Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Taxpayers as "owners"

When discussing privatisation Roger Kerr writes on his blog that
Taxpayers are indeed the true owners of SOEs (and other government assets).
I have to disagree.The taxpayers or the "public" do not own government assets in any meaningful sense of the word "ownership". All of the attributes of ownership, such as control, the right to determine what use is made of it and under what conditions, is determined by the government or the bureaucracy in control of the asset in question.

The important point here is that without control you don't have ownership. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it,
But what are the rights of ownership? They are substantially the same as those incident to possession. Within the limits prescribed by policy, the owner is allowed to exercise his natural powers over the subject-matter uninterfered with, and is more or less protected in excluding other people from such interference. The owner is allowed to exclude all, and is accountable to no one. (The Common Law, p193, (1963 edn.))
Clearly the "public" does not have the rights Holmes refers to. The government (or its bureaucracy) has these rights. Following Grossman and Hart ("The Costs and Benefits of Ownership: A Theory of Vertical and Lateral Integration", 'Journal of Political Economy', 94:691-719) economist's tend to define the owner of an asset as the one who has residual rights of control over the asset; that is, whoever can determine what is done with the asset: how it is used, by whom it is used, when they can use it etc - note that ownership is not defined in terms of income rights. Under "public" ownership it isn't the "public" who has the control rights, its the government. The "public" can not determine what use is made of a "public" asset, rather its use is determined by the politicians and managers in command of it. As Madsen Pirie has noted
The term 'public ownership' is a misnomer. The state sector may have the name of the public filled in on the dotted line, but the public do not own it in any meaningful sense of the word. All of the attributes of ownership, such as control, the right to determine what use is made of it and under what conditions, is determined by the bureaucracy in command of it. Far from being owned by the public, it is owned in effect by the people who administer it. The public actually has more influence, via its choices and purchasing decisions, on private sector businesses than it can ever have over state industries and services. In those cases its influence is diffuse and diluted through the political process.
Just think of any of the SOEs in New Zealand, what control does the "public" have over them? Control rests with either the government or the bureaucracy or the firm's managers. The SOEs "(non)owners" - the taxpayers - have the least say of anyone in their running.

Kerr's comment was in reaction to a letter to the editor in Dominion Post which asked
Why should Kiwi mum and dad investors buy something which we already own?
The obvious answer is because they don't own them. By buying into SOEs they gain not only a share in the future profit stream of the firm but they also gain control rights over the firm and thus they become true owners of the firm.

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