California musings

The current lack of current in California's energy morass made me curious about public utilities, their origin and purpose.

At first, online search engines failed to turn up the philosophic rationale I was looking for. I had to turn to a pre-Internet information system, a Gutenberg database that, when I was growing up, occupied a place of prominence right next to the television set - the encyclopedia.

According to the Encyclopedia Americana - in 2-1/2 pages of concise, coherent narrative - the legal concept of a business "affected with a public interest" dates from 17th-century English common law. "About 1670, an English judge, Sir Matthew Hale, argued that certain businesses such as ferryboats, docks, and warehouses were, because of their public necessity, required to charge only reasonable rates and to maintain adequate service for all customers."

In this profound precedent lies the guiding principle for regulating a natural monopoly - be it gas, electric, or telecommunications. The end-user, not the enterprise, is the prime mover in any regulated monopoly.

For some historians, the utility concept represents one of the crowning achievements of Western democracy - the profitable control of a monopolistic business run in the pubic interest. Making sweeping changes in the way these enterprises are structured and the way they deliver their essential services is tantamount to redefining democracy.

On a personal level, I learned again the limits of hit-and-run Internet searches - those electronic sirens of superficiality. It is crucial that we not let instantaneous access cheat us of understanding and knowledge. Not only might our wits grow dimmer, the lights indeed, may go out.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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