The Maggie Simpson delusion: the NHS is not ‘ours’

Unless you have spent the last two decades in North Korea or in Josef Fritzl’s basement, you will be familiar with that scene from the opening credits of the Simpsons, where it initially appears as if Maggie Simpson, the toddler, is driving the car. Later, we see that Maggie’s steering wheel is just a toy; the one who is really driving the car is her mother Marge Simpson. Maggie just turns her toy wheel in whichever direction the car is already heading, and believes she is in control.

People who see private healthcare providers as a threat to ‘our NHS’, on the grounds that the NHS is ‘democratically accountable’ while these private firms are not, are in a position very much like Maggie Simpson’s. They, too, are under an illusion of ownership and control. Their logic is simple: As long as the health service is wholly publicly owned, it is ‘our NHS’, because ‘the public’ – that’s us, right? The public, that’s people like you and me, so ‘we’ own the NHS collectively. Outsourcing parts of it to private providers means losing control over them, because these parts would no longer be ‘ours’.

Dear NHS worshippers, sorry to be a killjoy, but look, the NHS is not ‘yours’, and never has been. You have no control over it. You feel like you are in control when you spin your little toy wheel, but try steering the car in any direction other than the one where it is already heading, and see what happens. The ones who really drive the car are the political class and the medical establishment. ‘Democratic accountability’ is a mirage. All it really means is that healthcare managers answer to bureaucrats, who answer to other bureaucrats, who also answer to other bureaucrats, who, after some more detours, answer to some politician. That’s democratic accountability. Feel powerful now?

Accountability through the political system is about the weakest form of accountability one could imagine, and in healthcare it is even weaker than in other areas. We can go to the ballot box every five years or so, but we do not vote specifically on healthcare policies, we vote for jumbo policy packages of which healthcare is but a small part. More importantly, even if healthcare was the decisive issue for an election outcome, it would still only give us control over macro variables. We can vote for a party that credibly promises to deliver the kind of healthcare policy we support, but there is only so much of a connection between those system-level decisions and our actual experience of healthcare delivery on the ground.

Now let’s have a look at the least democratically accountable NHS facility in the country, which is Hinchingbrooke hospital, the only NHS hospital that is wholly operated by a for-profit private company. When that transfer was arranged in 2011 the Guardian issued dire warnings:

‘The government’s decision to sign a 10-year contract worth £1bn for an untested private company to manage the heavily indebted Hinchingbrooke hospital really is the triumph of hype over experience. […] The Hinchingbrooke contract is a gamble with high stakes, and with only slim chances of success: yet remarkably it’s already being discussed as a model for other struggling trusts. Don’t ask for evidence, just go with the private sector hype. That’s the future under Lansley’s NHS.’

Elsewhere, the same newspaper cited Unison’s head of health policy, Christina McAnea, who feared:  ‘Introducing profit into the NHS risks putting patient services under strain. This is a very real fear for patients at Hinchingbrooke hospital. If the company is allowed to expand into the NHS as the government brings in its reforms through the Health and Social Care Bill this, it appears, could put many more patients at risk.’ The paper also cited Valerie Vaz MP of the Health Select Committee, who warned: ‘It is difficult to comprehend how Circle can maintain a proper standard of healthcare while maximising profit; as a company they would have to make a profit, but that can only come if costs are cut – such as a shorter stay in bed to recover, one less nurse. That must compromise patient care.’

In the meantime, Hinchingbrooke, formerly a basket case in terms of both medical and financial performance, has been turned into an award-winning hospital. It is not accountable to us in our role as voters, but it is very much accountable to us as patients. If the company fails to attract patients, it will sink, and lots of people will lose lots of money. That’s the accountability of the marketplace. We don’t drive the car, but we can exit it any time and choose another one with a better driver, and the drivers’ livelihoods depend on our decisions. Down with accountability, long live accountability.

Will the NHS purists now become a little bit less fundamentalist, after the Hinchingbrooke experience? Of course not. They will do everything to prevent the possibility of repeating that success story. (In fact, they have just done that.) That’s what incumbents do. They protect the status quo, because it means protecting the position they have secured for themselves against newcomers and outsiders.

In other sectors, this happens for the usual Public Choice reasons: the beneficiaries of entry barriers are well-informed and coordinated, while the paymasters are busy with other things. Healthcare is different. In healthcare, we are not just passive bystanders in this game. It is worse: We actively support the incumbents in their fight against newcomers, because we think the former are answerable to us, while the latter want to take our toy steering wheel away.

The Simpsons series uses a so-called floating timeline, a device to ensure that the characters don’t age. Therefore, baby Maggie never reaches an age where she would realise that something’s not quite right with her steering wheel. Let’s hope this is where the Maggie Simpson metaphor ceases to be applicable.

Follow @K_Niemietz on Twitter.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

4 thoughts on “The Maggie Simpson delusion: the NHS is not ‘ours’”

  1. Posted 19/06/2014 at 10:37 | Permalink

    A very worthwhile point, which explodes one of the key myths that is used to justify this 1940s-style state monopoly.

    The key test of whether one owns something is the question of control. And it should be obvious to anyone that the individual has no meaningful control over the NHS whatsoever.

    Hence it is indeed absurd to talk about “our NHS”.

  2. Posted 20/06/2014 at 13:57 | Permalink

    This post raises some interesting issues about state ownership needn’t mean people have control, or get quality services. There are issues with an idea of a market in healthcare, though, as the idea of the ‘expert patient’ is highly questionable – this ‘expertise’ will always need to be filtered through professionals with decision-making powers. It’s also likely that the state would have to underwrite the system to some extent, meaning the patient wouldn’t have true freedom to choose their treatment. Combined with the idea of economies of scale, this makes it likely that competitive principles would more often be applied by having tendering for overarching contracts rather than personalised budgets with patients acting as individual consumers. More importantly for the argument being put forward, though, ‘profit-making’ doesn’t have any necessary connection with a competitive system. It is possible to commission not-for-profit providers – whether statutory or charitable – and this might be an option that gets closer to having the best of both worlds: some accountability through competition, but all those involved (in theory at least) being motivated solely by efficiency and quality of care – precisely what people worry private providers won’t be.

  3. Posted 20/06/2014 at 14:08 | Permalink

    Not sure that being held in a basement as a sex slave for 24 years is quite the right thing to joke about.

  4. Posted 12/01/2015 at 11:04 | Permalink

    You have no control over it. You feel like you are in control when you spin your little toy wheel, but try steering the car in any direction other than the one where it is already heading, and see what happens. The ones who really drive the car are the political class and the medical establishment.

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