Opinionista Ivo Vegter 23 January 2018

Zille demonstrates consequences of socialism

As Cape Town faces the day the taps run dry, likely to be less than three months away, the premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, is exposing the inevitable evil consequences of socialism: critical shortages and draconian enforcement.

Helen releasing her inner fascist,” a friend – and learned sage – wrote to me. He referred to a tweet by Western Cape premier Helen Zille: “‘Naming and Shaming’ often works well when people will not pull in the same direction in a crisis. [The Western Cape Government is discussing] publishing lists of names of families who exceed water limits. Peer pressure needs to be brought to bear.”

Public shaming is a cowardly and cruel form of retribution, rather than a civilised and fair means of punishment. And indeed, public shaming has long been a hallmark of fascist countries, in which authority is centralised under a dictatorial government and where stringent socio-economic controls are in place. That description also applies to socialist and communist countries, of course, because they necessarily turn to fascism as their economic policy fails.

Public shaming is particularly strongly associated with Mao Zedong, the founder and brutal dictator of what was fittingly called Red China. He put dunce caps on his anti-revolutionary opposition and paraded them through the streets.

China reportedly tried to do away with the public shaming of criminals in 2010, preferring punishments that are “rational, calm and civilised”. However, under new president Xi Jinping, the art of public shaming “thrives”, according to Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun. It is not only aimed at convicted criminals, but also unconvicted prisoners, journalists, and anyone opposing Communist Party programmes. In fact, the same communist government recently proposed public shaming of smokers on the internet. The ghost of Mao still haunts China.

Public shaming is not new. It’s been used as a punishment in all societies – often embraced by the formal law and always available for day-to-day policing of moral norms,” writes philosophy professor Russell Blackford. Think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel about the Puritans of Massachusetts, The Scarlet Letter.

However, over the past couple of centuries, Western countries have moved away from more formal kinds of shaming, partly in recognition of its cruelty,” he continues: “Even in less formal settings, shaming individuals in front of their peers is now widely regarded as unacceptable behaviour. This signifies an improvement in the moral milieu…”

The Chinese dissident Murong writes: “Socialist countries tend to emphasise national and collective interest ahead of individual rights and dignity. This has been a constant throughout 66 years of Communist rule in China, but in the past two years the tendency has become increasingly strident. Cases of public shaming show us how, in the name of some great cause, individual rights, dignity and privacy can all be sacrificed.”

And this is exactly what Zille proposes to do: sacrifice the individual rights, dignity and privacy not only of convicted criminals, but of ordinary people who find themselves unable to comply with increasingly draconian water quotas. That such action might unleash vigilante justice or online lynch mobs appears not to give her pause. Neither does the fact that the water crisis is ultimately the fault of the government.

This should lay to rest the notion that the DA is somehow less authoritarian and draconian than the ANC. They cannot be, because they’re imposing socialism in the water sector.

I do not use the term socialism lightly, as a mere rhetorical slight against the political left. The provision of water (like electricity) really is a socialist enterprise in South Africa, as Russell Lamberti eloquently explained in an article for PoliticsWeb late last year. It is considered a public resource, doled out to consumers by central planners in government, and priced unsustainably low. This is the fundamental reason why we’re suffering shortages, with all that implies.

Zille bemoans the public’s failure to co-operate with water demand-reduction schemes in an article published in Daily Maverick. With water quotas now at a meagre 50 litres per person per day (even though the municipality has no clue how many people there are in any given household), that is not at all surprising. There’s only so much one can do.

In some cases, shaming may be entirely undeserved. Consider a six- or eight-member household, for which the rules simply do not make provision. Or the family that only discovers an underground leak on their property when the latest municipal water bill arrives. Or consider the household that exceeds their water quota because extended family gathered there for a week or two to attend a funeral. There is no provision for any such circumstances in Cape Town’s draconian quota system. Should all these people end up in the newspaper?

When the taps run dry, water is to be distributed at 200 public distribution points, where anyone may collect 25 litres per person in the household. The bureaucrats in charge will not know how many members there are in a household. They won’t even know whether multiple household members turn up to claim the household quotas. Cape Town will be a Third World shithole, where people – predominantly women – walk miles to fetch water.

A campaign to register the number of persons in a household officially is to be undertaken at the eleventh hour. However, with a population between four and five million, it seems unlikely that this will be a reliable resource, instantly searchable by distribution agents in the field, by “Day Zero”. So there will be chaos.

Zille casually recommends showering no more than twice a week: “There is nothing wrong with a daily scrub, using the old-fashioned ‘skottel en waslap’ [bowl and washcloth] method, with which many of us grew up.”

While it is probably true that one can get away with showering less often than daily (however unpleasant that might be), medical advice suggests showering at least once every 36 to 48 hours, unless you take public transport, go to gym daily, are in contact with potentially sick people, or, presumably, do manual labour in the hot African summer.

So Zille is objectively wrong to advise showering only twice a week. What she also fails to mention is that the generation that grew up washing only with a cloth and a bowl was also a generation that lived considerably shorter lives than we do. Those lives were often marred by infectious disease and other afflictions such as scabies, ringworm and lice, which proper hygiene could have prevented. There is a reason that clean, safe running water is widely considered to be a necessity to live a decent, dignified and healthy life.

Zille relates that SA Breweries have “stepped up to the plate” by committing to distribute 12-million 750ml bottles of water for free (barring a R1 deposit for the bottle itself). It does, of course, have its own source of water, which it has not mismanaged and remains more than sufficient for the brewer’s needs. It isn’t surprising that the company can spare a little.

And “a little” it is. Nine million litres is a drop in the ocean in a city with a water consumption of 600 million litres per day. But that is far from the only problem with this proposal. Because the water is given away for free, there will have to be a maximum limit on how many bottles one person may obtain. There is no incentive for anyone to take less than the maximum limit, because it is free, therefore everyone will take as much as they can. And because empty bottles will be replaced by full ones, again for free, there is no incentive to conserve this water. The retail outlets where these bottles will be available will have to record ID numbers to enforce the limit per person, which imposes new costs on them and will probably require changes to their point-of-sale software. The sellers of bottled water will now have new competition at a price with which they cannot compete (free). This will probably harm their business significantly, and under competition law would ordinarily be considered predatory pricing by a monopolist.

Every economic mechanism that brings supply and demand into a sustainable balance is broken by this arrangement, just as it is with government’s own water provision. There is no sign that government understands economics at all. Therefore, demand will continue to outstrip supply, and shortages and quotas will remain the order of the day.

If SA Breweries were not simply donating this water, the idea of involving the company would chime perfectly with my proposal last year to put the private sector in charge of water. I don’t see anyone running out of beer (except in the socialist paradises of Cuba and Venezuela).

When private companies operate in a free market under the price mechanism, goods tend to be supplied at competitive prices even to the poor, and shortages are rare and short-lived. That is because private companies have every incentive to plan for consumer demand. If they fail to do so, not only will they lose profits, but competitors will step in and take over. Either way, consumers win.

This is the polar opposite of what happens when the state has a monopoly on water. Shortages become chronic because there is no incentive to invest in capital infrastructure and nobody can offer alternatives. Perversely, it is illegal for private individuals to produce water (from rain collection, their own boreholes, or private desalination plants) and sell it to the suffering residents of Cape Town.

In the water privatisation column, I address the validity of blaming drought for the current water crisis in Cape Town. Although there is a severe drought at present, they are not unusual. The city’s dams were 100% full in six of the last 11 years – as recently as 2014. Blaming the weather is just a red herring, to take the heat off the politicians and bureaucrats who instituted failed socialist water policies, mismanaged water as a public resource, and failed to maintain adequate water infrastructure.

A private company, for example, would not have waited until they were on the brink of disaster before exploiting the region’s massive underground aquifers. They would have drilled them years ago. They would have deployed desalination plants. They would long ago have increased reservoir capacity, in preparation for a major drought. They would also have invested in upgrading pipes and equipment to prevent massive losses of a valuable commodity.

The price mechanism would have signalled the need for all this investment. Conversely, when supply meets demand, competition ensures that prices remain reasonable. You never – never, ever – see a private company advertise to ask consumers to please use less of their product. In fact, they go out of their way to con you into buying more than you need. You also never see private companies charge more per unit for buying in larger quantities, or publicly shaming their best customers. This only ever happens with commodities supplied by the government, such as water and electricity.

In last year’s column I reviewed the successes and failures of water privatisation. It is common in the developed world, where 80% of water supply is private, but rare in developing countries such as ours, where that figure drops to 35%. The biggest factor determining success or failure was, not surprisingly, government corruption. Studies found that outcomes range from making no difference, in some cases, to significant improvements by a range of measures in others. Face it, no water supplier can conceivably do worse than the City of Cape Town is doing right now.

Incidentally, privatising water does not preclude the idea of giving the poor (or even everyone) a small amount of free water every month. Like any market intervention it will do more harm than good, of course, but that shouldn’t be seen as an insurmountable obstacle to privatisation.

Even the supposedly market-friendly Western Cape is light years away from accepting the idea that water provision is too important to be left to the government, however. So the shortages will persist. When the rains come, as they inevitably will, Capetonians will forget about their water troubles and the municipality will settle back into its malaise, funding politically attractive projects and neglecting necessary water infrastructure. But when the next drought comes, as it inevitably will, the shortages and quotas will be back with a vengeance. And again, they’ll blame the weather, and shame the people of Cape Town.

Instead of shaming the public, the government itself should be shamed. The shortages, the quotas, the punitive tariffs, the threat of running out of water, and the consequent public disorder and risk of disease are all directly attributable to government failure. If water had not been a socialised commodity, this would probably never have happened. If government had proved competent at delivering this socialised commodity and made plans before the crisis became acute, this wouldn’t have happened either.

Zille, in her column, warns of the likely public safety implications of running out of water, such as conflict over access to water, theft of water and related crimes, and outbreak of disease. She is meeting on Tuesday with the State Security Agency, the SA National Defence Force, and the SA Police Service, to plan for these contingencies.

So, just like in the best socialist paradises, we’ll get to have the army, police and even spies on the streets, enforcing draconian measures to deal with the inevitable shortages caused by socialism. Of course, this will require a state of emergency, because it will require restricting our constitutional rights.

And so, with the taps running dry, petty offenders shamed in public, and the army on the streets, liberty dies. No matter who actually runs the government. DM

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