Market failures and government failures

It’s lecture preparation time of week again, and the general theme for next week is the state as a producer: nationalisation and privatisation, PFIs and PPPs, contracting out and industrial policy.

This is one of those areas where there is a vast amount written, but much of it furiously ideological, or else at the wrong focal length for undergraduate students – far too specific or detailed. However, courtesy of Alex Marsh, I have found You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: The Economics of Privatisation by Elliott Sclar.

You Don’t Always Get What You Pay for: The Economics of Privatization (Century Foundation Book)

This refers to privatisation in the US meaning of contracting out, rather than the UK sense of the sale of state assets. It starts by situating the debate in the context of the shifting tides of political beliefs over the 20th century, towards planning and the role of government as an agent of social change, and then back towards “free” markets and individual action. It then has a few chapters on the basics of markets versus administered or planned services and market failures, and also the basics of writing contracts and how hard or easy it is to specify the service and level of quality to be provided. This part has some very good and clear examples about how difficult it can be to get the incentives right in such contracts – indeed, how often there are perverse incentives due to contract structure.

The book goes on to market structures and competition, and organisational theory – the distinction between exchange in a market and a continuing relationship between individuals or organisations. The book ends with a plea for a less ideological debate about the issue, in favour of one more informed by economic and institutional analysis, by the realities of information asymmetries, moral hazard, principal-agent problems and the like. I wholly sympathise, for of course markets and governments fail in the same places for similar reasons – and this is why Elinor Ostrom‘s study of the idiosyncrasies of non-market, non-state collective institutions is so interesting. But am not optimistic about shedding the ideology.

There’s no doubt what Prof Sclar’s views about contracting out are, so this is in that sense a partisan book. However, it is carefully reasoned and the economic issues are set out clearly. The writing is lively with loads of examples (albeit all American), and the book is extremely clear – perhaps it helps that Prof Sclar is an urban planner rather than in an economics department!

It’s too long, and perhaps a bit too demanding, for 2nd year undergraduates though. (One of the things I’m learning in delivering my course is that my idea of a reading list is far longer than others like the look of.) If anybody knows of anything alternative (short-ish) readings that shed more light than heat, I’d be glad to know, especially UK-centric ones.

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2 thoughts on “Market failures and government failures

  1. Completely unrelated to the post…

    I’ve just finished Red Plenty – a wonderful book that makes me want to read more about many of the people and ideas featured in the book.

    It’s through this blog I found out about it. A good book recommendation is one of the greatest gifts you can give… So thanks, and keep up the good work!

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