All Commentary
Wednesday, August 1, 1990

Municipal Services: Unfair Competition from Local Governments

Mr. Tomlinson owns and operates a small plumbing company in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

I recently saw an ad in our local paper in North Vancouver, British Columbia, which set me to thinking. The advertisement announced that a team of consultants had been hired by the municipal government to “establish strategies for the provision of parks and recreation services” in our city and the surrounding community. The announcement implied that as our population grew there would be a greater need for these services, and the municipal authorities should provide them.

On the face of it this might seem a reasonable proposition, since throughout North America we have become accustomed to having local authorities supply certain services, and there is nothing unusual about finding public parks in any city or village. Likewise many communities provide recreational facilities such as ice rinks, stadiums, swimming pools, and playing fields; and the great majority of residents raise no strong objection to having a portion of their tax money spent this way.

However, I began to look back on the course of events since we moved to North Vancouver 22 years ago, and it became clear that a pattern had developed. When we arrived we found there were two exercise clubs serving the community. Each had an ice rink, curling rink, swimming pool, saunas, and exercise room. Each was in competition with the other for members, but they had a far more serious adversary.

Two or three years earlier the city had embarked on a major construction project—a recreation center with an ice rink, curling rink, swimming pool, saunas, and exercise room. As things turned out this was to be just the start of a burgeoning empire, as over the years three more facilities featuring ice rinks and swimming pools have been built in the district to accommodate the growing population. At present another pool with a special wave action feature is out to tender. In the meantime the two private clubs struggled on until one succumbed in the early ‘70s. The other went into receivership in the early ‘80s, but has remained in operation on a limited basis.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s there was a surge in the popularity of tennis. An entrepreneurial group put up a building to provide covered courts, and the parks department paved over sections of several parks and put up nets and fences. Since we live in a temperate climate where you can play tennis outside all the year round, many people chose to use the “free” courts, and the indoor club failed.

Exercise clubs come and go with regularity. A few have even survived and seem to be prospering. In spite of this, it is reasonable to assume that among those that didn’t survive are some that could have done so if they hadn’t been beaten down by the double hammer blow of competition from municipal recreational programs and the taxes they were paying to subsidize those programs. The same scenario has been repeated in other municipal services. Public libraries supplanted the private lending libraries. Similarly, in many communities, schooling, garbage collection, water supply, and fire-fighting services were provided by private firms until they were put out of business by unfair competition from local governments. Apologists for interventionism twist the argument around by claiming that government action is needed because the market fails to supply affordable services. We must be on our guard against the notion that because there is little or no direct cost, some services suddenly become worthwhile.

Many of us are aware of the dangers of socialism, and the influence it has had on politicians at the national level. But I wonder how many people are taking notice of the assaults on our property rights and civil liberties that are taking place week by week as local authorities introduce new programs. We must educate ourselves and help others to learn the difference between voluntary and coercive action, and we must involve ourselves in the affairs of our communities. Perhaps it will be by concentrating on local issues such as these that we will be able to stem the tide of collectivism.