Rationalists should stop burying their mistakes
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Rationalists should stop burying their mistakes

I'm not a great proposer of royal commissions, but maybe such a spotlight is the only way to oblige blinkered economic rationalists to face the many failures of their knee-jerk advocacy of outsourcing, privatisation and deregulation.

Economists aren't as scientific as they claim to be, being prone to what psychologists call "confirmation bias". Whereas the scientific method requires you to seek disproof of your theory, economists - like the rest of us - note all the occasions when it seems to work and quickly forget any times when it didn't.

Illustration: Michael Mucci.

Illustration: Michael Mucci.

But, as the troubles of the for-profit trainer Vocation Ltd remind us, the instances of ill-considered micro-economic reforms producing dubious outcomes just keep piling up.

One class of reform that sounds fine in theory but often performs badly in practice is the outsourcing of government services. The theory says that just because some service has public-goods characteristics - it can't be provided profitably by the private sector in adequate quantity - and so must be provided at taxpayer expense, that doesn't mean it has to be delivered by public servants.

Why not get the best of both worlds by contracting outsiders to deliver the service on the government's behalf? You can call tenders and so ensure the government discharges its obligations at the keenest price. Often it will be charities and community organisations that are most interested, but why exclude for-profit businesses if they can offer a better price than the not-for-profits?

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There's little doubt governments - and businesses, for that matter - have made significant savings by outsourcing particular functions. Sometimes this is because the contractor has access to economies of scale or scope not available to the outsourcer.

But I doubt if many savings arise purely from greater efficiency - especially not when profit margins have to be accommodated. No, usually the savings arise from side-stepping existing staffing levels, wage rates and conditions.

Often, the service is now provided using fewer, less-well remunerated workers, maybe with more casuals.

In which case, the saving may well come at the cost of a loss of quality - one the advocates of outsourcing aren't anxious to know about. The risk is greater if the contractor is also making room for his profit.

The advocates tell you it's all a matter of writing water-tight contracts, but sensible people know that's not possible. They also know motivations count for more than legalities.

Why can I think of no thorough-going evaluations of the costs and benefits arising from outsourcing? It's not hard to call to mind a lot of examples where outsourcing to the profit sector has come scandalously unstuck.

Consider all the stuff-ups we've had with public-private partnerships for the construction and operation of infrastructure. The cases where seemingly reputable private consultants have grossly overestimated the number of motorists who'll use a tunnel, bridge or highway.

Even when these partnerships don't blow up, you often find the government has agreed to tie its hands on future road and even public transport options to make the deal attractive to the private partner. A hidden cost.

Consider the disaster when the authorities who'd recommended that private firms be allowed to deliver heavily subsidised childcare sat back as the deluded principal of ABC Learning took over half the nation's childcare centres before everything collapsed.

Consider the many foreign students ripped off by shonky trainers permitted by lax regulators to, in effect, sell the right to become permanent setters.

Broadening the focus, remember when the Hawke government handed control of the wool reserve price scheme over to the industry, which eventually sent it broke. Remember the trouble when the Kennett government thought it was smart selling power stations for far more than they were worth.

Remember the Keating government privatising our monopoly airports and now, we discover, sweetening the deal by giving the owner of Sydney airport first refusal should a second, potentially competitive airport ever be built.

Remember the way some states sold their monopoly electricity networks, but our price-regulation regime failed utterly to stop the private owners badly overcharging power users.

Note how often customers and taxpayers have had to pay to clean up the mess created by micro-economic reformers who know a lot about theory but far too little about how the profit motive works in practice.

And where's the rationalists' learning curve? Where's the evidence they've learnt from 30 years of cock-ups? When will they learn respect for the terrible power of profits?

When will they learn that when the public sector plays poker with the private sector in a commercial-in-confidence back room, it's almost always the pollies and econocrats who emerge without their shirts?

Ross Gittins is the economics editor.

Ross Gittins is economics editor of the SMH and an economic columnist for The Age. His books include Gittins' Guide to Economics, Gittinomics and The Happy Economist.

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