Electricity is a product just like gas and water. The provision of these products to the consumer should be made available by private companies that specialize in making sure their customers are happy.
When services like these are seen as “rights,” they end up being provided by the government, or government-granted “natural” monopolies, and that’s when individuals lose access to such products,. They suffer the consequences without having any actual right to complain.
That’s the current situation in Puerto Rico, where the supply of electricity is controlled exclusively by politicians and bureaucrats in government.
As a “right,” like other government-provided products and services, electricity comes at a hefty price. After having to wait more than four months to be able to freeze their food, watch TV, or use their computers in the wake of Hurricane Maria—which forced 40 percent of the island’s inhabitants to live without power—a group of private citizens from San Sebastián decided to take matters into their own hands by restoring power to their own municipality.
Mayor Javier Jiménez could not wait for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority or the Army Corps of Engineers any longer. So first, he made a list of people in the town who were electricians. Lining up a group of city employees which included former utility employees, the mayor started bringing electricity back to the town.
In no time, the Pepino Power Authority—the group of volunteers who decided to no longer wait for the government—were working on fixing electric lines on their own. They first started with downtown lines and then continued working their way out to the hills surrounding the city.
But as they stood up for their own people, the government accused them and the mayor of circumventing the state’s monopoly and of putting people in danger.
“One of the first things we did,” Jiménez says, “was establish a safety protocol, and we brought in a government inspector.”
Despite the resistance the mayor and his group of volunteers have encountered, they have already restored power to the majority of the city, volunteer Joaquín Cruz said. But the goal is to restore it to 100 percent by the end of the month.
In the meantime, other mayors are still waiting for the government to send them help.
While this lesson will be lost on most people, it is, nonetheless, a great example of how governments cannot and are unable to provide to the populace as efficiently and as humanely as the private market can and does. Allowing competition to enter the field by giving independent electricity firms the opportunity to provide the best, safest, and most affordable service would be a superior long-run solution to Puerto Rico’s power grid and its people, especially low-income and poorest consumers.
As Puerto Rico proves yet again, when governments ignore economic laws and start claiming that goods and services are “rights,” people will begin expecting them for free. And wherever governments step in to meet a demand while simultaneously lacking the necessary price mechanisms and profit motives, chaos and inefficiency are all but guaranteed.