Monopolies Are A Bad Thing(TM)

Posted on by Chris Warburton

I'm writing this from inside a taxi. Why am I inside a taxi? Well I need to get from Lichfield to Sheffield. I am hardly a big spender, so you might be wondering why take a taxi. There is one reason: Taxi companies work in a competitive market. Why is this important? Well, when all of the trains are cancelled due to to flooding (which is unavoidable, well the whole global warming issue is of course to blame. But the train staff are excellent, they didn't have any problem looking after my brother's bike for the weekend and I can get a refund on my ticket whenever is convenient (more on this later)), and one ends up cycling and walking between Lichfield City train station and Lichfield Trent Valley train station through the pouring rain (after having cycled into Lichfield from Armitage) to find out this fact, then realising that one has no way to get to Sheffield, it becomes important. The full importance of this is realised when one sees the friends who were travelling by a coach operated by the Arriva company, which has a monopoly on almost all bus transport at least in the midlands/north-west area, waiting at the bus stop in Lichfield with all of their bags, so instead of leaving to go back to one's friend's house for another night one goes to investigate. Upon learning that there is one extra ticket for the coach, then the logical thing to do would be to make use of it. Since the coach is half an hour late already then running about would seem sensible, especially when a bicycle needs to be stored somewhere (thank you to the train station guys again for looking after it!) and a train ticket needs refunding which involves crazy forms due to being payed by debit card (so I just left it, thinking I'd miss the coach, and I've given Loz the ticket and receipt so he can get the £26 refund instead of me having to pay for the coach/taxi stuff). So, after all of this messing around one would think that getting to Sheffield on a late coach would be the least on would expect. 4 hours later it ends up being the last thread of hope to salvage the weekend-long party which has materialised into a friend being stranded in a unfamiliar city with no place to sleep, 9 friends being cold, wet and threatened by chavs and an unfortunate man who needs to get to Derby but cannot speak a word of English being stuck in Lichfield. Now, in the case of the trains this was handled exceptionally, with helpful staff who went above and beyond what their job entails, however from the monopoly bus company we heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. For three hours. We were waiting at the cold, wet bus stop, not daring to leave to get something to eat or to sit down, or to go somewhere indoors and warm because we might miss the coach that we payed for. After three hours of trying to get through to the company on the telephone and meeting with "we don't know" and "it's not my area" there was eventually a glimmer of hope. The coach had left Birmingham and would arrive within ten to fifteen minutes. An hour later we were still waiting. We decided to dial the emergency 'phone number. The number for use in emergencies only. After getting through to a robot and choosing the "Yes, this is an emergency" option we were put on hold. For fifteen minutes. Which we were charged for. After eventually hanging up we Loz was great and payed for this couple of taxis to take us up instead (£120 altogether!) in the hope of getting a refund on the tickets, and so we end up with the current situation. I am pretty worried about claiming the money back though, since demanding a journey already payed for from a bus company is one thing, but claiming any amount of money from any company is another. That's why insurance organisations are companies, not charities or public services. Anyhoo, this goes to show how monopoly organisations couldn't care less about their actual customers, no matter what sector they are in, and that a thriving, competitive market always produces a superior service. The capitalism argument is getting old, especially when pitted against the socialist one. Both offer incentives and encouragement for organisations to become an overwhelming, unstoppable force concerned with nothing but the self. However, thankfully there is an idea called democracy which we can all, as individual human beings, strive for regardless of what our faceless employers manipulate us to do using the soldier's paradox*.

  1. Reconnaisance agent sends back intelligence in an ambiguous or misrepresentative way (eg. young men involved in field exercises)
  2. Officer, acting on that intelligence, sends harsh orders to his soldiers (eg. wipe them out in a preemptive strike)
  3. Soldier, acting on orders, carries out atrocious acts (eg. machinegunning a troop of scouts)
  4. They are all to blame, for simplicity's sake let's say 1/3 each
  5. If blame is an all or nothing affair then the recon agent is not to blame since 1/3 rounds to 0 ("I was just doing my job. I didn't know what the intel would be used for")
  6. For the same reason the officer is not to blame ("I had faulty intelligence, and anyway I didn't pull the trigger")
  7. The soldier isn't to blame either ("I was just following orders. I have to do what the officer says")

This method of reducing responsibility to zero is the basic premise of any armed forces, but it also manifests itself in companies ("It isn't my fault life saving drugs can be patented, I have to work within the system", "I have a duty to the shareholders to keep profits up", "I couldn't give him the medicine because he couldn't afford it") and we are all guilty of it at some time or another, although it doesn't work with individuals (since a person can't be divided into sufficient pieces to assign blame to in any meaningful way) which is why we have our 'humanity'. Organisations have a tendancy to do this all of the time, and thus no organisation should be trusted explicity or implicity (well, that kind of goes without saying since levels of trust should be minimised wherever possible no matter the situation**). Monopoly organisations can dissolve responsibility for almost any act in this way (although sometimes the machinery conspires to set the blame bit of a single employee, like the CEO, if it is terribly serious and public relations would be best of with a scapegoat), and can thus continue to operate within large boundaries without fear of having their actions retaliated against. In areas with competition, however, the act itself is focused upon, rather than working out blame, since any negative effects on an existing customer base is important to eliminate in order to remain in business. In these areas there are often many small companies, which suffer much less from the soldier's paradox, since there is less room to spread the target around, but having small companies is also a boon for the average person since they are usually much more agile and can thus adapt to what people need, want and expect of them, rather than trying to wrench people into needing, wanting and expeciting whatever crap they happen to be peddling (I'm thinking of you, 'record industry').

** 'Trust' is an often misused word. It seems to have aquired a positive connotation, even though studying the actual meaning of the word shows what a terrible thing trust is. In the navy of the United States of Americans they apply the following argument to trust: If something is completely under control and not particularly critical or important, then it doesn't need to be trusted (since it makes no difference either way, like a fork). If something is not under control (for example it has come from a third party) and is not particularly critical or important, then it doesn't need to be trusted (since it doesn't matter either way, like a Sky box). If something is completely under control and is critical or important then it doesn't need to be trusted (since it is under control, and so can't do anything unexpected, like a car). If something is not under control and is critical or important then it needs to be trusted (since it leaves one completely at the mercy of another entity for a crucial part of whatever it is that needs to be done, like the person with a gun to your temple). In this context it would be beneficial to keep the number of loaded guns pointed to your head as low as possible. Of course, some things require trust, such as meaningful relationships, but that doesn't mean that such a thing should be taken lightly (to take the loaded gun example, just look at figures for couples killing each other). This argument sums up "Trusted Computing" quite well, by the way.