Private Enterprise or Selfish Monopolism ?
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Some of the Attractive Phrases With Which We Are Being Deluged Need a Little Closer Study
By J. A. Dunnage,
you rightly call attention inn-a leading article to a recent
Conservative Party pamphlet which sets out as .one of its. I2 points of policy, that of giving the fullest opportunity to •individual initiative and, as another, the protection of the independent business against any abuse, of monopoly. As you go on to say, it is not sufficient to
• take these for granted. Indeed, the wording " abuse of 'monopoly "instead of simply " monopolies" is significant, for in defining what exactly is an abuse of monopoly, of stich a, flagrant Sort as to warrant official corrective action, . and then promoting measures—against the opposition of the " abusers of monopoly "—to .piit things .right; much time may well. be spent, during which the abuse continues
• . and the public suffers.
When deciding how much reliance can be placed upon . this promise to giVe the fullest opportunity to individual initiative—which. I suppose, means the same thing as
" private enterprise " or " free enterprise "—we ought to remember that the party which now makes this promise has been in power fot the past' 10 years, indeed practically for the past quarter-century. During that time much has happened to our internal-traniport interests and facilities. Both technical develoPment, and restriction for selfish reasons have been observed and, to put • it mildly, Parliament has been a lot more active inthe second Sense than it has in the first.
It might be well, to locsk a little more closely into all the
catch, phrases .which have been flung at us for some years, 'and will be bandied about with even greater intensity—and
perhaps with less relation to skilled reasoning—during the
next few weeks., • Catch phrases are. no teal substitute for logical argument, but they are often used as 'such, aud the pressure of news emissions upon. many of us is so great that, only too often, we have no time to probe beneath those that we borrow from the radio or Press headlines, Thousands of people have had some practical experience in transport administration. For many of them, pay-roll fears preclude them from saying much ..about their real beliefs, but a good many who are not so badly inhibited , would express a general belief' in. " private enterprise." To them a demand for the" continuance of private enterprise " makes a rapid appeal and seems to suggest an end worth fighting for—or at least giving somebody else a
. vote for, but will any votes so given have any recognizable relation to that supposed objective?
Think It Out for Yourself I imply nothing,' but ask readers to think it out for
• themselves. To hear some folk speakof " private enterprise " we might suppose that this country's people were „all engaged, in small groups, in modest little independent factories or shops, where each individual works hard each day, knowing little of 'his neighbours methods or charges, but each 'striving to do a job or make and sell a useful article, in free and honest .competition with all the others, to deliver the best article at the lowest price, to the good of the consumer. Some vague picture of that sort floats through the mind whenever .the bandplays " Merrie England " or certain rhetorical politicians take the floor.
Indeed, if " private enterprise " means anything really understandable, surely it ought to mean freedom for you and me, as tax-paying citizens who are not' undischarged bankrupts, to enter on any honest and legal form of activity if we have the equipment—technical and financial —to underta,ke the venture. It should mean complete freedom to use our brains, or strong right arms, to serve the community and, earn business success, or, for that
matter, to, slacken off and put up' the financial stringency that follows, if so disposed and if unable to find somebody else to,, do' the hard ,work .w.hile we dothe organizing." Years ago, when the phrase was coined, it may really have meant something like that. Some hundred years ago, perhaps 'even 60 years ago in some trades, there may have been some truth in that dream picture; although even then the pretty vision had no' place in it for the small-boy chimney sweeps, absentee landlords, casual dock labourers, innocent holders of some " fake " railway shares, occupants of debtors' prisons, and many other classes who may not have been so very thrilled with the workings of our older system of " free enterprise "—which, we may suppose, served them right for losing out in the struggle or being born dull-witted, Is Britain anything like that to-day? Whatever truth there was in this picture years ago, it is no longer a faithful likeness of our present inthistrial set-up. What has happened to alter things? When there iS competition—and this is what some exponents of " free enterprise " would rather not discuss—the chances are, and the intention usually is, that somebody shall win the competition. Otherwise, why compete? Looking at industrial Britain, the stage seems to have been reached when a few have undoubtedly won. Among those " free competitors " of yester-year, some have fattened on the fruits of victory. • Not content with just winning, in the sporty-schoolboy sense, they have also steadily gobbled up their one-time competitors. Even when they were far away past the winning post, and had got all the assets they could possibly consume-in many life-times, they have shrewdly and greedily swung their gaze around to the starting .marks. They busied themselves putting up barriers, and setting fierce watch-dogs, trained to spring at any new would-be racer.
Will Ex-Servicemen Be Disappointed?
Unfortunately for ",Merrie England ". romanticism, time does not stand stilt We had on industrial revolution, and it looks as if we are fast approaching another. Anyhow, unless we deliberately intend to deceive, should we not change our terminology to fit the real facts of the times? It is doubtful if those who have won the race and have' been suitably adorned as winners will readily agree to disgorge their valuable prizes, throw away their many advantages, call off their dogs, knock down the barriers they have had put up at the start of the course. Yet unless they do all that, is it not rather a mockery to talk much of "free enterprise" to, say, a returning Service map who comes hack, with greater knowledge of the world, with a mind conditioned by A.B.C,A. lectures, and who wants to enjoy some of the freedom he feels That he has helped 'to preserve in these Islands?
Of course, this awkward point may be avoided, so far as most Service men are concerned, for they will hardly have time; nor be on hand, to grasp the inwardness of the trick nor to express themselves frankly upon it._ Which may be as well for certain opportunist politicians.
Once there were many merits in genuine " free competition" and its good qualities out-balanced such anti-social features as were also present. There May still be many merits in genuine private enterprise. The younger and middle-aged. among us find it hard to say, unless content to quote like parrots from antique text-books, for' we have had so little chance to study it at first hand, and its real exponents find it so hard to be articulate. So many industries and services are now in the hands of financial trusts and combines the policies of which are the negation of " free enterprise and savour more of piracy abetted by a subservient legislature. Instead of there being free competition, every weapon, open and secret, has usually
been brought to bear to kill genuine coinpetition. ,
Ilitler,..Himmler.,:and Mussolini. are now expunged,7 t seems, lant our preoccupation with 'their destruction has prevented us noting how dangerously near this country is getting to the Corporate State. Nor am I referring to the current controversy about keeping or removing controls:. which has all the odour of a ripe red hefting.
We surely are nearing the Corporate State when the winners in the industrial competition in past years are so confident in their strength and so scornful of public opinion that they now want to get legal powers to close the doors against all competition, or, as they at times prbfei to call it, " cut-throat competition." " Cutthroat' competition is always the term for that which your competitor puts up with success. competition, by contrast, is presumably that which he tries 'ha offer, but cannot, because of the way you have hamstrung him.
So far as internal transport IN concerned, Lord Leathers has just delivered a check to exponents of this spurious form of private " enterprise." One hopes his words can be taken literally. If so, the Icing-drawn efforts to tie road transport rates upwards to rail rates, and to complicate beyond all reason the road rates structure may be supposed to have been discredited. I wonder?
The reaction of all this on the small man in road transport is interesting and significant. If we remember, the complaint against him from those who most readily got the ear of the popular Press was that he was a " ratecutter." For the moment we can forget the other side of the medal, i.e„ that he gave some trader or industrialist the kind of service he wanted at a price he found attractive, for we/know that there was more to it than that, and fair treatment of staff and labour are true basic essentials to all these economic arguments.
The Little Man's Useful Status In truth, the small man's ability to compete, and carry goods as traders wanted them carried, depended as much on his economies in overheads, his own readiness to work in his business, and the absence of unproductiVe mouths to feed on the concern, rather than on the trite old criticisms that he under-paid his drivers and neglected to provide for • vehicle maintenance and depreciation. This I believe the " big boys," the monopoly minded organizers, fully realize, although they may not care to say so. This may explain recent efforts to scare to-day's small men into abandoning their very useful independent status—useful
both to themselves and to industry. It may also ekplain the anxiety that, in any changes that may lie ahead, the -status of road 'haulage as a closed profession, 'limited in its boundaries like a ring in which the present leading shareholders and their concerns can play games, shall not be interfered with. Thus atisCs an awkward quandary. How 'can the ex-Service man be kept out or kept down without the taking of crude and unpatriotic-seeming steps on which the British Legion or some awkward politician could pounce? It is indeed quite a dilemma.
Big Fish Swallow the. Small How does the recent move toward grouping minor road haulage concerns relate to the small man's ability to compete? So far it is early to say. Who can unduly blame another generation of business organizers for noting how -their elders pushed their way ahead—gaining poWer more readily by planning for .others to carry geods than by carrying any themselves—and for, wanting to emulate those elders? On the other band, are not some of the smaller people their own worst enemies? Will they never learn-or does this lesson have to be relearned by each fresh generation—that when the big-concern approaches the little one it is usually to swallow him up: that-a plan in which company promotion figures largely, seldom benefits anybody nearly as much as it does the promoters. Some of the " grouping" ideas seem to have got far away from the original principles of co-operative grouping propounded by S.T.R. and others in your columns—and more's the 'pity: These-are all manifestations of " private enterprise " of a sort, but hardly the kind one could, presS„ in factual detail, on the voting public to demonstratd the virtues of that system for the common .man, he whom Churchill has welcomed in his " forward march ...toward his just and true inheritance."
Viewing the transport set-up Without any warmth of feeling -for any -current political party, but 'trying to look at facts, one must assume that the sort of " private enterprise " which has been seen to exist for Some years past represents the set-up which the party that for years has held a parliamentary majority, thinks pioper for the country. Or else, why did it not get busy and change it?
Think 'on these things when questioning candidates; and look critically at the case put forward to win your votes.