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Letters to the Editor

From time to time, a commentary on the world will bubble up inside of me to the extent that I'm forced to write a letter to my local, metropolitan, daily newspaper, The Age. This is where I blow of some steam. Feel like venting too? Add your own comment or visit my homepage.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Value of Heritage

The essential work of heritage groups - controlling other people's stuff without actually buying it - can only have legitimacy if based on the broadest community support. Tom Harley, chairman of the Australian Heritage Council, implicitly acknowledges this when he justifies his group's activities by citing research that "92% of Australians value heritage as a core part of national identity".

I'm concerned that a tiny, cosy clique of well-connected and monied people are poorly placed to determine the community's interests. There is a real danger that these self-appointed guardians' values will be out of kilter with the broader community, resulting in waste, delays, corruption and other harms.

So rather than relying on bland motherhood statements about values, heritage lobbyists should get us to put our money where their mouth is. If they can't purchase and preserve particular assets through tin rattling and fund raising, then surely this is the fairest and most transparent signal from the community that we regard the property's heritage to be of little value?

What stronger claim to broad community support could there be than Australians ponying up to preserve the heritage that matters most to us?



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Anonymous Anonymous vented ...

Shouln't you change the title of this article to "the economic value of heritage"?

What better way to judge the importance of heritage, than by the number of greenbacks garnered in a corporate tin rattling fundraiser-- which is really just a homey euphemism for a marketing campaign isn't it?

You're saying, for instance, that because the society spends more money on mobile phone ringtones, than they do on protecting the great barrier reef, that ringtones have greater heritage value?

With the bubble-bust cycle of free market capital flows, if a heritage site is lost forever in the inevitable bust, can it be rebuilt? Of course we can always wait for the next boom. Would the postmodern replica of your favourite clock tower -- at your nearest Casino district--- suffice?

By the way the site rocks.


Sunday, September 10, 2006 1:58:00 pm  
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Blogger Greg vented ...

Thanks for the feedback, Andy.

No, I'm not saying that just because we spend more on ringtones than the Great Barrier Reef, we value the former more. This is because the two things (ringtones and reef) aren't in competition for our resources.

We spend more on whisky than air ... but "total amount spent" is the wrong metric to understand their relative value. If we had to physically break off a piece of coral each time we made a ringtone, then, yeah, maybe you could make that case.

The main point of the letter is that "heritage" is not valued uniformly across society, and that a very small number of rich and influential people get to control it using "off-market" means. Worse, even though they are generally very rich, they insist on using everyone else's money for their causes.

It's also broadly true that people who favour bypassing the market in determining heritage priorities (ie prefer to use lobbying and influence-peddling) made their money on the back of the free market. Or, more often, their parents did.

Presumably, they don't trust the market (ie everyone else) to make the "right" decisions about our built or natural environment. I regard this as people trying to "lock-in" their prestige, wealth and status by denying to others the opportunities of their forebears.

The only response to the view that society should cooperatively determine heritage values through market mechanisms is to say "Yeah, well, people are idiots who'll sell off the family silver at the first chance they get. We need sound people who can step in and protect the proper values".

Is that what you're saying with the boom/bust clock tower example?

If so, perhaps you'd be prepared to state it more baldly?

Monday, September 11, 2006 5:22:00 pm  
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Anonymous Anonymous vented ...

Hi Greg, Thanks for the reply. I agree with you partly.

I'll put it to you like this, and I'll try to put it as baldly as I can.

I'm not saying that elites should have absolute power, like a well known former tyrant in the middle east, building heritage like castles and piles of gold doubloons.

But your argument really seems to be a classic revolutionary viewpoint against fiscal conservatism in general, in favour of a theoretically egalitarian -- but practically anarchistic -- society.

What has no economic value to the masses, has no value at all? Even if it's priceless?
Heritage to me means: identity, culture, respect.

You're saying that society would be economically richer if we didn't have to pay taxes to keep museums, libraries, public broadcasting, national parks, etc, running. Of course, you're absolutely right. We'd all be able to buy more "bread"

Left to the invisible hand of the market, would any of those things exist? Well maybe we would have libraries, but you would have to pay to borrow books, and they would include cafes playing Norah Jones 24 x 7.

We'd probably have public broadcasting too but there would be no Sesame Street. Elmo would probably survive though.

"Man does not live by bread alone"



Monday, September 11, 2006 10:53:00 pm  
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Blogger Greg vented ...

Thanks again, Andy.

I gather you regard "heritage movements" as a form of public good, like the ABC or a museum or national park? That's an interesting notion that I haven't considered. (NB: Not sure what you mean by "priceless" other than "not on the market".)

Of course, I'm a big fan of public goods - particularly the use of tax-and-vote to allocate resources. We can create a monopoly/monopsony where the market can't work for some reason, if we all chip and make it happen. Public broadcasting is one example, where it's hard to stop people leeching the signal (UK licensing vans notwithstanding).

It does lead to a problem though, in that very few votes will be decided solely on the performance of the ABC (or museum etc). Hence, these things tend to drift away from satisfying the punters and become inwards-looking. That's why monopolies/monopsonies are, in general, best avoided.

So I think we should only do that when it's clear the market can't work. If (some) people wish to save a random building in the suburbs because a famous writer once lived in it ... then there's no reason they can't chip in and buy it without involving everyone else. They can stand up at the auction with their gold-coin collections and bid like anyone else.

The maximum "buy out" cost for an individual heritage campaign is on the order of, what, a million bucks? Maybe ten million? Most would be a few hundred thousand. Well within the price range of a suitably motivated public.

The people who run these campaigns do not like this approach, since there is a lower chance of success for them. They know that most of us do not get as much value out of preservation as they do, and so their focus is on getting around the market through political means.

They've used their status to con the rest of us into subsidising their very expensive hobby.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 1:12:00 pm  

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