The CBC is no good, and is not a Public Good

cbc“In the beginning was The Hockey. And The Hockey was with the CBC. And The Hockey was the CBC.”

For almost all of us, “Hockey Night in Canada” was an essential part of growing up (or being grown up). It is a rite of passage of being Canadian. Doug French thinks that you can tell a Canadian from an American with a simple test: Ask politely for everyone to get out of a pool, and then see who does. Doug’s actually only half right – doesn’t he know it’s too cold to swim in Canada?

The better test is to ask someone to hum the Hockey Night in Canada theme, both the original we all grew up with until 2008 and the abomination they replaced it with that year. (No hard feelings to Colin Oberst, who penned the new theme, but as Mike Myers noted, the original theme is “the second anthem [of Canada].”

Maybe I’m biased being of a certain generation. But it’s neither here nor there, as the CBC just gave up the broadcasting rights to NHL games. Rogers Communications will pay $5.2 billion over the next 12 years to air what is currently the CBC’s most popular program.

Good riddance, says the Globe as it serves up a pretty typical mixed bag of myths and facts in its editorial “The CBC: What’s it good for, without hockey?” Consider what the Globe considers to be the raison d’être for the public broadcaster:

“The strongest argument for the CBC goes something like this: There are some public goods that the free market will not deliver, or will not deliver well enough, and so we create public institutions to do the job. Think of museums, libraries and parks. These would be very different without public support, and in some cases they might not exist at all. There’s a compelling logic to taxpayer backing for the National Gallery of Canada or the Canadian War Museum, or hundreds of other cultural institutions and historical sites. The CBC is, in part, such an institution.”

There is an idea floating around that some goods just cannot be provided for by the free market. Supposedly museums, libraries and parks are amongst these.

Did you have a Carnegie Library in your town growing up, or use one now? Even in little Watford Ontario, population 1,592 (and shrinking!), we had one. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother taking me there so I could learn about dinosaurs and manatees. (Did you know that manatees are kind of like modern-day dinosaurs, or that their name derives from the word the pre-Columbian inhabitants of South Florida had for “breast”? Oh the things you learn as a seven year old boy, and you can too: go to your local library to find out.)

The Watford library itself is quite confusing. The sign at the top says “Public Library” but just underneath it is another, smaller one that says “Carnegie”, and then some other words so faded that I can’t make them out.

This library, along with 125 others in Canada, 1,689 in the United States, 600 in Britain and Ireland, and others scattered around Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, Mauritius and Fiji, were all seeded with generous grants from the Scottish-American steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie desired to give back to the community that aided him in growing his fortune. Any town that could prove it needed a library, which absent Wikipedia in the 1880s was pretty much every town, could get funding for one. The only catch was that the town would have to provide 10 percent of the construction and annual operating costs; hence, we have “public” libraries today.

10 percent! If any reasonable person was to look at that breakdown of funding and say that this library exists because of the government they would be crazy. Unless they work for the Globe and Mail, so it seems.

Residents of Vancouver and visitors to the beautiful city will probably point to Stanley Park as a highlight. Stanley Park was dedicated in 1888 by Lord Stanley, Canada’s sixth governor general. (He is also the man the “Stanley Cup” is named after, having been donated to the NHL in 1926.)

Stanley Park was most definitely a product of government, as are many other parks. Do you know how Stanley Park was built?

The area of North Vancouver was claimed by the local government to set aside as parkland. Unfortunately there were already people living on the land, mainly Chinese settlers who broke their backs building the Canadian Pacific Railway. Rather than paying them to leave, which is how any sane private individual would go about this task, it was decided to evict the residents from their homes. In the words of Sarah Avison (pdf), the daughter of the Park’s first ranger, the eviction notice in 1889 went anything but smoothly:

The Park Board ordered the [Chinese settlers] to leave the park; they were trespassers; but [they] would not go, so the Park Board told my father to set fire to the buildings. I saw them burn; there were five of us children, and you know what children are like when there is a fire. So father set fire to the shacks; what happened to the Chinese I do not know.

I have a feeling what happened to them, though I doubt you’ll find a gravestone no matter how hard you search.

Yes, we have the government to thank for this park. I’m not so sure these Chinese settlers are so thankful. Only the Globe and Mail would claim this as a great victory for the doctrine of the “public good”.

Museums might plausibly be a public good, after all, so many of them seem to be publicly operated today. Except that they don’t fit any of the criteria for a public good.

In economic theory, which is the standard we have to use since “public good” is an economic term with a strict definition, a public good results when two criteria are met. It must be non-excludable in the sense that you cannot stop someone from enjoying it. Watching a sunset is non-excludable as anyone can do it. It must also be non-rivalled, which means that someone enjoying this good must not stop someone else from enjoying it. Again, you watching a sunset doesn’t stop your spouse from also enjoying that sunset. In fact, it would be nice if the whole world took a breather and watched a sunset – it’s about the only thing that seven billion people can do without getting in each others’ way.

Yet museums don’t seem to fit these criteria, not even the ones mandated as “public” today.

We pay for entrance and if you don’t pay you don’t enter; they are excludable. Have you been to the ROM lately? The top review on tripadvisor sums it up nicely: “In the summer, the place is teeming with day camp kids, so it can be a little overwhelming for young kids.” Unless you think that swarms of bewildered kids are not competing with you for space, you have to admit that enjoying the museum is definitely a rivalrous experience.

What the Globe claims as a primal public good doesn’t fit any of the criteria of a public good. And this is the problem – many goods are “public” not because of any objective criteria, but because they are publicly provided. If they don’t fit the criteria, than maybe they should be reassessed.

So what of the CBC? The Globe thinks its role should be in providing that programming which would never survive if it had to be delivered by a privately funded media agency. Hockey Night in Canada obviously never needed to be provided to Canadians at the hands of the government because it’s as Canadian as, well, the maple leaf: the sport actually defines Canada in the eyes of many of its inhabitants.

If the Globe had stopped there the story would have been great. But the editorial goes on to explain that the CBC should be sponsoring arts that would not get an airing if they relied on private funding.

What the Globe never answers is “why” something should exist if no one is willing to pay for it.

There is no “Canadian” culture except that one which we create. This great land once had slavery in it, until British Parliament made it illegal in 1833. The problem with slavery (besides the obvious rights violations) is that it doesn’t really pay. Sure, the labour expenses are low but so is productivity. Slavery ended because it is not a good deal. But what if someone in Ottawa decided that slavery was part of Canada’s heritage, and even though no one would voluntarily pay for it, the government should continue supporting the practice. (Incidentally, laws passed south of the border, like the Fugitive Slave Act, basically had this effect.)

This example is tongue in cheek, but I really only want to point out what should be obvious. It’s not sufficient to just make a claim that “x decides that y is part of our culture, but z is not willing to pay for it, so x must force z to pay for y so that it can continue to exist.” But that chain of reasoning is what is going on today, with x being the CBC (i.e., the government), y being some aspect of Canadian culture, and z being Canadian taxpayers.

Canada was created by bands of individuals making their own way and creating their own future. Any culture that we have to speak of today is a result of this hard work over time. It is not the result of someone in Ottawa mandating that “thou shall watch shows created in Canada, starring Canadians, telling the story of Canadian trials and tribulations.” If this had always been the case in Canada, all of our media would be a remnant of the original indigenous people. And since this country is today almost wholly comprised of people whose ancestors did not come from Canada, all of our culture is “imported”.

The CBC does not serve a purpose. Editorials from the Globe and Mail propagate a myth that Canadian culture is a public good that must be publicly provided. Wrong on both counts.

Of course, there is a different angle than assuming that the editorial staff at the Globe are ignorant (they’re not). The Globe and Mail is in the media business, as is the CBC – they’re competitors. The Globe seems to advocate that the CBC divest itself of the content that Canadians obviously want to see, like hockey, and instead start showing more content that people could care less about. As always, the question to ask is “cui bono?”

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3 Responses to “The CBC is no good, and is not a Public Good”

  1. pnrsttus says:

    Indian Railways started its operations in the year 1853 and since then, the progress in operational quality has been tremendous. Also . pnr status, Indian Rail is the largest rail network in terms of sheer length and size. Spread across more than 6400 kilometers, it continues to grow bigger and complex to manage

  2. Luton_Ian says:

    Many thanks for (yet another) excellent piece.

    The same debate is currently taking place on airstrip one, over the future of the BBC.

  3. Ohhh Henry says:

    It is utter nonsense to say that things like libraries, museums and parks (not to mention broadcasters) would not exist if the government didn't create them.

    Libraries existed in Canada long before even Carnegie came along. For example there were "Mechanic's Institutes" where factory workers could borrow books and read periodicals. They were supported by donations and a modest membership fee. Not very different from libraries nowadays, except being private institutions unable to raise funds at the point of a gun, their overall cost was many times less than today's "public goods". And they probably weren't full of smelly hobos sleeping in their armchairs like I found in my local public library the last time I visited.

    Museums also existed long ago. Usually in rich people's houses, they were often accessible to practically anyone who was neat and presentable and showed polite interest in visiting. They would be called a collection of curios or a picture gallery, but they were museums for all intents and purposes.

    Serious scholars had almost unlimited access to the libraries and collections of wealthy people, even gaining access to royal palaces and the like. For example there is a story of how Samuel Johnson met King George in the royal library when he was compiling his famous dictionary.

    Parks also existed as private domains to which the public was often given access, subject of course to the normal rules and regulations … no poaching, no rowdiness, no mischief and vandalism. Exactly like parks nowadays, except the rules of polite behavior were probably enforced far more effectively at far less cost.

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