Simon Jenkins' and James Kirkup's proposals to privatize lions to protect them has been derided by some as "peak Telegraph" and knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. This, I fear, highlights the poverty of debate about the use of markets generally.
Simon's and James' thinking derives from the conventional economics of the tragedy of the commons. This says that if wildlife is unowned, nobody has a material incentive to conserve it and there will therefore be a tendency to over-hunt it. If, however, lions could be owned and hunting permits sold, the owner would have an incentive to protect lions from poachers. Privatization is, therefore a possible solution to the tragedy of the commons - though as Elinor Ostrom (pdf) showed, only one possibility.
There are, however, problems here. Not least is: can such private property rights be created and enforced?
One danger here is a re-emergence of the natural resource curse: if governments grant a valuable property right, people will fight over it, possibly impoverishing the country.
Another issue is whether such rights can be enforced. As Terry Anderson has shown (pdf), the emergence of property rights requires among other things that technology permits a lowish-cost enforcement of those rights. But in the case of migratory (pdf) species, this might be absent. There's also a principal-agent problem. Landowners might not be able to prevent poachers bribing rangers to let them kill the animals or to tempt them off the protected land: it's alleged that this happened to Cecil.
My point here is a simple one. Whether effective markets and private ownership can be created depends upon particular institutional and technical conditions.
This is, of course, a variant on Coase's famous point (pdf) - that there are costs to market transacting. These costs must be weighed against the costs of other forms of economic organisation - be it the firm or state control.
This applies to issues much nearer home. Whether public sector services should be privatized depends upon precise institutional detail: is it possible to write contracts which ensure a high quality of service without excessive rent-seeking? In Coasean terms, is the cost of market transacting lower than the cost of in-house production?
The answer will vary from service to service and place to place.
And herein lies my beef. In the case of lions and the NHS, this point is overlooked in favour of ideological soundbites: "Markets - yay!" "Neoliberalism - boo!" In fact, the issue is more technocratic than that. It all depends upon subtle details.