Much has been written against the privatisation of Royal Mail. Often objections focus on one of two issues. First, majorities of both workers of Royal Mail and the British public were against it. Second, there are worries it will undermine the service it provides, with increased prices and decreased access in remote areas only two of the problems already cited. I sympathise with both worries, but my sense is that there is also a further difficulty, something that bothers me beyond concerns for popular sanction and proper provision.
There is clearly something problematic about sub-contracting certain actions. I should not, I think, appoint someone else, even someone who might do a better job, to write the message in my partner’s anniversary card. Such qualms can also arise in group actions. For example, if I am a member of a neighbourhood watch group, it does not seem appropriate for me to have a third party fulfil my duties. Some worry here regards proper provision; perhaps a third party would not have the same interests in doing the job aptly. But even aside from this worry, even if the third party was more reliable and more vigilant, I think the group could object to me outsourcing the task. “We did not agree merely that the job is done”, they might say, “we agreed that you would do it”. Unless I had good reasons for delegating the duty – that I was incapacitated by illness, for example – I think I owe them an apology. I seem to have violated some constraint assumed in our commitment.
Similar cases can arise in the citizen-government relation. It can be thought that government is justified, in part, by its contribution to realising collective goods. There are goals individuals cannot achieve alone, so they collectively empower an agent to coordinate these activities. Obvious examples include national defence and law and order. When a government assumes these roles, it provides a commitment to undertake these tasks on behalf of a population, and, again, there seem cases where sub-contracting this commitment is inappropriate. I suspect that it is something like this concern which explains the high numbers uncomfortable with privatising prisons. This function seems like a collective end handed to a collective agent that, through privatisation, it is not performing. Even if it is done effectively by the sub-contracted, I think we can say: “but we asked you to do it”.
Does this argument apply to the postal service? I guess it is most plausible to suggest that the relevant collective good asked of the government here would be ‘to provide a coordinated means of communication between dispersed individuals’. Mediums other than postage could meet this requirement. However, my sense is that when the government does not provide an alternative medium – whilst it does not, itself, provide, say, phone or internet connection to all – a case can be made that it should provide one means of communication for its population, a default option of sorts. We collectively empowered an agent to facilitate nationwide contact and when they sub-contract or privatise that role completely, I think we can say: “but you committedto providing at least some form of communications network for us”.
There are cases where a government would be excused this responsibility: 1) if the population agreed to sub-contracting; 2) if the government were unable or found it too costly to provide the service. 1 does not apply here since the population did not have a say, and, as noted above, were against privatisation. 2 does not apply to a business making profit. In the case at hand, I contend that privatising Royal Mail involves objectionably sub-contracting a commitment, and that there is some (additional) reason for the government to reverse that decision or provide an alternative default option for societal communication.