When something is free, nobody is responsible

December 14th, 2013 § 0 comments

This was an online polling at tempo.co:


The poll asks whether ‘Bintaro II’ tragedy has managed to deter people from ignoring railroad crossing barriers. Bintaro II tragedy of course refers to the recent collision between a commuter train and a fuel truck, killing a number of people as a result. Earlier in 1987, another accident took place around the Bintaro area where two commuter trains collided head on, killing 156.

A natural tendency after a disaster is to blame it on someone. In the recent accident, the popular verdict is to rest the blame on the driver of the fuel truck, which is also implied in the Tempo poll. I’ve also had Facebook friends posting comments to admonish people who don’t wear helmet, jaywalkers and other kinds of traffic miscreants recently.

Of course, it was wrong for the truck driver to ignore the warning signs and the barrier, knowing full well of the risk involved. But a more important point that is missing from the discourse is who the ultimate blame should be with.

Imagine what would happen when someone at a Coca Cola bottling plant inadvertently spilled a toxic substance into the bottles, killing Coca Cola customers as a result. What would predictably happen is calls for boycott against Coca Cola, government investigation, or even criminal charge against the company.

This would be totally acceptable, because it is the company managers’ responsibility to ensure that their operations are safe and guarded against any risk.

Now why hasn’t this happened with the Bintaro accident, or most other public transit accidents for that matter? First of all, many people might not realize that just because something is ‘public’ doesn’t mean nobody is responsible for it. Public transit is an economic good, because it is scarce and there is demand for it. Just because it is socialized and provided by the government (rail transport is also managed by a government owned company here), doesn’t make it less of an economic good.

What happens to an economic good in a free market is that it is subjected to constant improvement due to competitive forces. Take that free market away by imposing a government monopoly, and you lose the competitive factor and therefore improvement.

In the Bintaro accident, you have a provider of rail transport failing from making sure that the path of their trains is cleared, and you have a provider of roads failing to ensure that drivers cannot cross railroad crossing when trains pass.

Why aren’t people clamoring for a boycott against these providers?

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