coming across in Lidl, you’re not creating wealth and don’t kid yourself you’re doing me a favour. You are trying to exchange something non-vital for those vital public services. The private sector, which provides all those things that are not necessary for our living, are the parasites, reliant on public services for their very lives, swapping shiny baubles for bread. The public sector servants are the life givers, and as life givers they are the wealth creators.

Of course all this is actually quite unhelpful. I may not need services provided by the private sector in order to live, but I depend upon them to give me a standard of life that goes beyond mere survival. I don’t really feel a need to attack private enterprise, it’s just that unlike this government I see no need to hold it up as the holy grail, the answer to the ills of the world. If that were the case, Lehman brothers would never have crashed, there would have been no queues outside Northern Rock, we would have full employment in this country and the bloody fucking trains would run on time.

In a post industrial age, perhaps we should stop fixating on the notion of wealth creation. After all, the days when Britain was the world’s workshop are long gone, and they may never return. It’s not as if we manufacture a great deal or export the kind of goods we use to sell. Trafford Park no longer produces printing presses; the plant for power stations or the machinery for textile manufacturing. Instead, it is a shopping centre. We’re not creating wealth, so much as attempting to share it around, albeit distinctly unevenly. In fact I’m not convinced that in Britain at the moment we can create wealth, any more than humans can create energy. Instead, I’m reminded of the first law of thermodynamics. Wealth cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be changed from one form to another.

Recognising this, we should be able to stop the public–private battle. Instead of there being a division, with one side producing and another consuming, there becomes an exchange. And if public sector workers are striking, it isn’t just about them. They may well be trying to improve conditions for all of us, just as strikers have done in the past. This government and the media would do well to remember this.

Except of course that they won’t. Following coverage of the Leveson inquiry over recent weeks, it is clear that whilst many newspapers want to drum up a divide between the public and private sectors, they are hazy on the division between public and private when it comes to the private lives of those in the public eye. The press have gained too much power in the UK, that much is obvious. But I cannot blame the press alone for this, for anyone buying those newspapers must have had some thought about where their tales were coming from. Those who buy tabloid papers are also guilty of invading the privacy of others.

And all this from watching someone peeing in the street. Late night shopping was dispiriting by the way. I say dispiriting but something about en masse consumerism made me crave drink. I weaved my through the throngs to Sainsbury’s only to find that there were carol singers outside it. Not just any carol singers either. These were carol singers with acoustic guitars and they weren’t afraid to use them. If there’s one thing stronger than my desire for a nice rioja, it’s my horror of carol singers. I decided the wine could wait. It’s not essential after all.

One thought on “The public, the private and the thermodynamics of wealth

  1. Brilliant. You’ve articulated with great perception similar thoughts that have been seeking expression in my feeble brain. Can you not get this published? It deserves a wider audience. (Lesley T)

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