Indy100, the Independent’s sort of sideshow for the less literate, was delighted with Ryanair’s woes last month. “Theresa May hails the free market hours after Ryanair cancels flights of 400,000 people,” it crowed, the implication obviously being that if the free market was so wonderful then Ryanair wouldn’t have had to cancel anything.
We’ve all seen this from the more socialistically-inclined among us. A mistake, inefficiency or failure is spotted and paraded around as a market-failure or maybe an example of late-stage-capitalism. Do you see? The market isn’t infallible.
The best example I can remember actually involved Ryanair. A person who wasn’t very tall shared a picture of themselves in the emergency exit row. A severe market-failure was declared because that person’s femurs were granted far more space than was necessary.
180 people sitting in an aluminium tube, moving through the air from one place to another, covering distance approximately 18,000% faster than walking, in almost guaranteed safety, and it was all so cheap that the average person could just pop over to Germany for a weekend.
Nearly all the innovations that made it possible came from private individuals or groups. Never mind that. Misappropriated leg space means the entire enterprise is utterly corrupt and we need to start from scratch. Smash the system, friends.
Indy100’s point was roughly the same on a bigger scale.
For instance, a ‘free market’ can push prices down and make air travel more affordable. It also means companies can collapse, and customers are forced to bare [sic] the brunt of it.
There are situations in which the market has to be restrained. At one point Apple had so much cash on hand it could have bought the world’s entire Lithium output for a year and stopped anyone else from building rechargeable batteries. That would have been a bit crap. Competition regulators the world over would have objected. It’s probably a good thing we have regulators.
That said, the recent row between Ryanair and its pilots gives us a prime example of why we should be grateful for the mostly-free markets in which we operate.
Businesses, nation-states, clubs, churches, and universities are all fundamentally the same thing. They’re abstract arrangements humans use to organise themselves and co-operate on a large scale. States aim to provide security, businesses aim to provide goods or services, churches aim to provide spiritual nourishment, universities aim to provide education and so on.
There is a very good reason to limit the interference of the state. We’ve all seen Wall Street, but the basic claim of the free-marketer is not actually that greed is good. The basic claim is that the people with the guns and the people with the money shouldn’t be the same people.
Noam Chomsky’s description of a corporation as “an unaccountable private tyranny in which power comes from above from the owners and the managers” is understandable on the face of it but ultimately not correct. “Power” is only secondarily held by managers and owners. It ultimately comes from the customer, an extraordinarily fickle and demanding creature.
In comparison to the state, a private enterprise is under far more pressure. It is judged only on its results. In the case of Ryanair, you have a demand. You want to go to Paris. Who can get you to Paris in a manner that’s quick, safe and cheap?
As it turns out, Ryanair has been operating right on the edge of acceptability for a while, demanding far too much of its pilots. A correction was necessary. A correction is being made. The pilots, because Ryanair isn’t the only airline around, are able to go to Thompson, Norwegian or easyJet.
You, as a customer, can follow them. You don’t need to worry about who’s in charge of Ryanair. You don’t need to be concerned with who supplies the uniforms. If the company can’t be expected to move you from here to there they can forget it. You’ll pay someone else.
This kind of correction is expensive, inconvenient, slow and annoying. Ryanair probably won’t go bust over it but if it did, customers might be “forced to bear the brunt.” There is a small saving grace though. Nobody has died.
This is the difference. If a service is provided by a state-backed monopoly and it’s not functioning very well, you actually have to wait around, becoming progressively angrier, until the problem is sorted out over the course of many years (Maurice McCabe, anyone?). If the state has too high an opinion of itself, it might actually punish those who complain.
In a system with too much state control over your life, those pilots would have had no choice about working for the glorious national airline. If they refused to work they could easily be declared saboteurs and thrown in jail (or, you know, shot). Isn’t it a good thing that Michael O’Leary doesn’t have the authority to have insubordinate workers arrested?
Look at the other extreme. If, in an attempt to make sure they never went on strike, pilots and crew were given whatever they wanted, you couldn’t afford to fly to other countries for a weekend.
We should lift up our voices in thanks and praise for those services which are open to competition. We should be happy that normal people like you and me can deliver swift and terrible punishment when a private entity fails to perform its job properly.
Long live the peaceful, continual, ever-improving micro-revolution.