Over the past month or two, controversy has been raging over the electronic toll collection (ETC) scheme using eTag devices, which has been made applicable to all vehicles on the nation’s freeways. Some people are angry because they have been wrongly charged, but that is not the only problem. Civil rights groups are concerned about possible misuse of personal data gathered through the freeway surveillance system, while labor organizations have focused on safeguarding former toll collectors’ rights to work. Now that the fire has been lit, the government’s main concern will be to stop it spreading.
Since the original manual freeway toll stations have been dismantled, no matter how absurd the policies involved may be, how outrageously the toll collection contractor may behave and how much public resentment there may be, the change is probably irreversible. Road users will have to gradually get used to it, as President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) suggested.
On the surface, this may seem to be a simple consumer dispute between road users and the toll-collection company, but behind it lies the value that top government policymakers have clung to for more than 20 years. Successive governments, firm in their neoliberal beliefs, have been withdrawing from public services, openly or otherwise, in the name of “liberalization” and “small and beautiful government.” The government’s place has been taken by corporations and market monopolies. The horse has bolted, and consumers and workers inevitably end up suffering the consequences of this runaway process.
The recent major change in the way freeway tolls are collected put a considerable number of toll-collection staff out of a job and it has left road users with no choice but to put up with the machinations of the private company that now collects their payments. These faults cast serious doubt over the legitimacy of the ETC policy.
Is the government incapable of setting up and running a toll-collection system itself, instead of contracting it out? Are road users not entitled to choose something other than ETC, which could be achieved by retaining a number of human toll collectors? The change has also given rise to controversy over possible misuse of road users’ personal data and other invasions of privacy by the toll-collection company and government.
Similar controversies have arisen repeatedly in connection with privatization policies. Governments have been implementing privatization policies since about 1990, handing state-owned and public-run companies such as BES Engineering, China Petrochemical Development Corp and Taiwan Machinery Manufacturing Corp over to selected corporations. These privatization policies have cost many workers their jobs and have long been the target of protests and resistance by labor unions.
The officials responsible for formulating the electrical and petroleum liberalization policies applied the same kind of logic by asserting that handing these companies over to the market was all that was needed to solve their efficiency problems. What they generally overlook is that businesses like these are monopolistic in nature and play a public-service role.
Handing over such enterprises from state to corporate ownership makes them entirely subject to market forces. This has failed to solve any problems of inefficiency and also made these companies entirely profit-oriented. Business problems become most serious where a monopoly or oligopoly exists.