OPINION

Private initiative vs self-interest

private-initiative-vs-self-interest

The debate between “statists” and “neoliberals” has been going on for years as if we were in another country, as if the words “private,” “public” and “state” had a distinct meaning here. In Greece, though, these labels are misleading, with the result that the discussion rages around theoretical constructs which have little relation to reality. In this way, each one of us can stick to a given position without reaching agreement on necessary steps and solutions.

A clear example of this is the debate regarding higher education. The enemies of the idea of non-state universities argue that every citizen has the right to a public and free education and that changing the system would divide citizens between those who can pay and those who will be forced to stay outside universities or take out exorbitant loans. This in theory – because in practice our public universities often function as if they are the private property of the most dynamic interest groups within them. The effort to expropriate the universities is not limited to any one party, although some are more fanatical than others in promoting the interests of “their” professors and student factions at the expense of the whole. The same applies to “national” broadcaster ERT, where most governments do all they can to turn the institution into a party megaphone – with the current one acting as if it owns the publicly funded broadcaster.

In both of the above cases, but also in public utility companies, the arguments in favor of keeping them public property do not come with the necessary effort to improve the services that citizens pay for. On the contrary, we often see that those who had the luck to find themselves “inside” consider themselves owners of the public organization. Student factions take it upon themselves to decide the fate of universities, employees in public companies or the civil service exploit the power that this gives them to serve their own interests, public space is expropriated by unscrupulous individuals at the same time that the state cannot find space to manage waste, and so on. On the other hand, for many decades the private sector functioned without the protection and obligations of a strict but just framework, and very often it grew fat on state money – again at great cost to the social whole.

For too long, beyond the division between right and left, the common aim of politicians and many powerful business interests was not to support private initiative but to exploit public property and public power for selfish interests. In today’s dead end, it is time to understand clearly what “public,” “state” and “private” actually mean.