According to the latest estimate, Manchester United have 333 million fans across the world. So the answer to the ownership problem is simple. Everyone chips in a fiver, producing £1.665 billion, enough to pay off the debts, give the Glazers a healthy profit and return the club to the interest-free state in which Alex Ferguson found it when he arrived from Aberdeen in 1986.Even if we leave aside the fact than Manyoo probably don’t have 333 million fans - are there really that many people living in Woking? - there’s a problem with this. It’s the classic problem of collective action. It takes a lot of organization to get millions of people to pay a fiver. Who’d want to do so much grunt-work when they’d get no more reward than the ordinary guy chipping in his fiver? Everyone would rather someone else did the work, so they could free-ride off his efforts. The upshot is that the job doesn’t get done.
So far, so straightforward. But herein lies an issue. Could it be that this problem is widespread?
Certainly, it is common for ordinary shareholder-owned firms. Traditionally, the costs to any one shareholder from taking a more active oversight of management are high - lots of hassle - whilst the benefits are dispersed across all shareholders. So there’s little oversight, and managers get away with murder.
But might it also be a common reason why inefficient ownership forms persist? Could it be that we don’t see the transition from bad ownership forms - such as dispersed shareholders or (this is oft-forgot) government* - to worker or consumer co-ops because of the problem of collective action?
Of course, this is not the only obstacle. A bigger one is simple lack of capital; workers would have to stump up £40,000 each to buy out shareholders in Sainsburys, for example.
What I’m driving at here is an ambiguity in the claim that capitalist ownership is more efficient than the alternatives. This can mean two different things:
1. In a steady state, capitalist ownership produces better results - however you measure these - than more collective ownership forms.
2. The transition from capitalist to collective ownership is costly.
Even if (1) is not true, (2) might be.
* Why don’t local residents buy out libraries, or even schools or swimming pools?