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O. Franchises and "Public Utilities"
Franchises are generally grants of permission by the government for the use of its streets. Where the franchises are exclusive or restrictive, they are grants of monopoly or quasi-monopoly privilege. Where they are general and not exclusive, however, they cannot be called monopolistic. For the franchise question is complicated by the fact that the government owns the streets and therefore must give permission before anyone uses them. In a truly free market, of course, streets would be privately, not governmentally, owned, and the problem of franchises would not arise.
The fact that the government must give permission for the use of its streets has been cited to justify stringent government regulations of “public utilities,” many of which (like water or electric companies) must make use of the streets. The regulations are then treated as a voluntary quid pro quo. But to do so overlooks the fact that governmental ownership of the streets is itself a permanent act of intervention. Regulation of public utilities or of any other industry discourages investment in these industries, thereby depriving consumers of the best satisfaction of their wants. For it distorts the resource allocations of the free market. Prices set below the free market create an artificial shortage of the utility service; prices set above those determined by the free market impose restrictions and a monopoly price on the consumers. Guaranteed rates of return exempt the utility from the free play of market forces and impose burdens on the consumers by distorting market allocations.
The very term “public utility,” furthermore, is an absurd one. Every good is useful “to the public,” and almost every good, if we take a large enough chunk of supply as the unit, may be considered “necessary.” Any designation of a few industries as “public utilities” is completely arbitrary and unjustified.71
- 71. On the inherent absurdities of the very concept of “public utility” and the impossibility of definition, as well as for an excellent critique of public utility regulation by government, see Arthur S. Dewing, The Financial Policy of Corporations (5th ed.; New York: Ronald Press, 1953), I, 309–10, and the remainder of the chapter.