Ruth Rosen at TPMCafe (why is that name familiar? Ah yes!) is gushing about some anti–water privatization documentary she’s just seen. And what’s notable, given that there are surely cases of privatization-gone-wrong to focus on if you’re cherry picking for a polemical film, is how light on actual arguments this rather long post is. Rosen does mention that water prices on private networks often rise—which is true enough, but since the primary problem with water in the developing world is the far higher prices paid by people who lack access to inadequate existing networks, this isn’t really to the point. The real question is whether privatization ameliorates the access problem, and as Fredrik Segerfeldt argues in Water for Sale, it often does, making it a success by maximin standards even if it imposes some costs on the better-off people who already had a spot at the faucet. She also points out that local populations often protest privatization, which isn’t especially interesting unless we know whether they have good reasons to do so.
No, the core of Rosen’s opposition seems to be simply a visceral horror at the very idea of filthy, filthy companies making money:
Water, they argue, should not be sold as a product for profit because it is necessary to survival. Why, they ask, should a corporation make a profit from what we all view as a basic necessity?
This is, of course, just a non sequitur. Why should they make a profit? Well, why shouldn’t they? I guess because if we’ve learned anything from the last few decades, it’s that everyone’s better off when government takes charge of the production and distribution of “basic necessities” like food and clothing.
Seriously, though, this is telling: If water privatization generally raised prices without improving either quality or access, that would really be all the argument needed against it—the extent to which this or that corporation benefited from the arrangement would be beside the point. And given that there certainly are successful cases of privatization, you’d expect people primarily concerned with this to be calling attention to those cases, how to emulate them, and how to avoid the pitfalls of the less successful cases. Instead, we’re simply asked to share Rosen’s aesthetic horror at the motives of the water companies, who only care about a quick buck. Whether they do a better job of getting water to more people in the course of making their quick buck—not in this or that instance, but in general—seems almost secondary.