Although not immediately obvious, much of the collapse of service delivery we experience today can be traced back to society’s decision to ‘socialise’ the ownership of (and thus incentive to maintain) certain important kinds of property and infrastructure. The new phenomenon of vagrants and beggars acting as ‘traffic wardens’ is a case study of how we have allowed ourselves to become victims of ‘the commons’.
Having seen Nairobi, Kenya and Lagos and Ibadan, Nigeria, in person, I can say I prefer all three of these cities to the city I recently moved back to: Johannesburg, South Africa. My contempt for Johannesburg was reaffirmed on the first day after I moved in, discovering that the traffic lights at perhaps one of the busiest intersections in the country – Witkoppen and Cedar Roads – has been disabled for years.
I have to use this intersection every day to get to and from work.
Two reasons for this sustained infrastructural breakdown were provided after I queried the local community: first, the Gauteng provincial government has taken over responsibility for maintaining the intersection from the municipality. The provincial government, predictably, has shown no interest in actually doing so, and there is no ‘ward councillor’ to hold accountable in that government.
Secondly, it was alleged that vagrant ‘traffic wardens’ were disabling the traffic lights after they get fixed – sometimes within hours – so that they can ‘step in’ and direct traffic in exchange for money.
Before the locals revealed this to me, I thought the vagrant ‘traffic warden’ phenomenon was a wonderful example of spontaneous order: government is unable to maintain traffic lights or electricity supply and, having identified a market opportunity, ordinary people intervened to provide a valuable service to the community. But apparently they are the cause of the problem.
I do not know which is the truth – I prefer the former, but my fellow townspeople overwhelmingly identified the latter.
Whatever the case – the provincial government is lax, or vagrants are vandalising the infrastructure – it shows that South Africans should abandon our naïve continued acceptance of the institution of ‘common property’.
The commons versus the reality
In many ways, a busy traffic intersection is a textbook example of an appropriate ‘commons’. Many random people (as opposed to clearly identifiable locals, subscribers, or clients) use and benefit from it. It serves the community as a whole rather than any paying segment of it.
But this neat theory must be tamed by the often-ugly reality associated with common property.
In the absence of fantastical high levels of social trust and cohesion that can only be cultivated over centuries, people will necessarily abuse the commons. And the necessary social trust and cohesion can never be engineered through law or policy – many have tried, all have failed.
Commons is abused because the cost of the abuse is usually not borne directly by the abuser. If farmland is owned in common (as the South African government wants it to be), for example, an agriculturalist will be incentivised to use the soil to its fullest potential in the shortest possible span of time to yield the greatest benefit, because they know they might not get another fair turn in the future as other agriculturalists take their turns. This will quickly overexploit the soil.
Abusing the commons is categorically different from abusing private property. An owner abusing their own property usually harms only themselves, and to the extent that it harms the community, it still harms the owner more. Abusing someone else’s private property also harms the owner of that property.
In both instances, the owner has a clear incentive to bring the abuse to a swift end.
The commons works differently. In theory and form, there is no ‘owner’ of a commons – it is the ‘common property’ of everyone. In practice and substance, the owner of a commons is the government legally responsible for maintaining and administering it, but governments do not interact with the institution of ownership in the same way ordinary legal subjects do.
Whereas legal subjects – ordinary people, businesses, and other corporate bodies – must utilise their own, clearly limited resources to maintain their property, governments necessarily utilise the resources of others.
And there is no ‘owner’ inside government who ultimately regards government resources as ‘theirs’ to conserve and protect. Everyone in government, from the head of state to an underworked and overpaid clerk, will (rightly) regard the government’s resources as belonging to someone else. In a private entity, at least someone with some level of authority regards the entity’s resources as belonging to themselves.
Additionally, the resources of others that governments must utilise is not ‘clearly limited’ or scarce.
Instead, governments have access to what they regard as a bottomless pit of (take your pick): taxpayer funds, easy loans, or the magic money tree. Whereas a person or a company, when it makes negligent financial decisions, can be sequestrated or liquidated, no government can be – otherwise Greece would long have been a province of Germany and Eskom would long have been stripped and sold to its creditors.
The Gauteng provincial government has no real incentive to fix the intersection. I have also spotted Johannesburg metropolitan police officers drive past vagrant ‘traffic wardens’ as they run around in the road directing traffic, meaning the municipality also has no incentive to enforce the law.
Whereas a private owner would tend to lose money or the enjoyment of their property when it is abused and receive more money or greater enjoyment if it is properly maintained, these government institutions do not get any more or less money based on their performance. They also realise voters will not change their votes simply due to unhappiness with this one issue – single-issue voting is a non-starter.
So, every head of department thinks, ‘I do not have to perform better, because my failure to perform will not be the reason this government is replaced’. The electoral incentive exists only at a very abstract level in South Africa, as opposed to the granular practical manifestations of service delivery on a day-to-day basis. In other words, only once people become displeased with service delivery ‘in general’ might they choose to vote otherwise.
For years, then, the intersection at Witkoppen and Cedar ends up being nobody’s responsibility. It is formally subject to law but practically exists in a state of complete anarchy.
Thoughtful and serious anarchists would be quick to point out that ‘anarchy’ cannot be blamed for this, however, because the formal application of public law is exactly the thing standing in the way of civil society and market forces generating a spontaneous, self-regulating order. Plainly, if Gauteng or Johannesburg formally declares that they are abandoning the intersection at Witkoppen and Cedar, the problem will solve itself.
But since neither of them will do this, no commercial enterprise or civil organisation will step in, because that would be ‘illegal’. The vagrants only feel confident doing so because they likely have little to lose and are adept at evading the already incompetent authorities.
The intersection at Witkoppen and Cedar Roads should be formally privatised, to ensure the de facto privatisation that has already taken place does not generate further chaos.
There are many examples of private property being accessible to the public and utilised for public benefit. Malls, many parks, private game reserves, and many private roads are already manifestations of this today throughout South Africa.
Private property is usually better demarcated than ‘common property’, with walls and access points, but it is not always a concrete barrier that only the uber rich can scale.
Private property is also not always dedicated to monetary profit. Rather than selling or giving the intersection to a company, the intersection could be handed over to the Fourways community, with ownership of the intersection being included in the title deeds of the residential and commercial plots in the area.
The community will then, in all likelihood, pay a company to administer the intersection on its behalf. Municipal rate and provincial tax relief to owners in the area should cover the cost of this contract. The community – or, if sold directly to a company – can then profit, if it wants, from the advertising that is displayed in and around the intersection, just like the municipality presently profits from leasing advertising space.
‘Just enforce the law, it’s simpler!’ is something many people might feel obliged to comment, but the reality is that it is not simpler.
The incentives associated with ownership are simple, predictable, and usually effective. They are only ‘usually’ effective because, ultimately, the community must want to fix the problem – ownership and market forces are not self-executing institutions.
Getting a civil servant to value their professional calling to provide high quality service to a community that they are not necessarily a member of, in a low-trust, low-cohesion society, is on the other hand a far more difficult ask.
However it is done, privatisation would go a long way to solving the problem currently experienced here and at intersections like it all around the country. And this principle can be extrapolated to roads and other forms of ‘common property’ that are presently being mismanaged by the state.
Left and right
This is not a ‘left’ versus ‘right’ issue. The left believes in commons because it ostensibly eliminates the exploitative profit motive that denies the poor access to important property. The right believes in commons because it ostensibly preserves the assets valuable to the community, for the community’s benefit.
Both the left and the right romanticise the commons.
Only liberals – and moreover, the insights provided by liberal economics – truly appreciate that private property is the best avenue to securing the public interest. Fortunately (or unfortunately), circumstances in South Africa are aligning in such a way that it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny this obvious reality.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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