The Sweet Sound Of Nationalisation
By Ravi Perera
It is argued by psychologists that certain persons are programmed almost at birth for failure. In the same family we come across the successful entrepreneur while his sibling is a never-do-well type, going from one misadventure to another. The former works hard, educates himself on relevant matters and when investing, takes calculated risks, while the latter prefers to laze about, spends much of his time in idle chatter and insists on investing in hare-brained schemes.
Whereas one man diligently prepares himself for success, why the other seemingly does everything to sabotage any chances thereof is a puzzle as deep as the murky human soul. While the psyche of a human is primarily formed by social, personal and passed on attributes, the resulting personality is so complex that it is never possible to predict the final outcome.
The same perhaps applies, in a different way, at a social level too. In the modern world when knowledge and information is so accessible, why one society groveling in poverty moves from crisis to crisis while others achieve a stable and prosperous society is a question as complex as the diametrically divergent paths individuals choose to walk on. Certain societies find it comforting to think of the state bureaucracy as a big breasted provider while others prefer to, by and large, pursue careers based on individual initiative. The former are inevitably poor and aid receivers. The latter, while prosperous, also seem to lead in many areas of human endeavour such as research, high quality products and intellectual achievements that further the human progress.
Does it happen because of an extreme climate which discourages industry or is it due to other factors like the paucity of natural resources? Could historical wrongs leave scars that retard subsequent generations? Can we look for the causes in areas like cultural inclinations or even the genetic make-up? Like in the case of individuals, attempts at generalizing the causes of success or failure of a given society, becomes difficult when confronted by the complexities of the real world. If it is the climate we blame, Singapore and Malaysia are as hot and humid as Sri Lanka. Although natural resources have helped certain countries to advance, particularly in the Middle East, we have cases such as Japan, Israel and Hong Kong which have no resources to speak of. Many African countries on the other hand are blessed with enormous natural resources.
The other day in a national newspaper, I read a speech by a prominent politician extolling nationalisation . According to him, the ‘people’ should welcome the policy of widening the scope of state ownership of economic activity as well as real estate in the country. State ownership means ‘ownership’ by the people. Private ownership was an evil to be tolerated only because it is impossible for the state to run everything.
Blast from the past
Those who remember the heady days of the 1960s and the ‘70s would recall that this is only a blast from the past. Then when the coming of socialism to a theatre near you seems the only thing worth talking about, nationalization sounded as natural as breathing. Even the Buhari, the run-down Malay restaurant in Maradana, was not spared the pain of nationalisation, thus enabling a deliriously grateful people to enjoy a huge greasy buriyani after laboring all day building up socialism.
When this politician sang the praises of nationalisation it may not have occurred to him that there isn’t a single example in recorded history where socialism has worked. Countries like Russia, China, Vietnam and even little Albania, which experimented with the concept for decades now, cannot wait to dismantle their state run economies. Since these countries initiated sweeping economic reforms, the living standards of their people have improved impressively. China is now the second largest economy in the world. Of course we do not expect our politicians to be aware of international trends or even be interested in them.
In the social priorities here, learning, which is an objective process, is placed well below areas such as cultural practices, taking activities which seemingly enjoy the approval of the majority as such. It is a well known truism that cultural competence doesn’t equate to good character, leave alone ability. Ability, particularly managerial skills, is not something that our murky political culture can foster. Every country has its own culture but not every country enjoys good living standards.
In our context, there is perhaps another reason for certain politicians to advocate greater state ownership. In their relentless quest for total control of the levers of power, state ownership provides a fiefdom to do as they please. What the state owns is under their command and control. Although a democratic process gives much legitimacy to the elected, it sadly cannot bestow either intelligence or managerial skills to them.
In developed countries, the existence of an independent and an objective state structure ensures that the damage that the elected can do in their appointed period of power is minimized. There, the media is vigilant and the voter more assertive. In the absence of such safeguards, a politician can even demand that we go back to a feudal economy and will be hailed as a patriot. Only a few will point out that in a feudal economy it was the king, the nobility and the clergy who came first in the pecking order. They ate first whatever the meager surplus that the system produced.
Better or worse?
Can it be said that we receive a better service in any field where we have nationalized it as opposed to countries where such services are provided by the private sector? Take education or even energy as examples. In the short period that I took to type this article there were two power blackouts. Our power is apparently the most expensive in this part of the world.
In education, the best kept secret is that any parent who can afford it will send their children abroad to study, mostly to English-speaking Western countries. As a case study, just investigate how many cabinet members today have their children studying abroad. They are also likely to have generators at home to protect them and their electrical equipment from constant power disruptions. Mind you, these are people who advocate wide-scale nationalisation .
Some time back we saw the efforts as well as the money spent on setting up a so called budget air-line. This was in addition to the loss making SriLankan Airlines which is also state owned. There is an interesting book written by Kevin & Jackie Frieberg titled Nuts, which is about the successful revival of the US airline the ‘South West’. The management spared no pain to achieve their goals, even radically changing the work culture of their staff in the process. In some airports, the South West ground crew managed to turn around an airplane in an incredible 15 minutes thus giving them a huge advantage over rival airlines (yes, from the sighting of the plane, landing, discharging of the passengers, reloading, to take off, in only 15 minutes!)
Just reading the book will tell you why our highly politicized government machinery should never undertake projects of this nature. Not only do these fanciful projects waste a lot of money in a poor country but they also take away funds from essential infrastructure like roads, schools and hospitals.
But then ultimately, it is the people of a country that will determine its future course. If what they are programmed by their culture to think of as good, can only bring a bitter harvest at the end of the day, there is nothing anybody can do about it. Whether certain countries or cultures are programmed for mediocrity at best or failure at the worse, is something that we can only answer much later, historically.