1990s >> 1997 >> no-1116-august-1997

No such thing as a free bus?

Since the beginning of July the people of Hasselt, a town in Northern Belgium with a population of 60,000, have been able to travel free on the buses.

No, socialism has not been established there. This is just one of a number of such experiments that have been carried out in various places over the years. In this case the aim is to encourage people to use public transport rather than their cars when they come to work or shop in the town centre so that the costs of renovating a ring road can be avoided. The free transport experiment, which will run for two years, will cost the town 38 million Belgian francs (£6.6 million), but renovating the ring road would cost hundreds of millions of francs. So, on the principle that “free is cheaper”, the mayor opted for free buses.

Socialists don’t advocate free transport under capitalism—we only advocate it as part of the general free access that will apply in socialism—but the same arguments are put against free transport as are against general free access.

When socialists say that in socialism people will be able to give, in terms of work, according to their abilities and then take from the common store of wealth according to their needs as they decide them, the supporter of capitalism’s typical reaction is: people are greedy so they would grab more than they need and shortages would soon develop again.

But why? Greed is not a built-in part of human nature but a behaviour pattern under certain specific social conditions.When a ship was wrecked in the Seilly Isles recently people rushed to grab what they could.They did this because they knew that the supply of free goods was a one-off and was not going to last.

Where people know that the free supply is going to last they adjust their behaviour accordingly. They no longer frantically seek to grab what they can. Instead, they wait till their current supply runs out and then they go and get some more or, in the case of a service, they wait till they need it and then they go and use it.

All the experience of free goods and services even under capitalism confirms this. Of course it is true that “there is no such thing as a free lunch” under capitalism: everything has to be paid for in the end, in one way or another. Water supply is paid for in Britain through water rates: free local phone calls in some US and Canadian cities through high telephone rental charges: and free transport through local or national taxes.

But this is not the relevant point here. The water, the local phone calls and the buses or trains are free at the time of use: people pay nothing when they use them and they can use them as much as they like. According to the “greedy person” theory, under these circumstances people should be hoarding water, making as many phone calls as they can. and travelling round and round on the buses just to get in as many free rides as possible. But of course this doesn’t happen. People adjust their behaviour to the permanent situation of free use and only use these services when they need them.


Supporters of capitalism don’t want to accept this because they don’t want to believe that it is possible for humans to behave in this sensible way. This prejudice came out in the debate in Belgium over free transport that the mayor of Hasselt’s decision provoked.


The Brussels Region Communications Minister, Hervé Husquin. a Liberal (but Liberals on the Continent are still living in the 19th century), was quoted as saying:

  “People don’t respect what they can get for free. Not only does vandalism grow but the motivation to use the car remains. They profit from it. Cheap tickets on the other hand, where people pay a kind of contribution, is the right way to get people to use public transport more often” (Het Nieuwsblad, 22 May).


He may turn out to be right about free public transport not working in the sense of not discouraging people from using their cars (that remains to be seen), but what’s all this nonsense about vandalism increasing? Husquin’s objection here is, clearly, ideological. According to him, if anything is free people must abuse it because that’s human nature. However, as yet there have been no reports from Hasselt of people boarding the buses to slash the seats because they can now do this without paying.


Husquin is a university professor but that seems to be qualification for talking nonsense on this subject. Two lecturers from a university in Antwerp came up with an equally silly objection.


Starting from the premise that humans are, or ought to be.,walking calculating machines who if they had all the facts would decide to spend their money in such a way that the marginal price/benefit ratio of everything they consumed was the same (yes, such are the nutty ideas that circulate in university economics departments and that students arc required to at least pretend to subscribe to if they want to pass the exams), they argue that free transport is not desirable as it distorts people’s judgements. When something is free this registers on the calculating machine in their heads as a price equal to zero and encourages them to use more of it than they would want if they knew all the facts, i.e. the “marginal social cost” of the free service.


So. say the nutty professors:


   “Rather than subsidising public transport, economists propose to apply to the whole transport sector the principle of pricing at marginal social cost” (Le Soir, 4 June).

They admit that this will mean an increase in the average amount charged for transport, more for the car user than for the public transport user but more for the public transport user too.


The logic of this argument—and the proof that it is wrong—is that everything should be charged for. Everything should have a price tag on it. Nothing should ever be free. Not just water, phone calls and buses, but not libraries, museums or parks. In the transport sector roads should not be free.Tolls should be reintroduced not just for roads but for pavements too since it costs money to clean and maintain them.


As Robert Tressell pointed out in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, if these people could find a way of doing it they would charge us for the air we breathe.


Adam Buick