A short time ago, a press release from the Productivity Commission dropped into my in-box, announcing the release this morning of the Commission’s draft report on better urban planning. The Government asked the Commission to take a first principles, or “blue skies” approach to the issue.
I’ve been increasingly skeptical of the work of the Productivity Commission. They often provide some interesting background analysis and research, and yet they increasingly seem to be well described by the old line “when your only tool is a hammer, it is tempting to see every problem as a nail”. The Productivity Commission is mostly made-up of, and run by, (able) long-term public servants. Public servants design and help implement the instrument of state – government attempts to remedy problems, typically with government-based tools. There is a self-selection bias problem – people who are inclined believe in the importance/viability of government solutions are more likely to work for government than those who don’t – and a greater reluctance than usual to ask hard questions about one’s own capabilities, since government agencies typically face few market tests and weak accountability. The Productivity Commission – like the OECD – tends towards smarter better government, not to asking hard questions about whether we couldn’t just get government out of the way in many more areas, as prone too often to being the source of problems rather than the solution.
The Productivity Commission’s report runs to over 400 pages, and since it was released at 5am this morning, I assume no one has read it all. I was, however, struck by the fact that in a 600 word press release there is no mention of property rights and a single mention of markets (and that not positively). There is a 10 page overview of the entire report, and a word search suggests that “rights” does not appear at all and “markets” only once.
My unease was heightened when I read this line in the press release
Planning is where individual interests bump up against their neighbours’ interests, and where community and private objectives meet. It is inherently contested and difficult trade-offs sometimes have to be made. These decisions are best made through the political process not the courts.
Again, no mention of rights. And the prioritisation of the amorphous “community interests”. The suggestion of increased reliance on the political process rather than the courts hardly seems like a recipe for a clear, stable, predictable (and non-corrupt) regime for managing potential conflicts between the property rights of various individuals and groups.
Perhaps this draft report will recommend some useful steps in the right direction. Time will tell. But on the face of it – the shop window, of the press release and summary – it seems to fall quite a long way short of a first principles approach in a free society.