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<html>
<head>
<title>F.5 Will privatising "the commons" increase liberty?
</title>
</head>
<p>
<h1>F.5 Will privatising "the commons" increase liberty?</h1>
<p>
"Anarcho"-capitalists aim for a situation in which <i>"no land areas, 
no square footage in the world shall remain 'public,'"</i> in other words
<b>everything</b> will be <i>"privatised."</i> [Murray Rothbard, <b>Nations by
Consent</b>, p. 84] They claim that privatising "the commons" (e.g. roads, 
parks, etc.) which are now freely available to all will increase liberty. 
Is this true? We have shown before why the claim that privatisation can
protect the environment is highly implausible (see section <a href="secE2.html">E.2</a>). Here we
will concern ourselves with private ownership of commonly used "property" 
which we all take for granted and pay for with taxes.
<p>
Its clear from even a brief consideration of a hypothetical society based
on "privatised" roads (as suggested by Murray Rothbard in <b>For a New 
Liberty</b>, pp. 202-203 and David Friedman in <b>The Machinery of Freedom</b>, 
pp. 98-101) that the only increase of liberty will be for the ruling elite. 
As "anarcho"-capitalism is based on paying for what one uses, privatisation 
of roads would require some method of tracking individuals to ensure that 
they pay for the roads they use. In the UK, for example, during the 1980s 
the British Tory government looked into the idea of toll-based motorways. 
Obviously having toll-booths on motorways would hinder their use and restrict 
"freedom," and so they came up with the idea of tracking cars by satellite. 
Every vehicle would have a tracking device installed in it and a satellite 
would record where people went and which roads they used. They would then 
be sent a bill or have their bank balances debited based on this information
(in the fascist city-state/company town of Singapore such a scheme <b>has</b> 
been introduced).
<p>
If we extrapolate from this example to a system of <b>fully</b> privatised
"commons," it would clearly require all individuals to have tracking
devices on them so they could be properly billed for use of roads,
pavements, etc. Obviously being tracked by private firms would be a
serious threat to individual liberty. Another, less costly, option would
be for private guards to randomly stop and question car-owners and
individuals to make sure they had paid for the use of the road or pavement
in question. "Parasites" would be arrested and fined or locked up. Again,
however, being stopped and questioned by uniformed individuals has more
in common with police states than liberty. Toll-boothing <b>every</b> street
would be highly unfeasible due to the costs involved and difficulties for
use that it implies. Thus the idea of privatising roads and charging 
drivers to gain access seems impractical at best and distinctly freedom
endangering if implemented at worse.
<p>
Of course, the option of owners letting users have free access to the
roads and pavements they construct and run would be difficult for a 
profit-based company. No one could make a profit in that case. If 
companies paid to construct roads for their customers/employees to use, 
they would be financially hindered in competition with other companies 
that did not, and thus would be unlikely to do so. If they restricted 
use purely to their own customers, the tracking problem appears again.
<p>
Some may object that this picture of extensive surveillance of 
individuals would not occur or be impossible. However, Murray 
Rothbard (in a slightly different context) argued that technology 
would be available to collate information about individuals. He 
argued that <i>"[i]t should be pointed out that modern technology 
makes even more feasible the collection and dissemination of 
information about people's credit ratings and records of keeping or
violating their contracts or arbitration agreements. Presumably, an 
anarchist [sic!] society would see the expansion of this sort of
dissemination of data."</i> [<i>"Society Without A State"</i>, in 
<b>Nomos XIX</b>,
Pennock and Chapman (eds.), p. 199] So, perhaps, with the total
privatisation of society we would also see the rise of private
Big Brothers, collecting information about individuals for use by
property owners. The example of the <b>Economic League</b> (a British 
company who provided the "service" of tracking the political 
affiliations and activities of workers for employers) springs to mind.
<p>
And, of course, these privatisation suggestions ignore differences in 
income and market power. If, for example, variable pricing is used to 
discourage road use at times of peak demand (to eliminate traffic jams 
at rush-hour) as is suggested both by Murray Rothbard and David Friedman, 
then the rich will have far more "freedom" to travel than the rest of 
the population. And we may even see people having to go into debt just
to get to work or move to look for work.
<p>
Which raises another problem with notion of total privatisation, the
problem that it implies the end of freedom of travel. Unless you get
permission or (and this seems more likely) pay for access, you will
not be able to travel <b>anywhere.</b> As Rothbard <b>himself</b> makes clear,
"anarcho"-capitalism means the end of the right to roam or even
travel. He states that <i>"it became clear to me that a totally privatised
country would not have open borders at all. If every piece of land
in a country were owned . . . no immigrant could enter there unless
invited to enter and allowed to rent, or purchase, property."</i> 
[<b>Nations
by Consent</b>, p. 84] What happens to those who cannot <b>afford</b> to
pay for access is not addressed (perhaps, being unable to exit a
given capitalist's land they will become bonded labourers? Or be
imprisoned and used to undercut workers' wages via prison labour?
Perhaps they will just be shot as trespassers? Who can tell?). Nor
is it addressed how this situation actually <b>increases</b> freedom.
For Rothbard, a <i>"totally privatised country would be as closed as
the particular inhabitants and property owners [<b>not</b> the same 
thing, we must point out] desire. It seems clear, then, that the 
regime of open borders that exists <b>de facto</b> in the US really 
amounts to a compulsory opening by the central state. . . and does 
not genuinely reflect the wishes of the proprietors."</i> [<b>Op. 
Cit.</b>, 
p. 85] Of course, the wishes of <b>non</b>-proprietors (the vast 
majority) do not matter in the slightest. Thus, it is clear, that
with the privatisation of "the commons" the right to roam, to
travel, would become a privilege, subject to the laws and rules
of the property owners. This can hardly be said to <b>increase</b>
freedom for anyone bar the capitalist class.
<p>
Rothbard acknowledges that <i>"in a fully privatised world, access 
rights would obviously be a crucial part of land ownership."</i> 
[<b>Nations by Consent</b>, p. 86] Given that there is no free lunch, 
we can imagine we would have to pay for such "rights." The implications 
of this are obviously unappealing and an obvious danger to individual 
freedom. The problem of access associated with the idea of privatising 
the roads can only be avoided by having a "right of passage" encoded
into the "general libertarian law code."  This would mean that road 
owners would be required, by law, to let anyone use them. But where 
are "absolute" property rights in this case? Are the owners of roads 
not to have the same rights as other owners? And if "right of passage" 
is enforced, what would this mean for road owners when people sue 
them for car-pollution related illnesses? (The right of those injured by pollution
to sue polluters is the main way "anarcho"-capitalists propose to protect
the environment. See sections <a href="secE2.html">E.2</a> and <a href="secE3.html">E.3</a>). It is unlikely that those 
wishing to bring suit could find, never mind sue, the millions of individual 
car owners who could have potentially caused their illness. Hence the 
road-owners would be sued for letting polluting (or unsafe) cars onto "their"
roads. The road-owners would therefore desire to restrict pollution levels
by restricting the right to use their property, and so would resist the
"right of passage" as an "attack" on their "absolute" property rights. If
the road-owners got their way (which would be highly likely given the
need for "absolute" property rights and is suggested by the variable 
pricing way to avoid traffic jams mentioned above) and were able to control 
who used their property, freedom to travel would be <b>very</b> restricted and 
limited to those whom the owner considered "desirable." Indeed, Murray
Rothbard supports such a regime (<i>"In the free [sic!] society, they 
[travellers] would, in the first instance, have the right to travel 
only on those streets whose owners agree to have them there"</i> [<b>The 
Ethics of Liberty</b>, p. 119]). The threat to liberty in such a system 
is obvious -- to all but Rothbard and other right-libertarians, of 
course.
<p>
To take another example, let us consider the privatisation of parks, 
streets and other public areas. Currently, individuals can use these areas
to hold political demonstrations, hand out leaflets, picket and so on.
However, under "anarcho"-capitalism the owners of such property can 
restrict such liberties if they desire, calling such activities "initiation 
of force" (although they cannot explain how speaking your mind is an
example of "force"). Therefore, freedom of speech, assembly and a host 
of other liberties we take for granted would be reduced (if not eliminated)
under a right-"libertarian" regime. Or, taking the case of pickets and 
other forms of social struggle, its clear that privatising "the commons" 
would only benefit the bosses. Strikers or other activists picketing or 
handing out leaflets in shopping centre's are quickly ejected by private 
security even today. Think about how much worse it would become under 
"anarcho"-capitalism when the whole world becomes a series of malls -- it 
would be impossible to hold a picket when the owner of the pavement objects, 
for example (as Rothbard himself argues, <b>Op. Cit.</b>, p. 132) and if the owner 
of the pavement also happens to be the boss being picketed, then workers' 
rights would be zero. Perhaps we could also see capitalists suing working 
class organisations for littering their property if they do hand out 
leaflets (so placing even greater stress on limited resources).
<p>
The I.W.W. went down in history for its rigorous defence of freedom of 
speech because of its rightly famous "free speech" fights in numerous 
American cities and towns. Repression was inflicted upon wobblies who 
joined the struggle by "private citizens," but in the end the I.W.W. won. 
Consider the case under "anarcho"-capitalism. The wobblies would have been 
"criminal aggressors" as the owners of the streets have refused to allow 
"undesirables" to use them to argue their case. If they refused to 
acknowledge the decree of the property owners, private cops would have 
taken them away. Given that those who controlled city government in 
the historical example were the wealthiest citizens in town, its likely 
that the same people would have been involved in the fictional 
("anarcho"-capitalist) account. Is it a good thing that in the real 
account the wobblies are hailed as heroes of freedom but in the fictional 
one they are "criminal aggressors"? Does converting public spaces into 
private property <b>really</b> stop restrictions on free speech being a 
bad thing?
<p>
Of course, Rothbard (and other right-libertarians) are aware that
privatisation will not remove restrictions on freedom of speech,
association and so on (while, at the same time, trying to portray
themselves as supporters of such liberties!). However, for 
right-libertarians such restrictions are of no consequence. As 
Rothbard argues, any <i>"prohibitions would not be state imposed, 
but would simply be requirements for residence or for use of 
some person's or community's land area."</i> [<b>Nations by Consent</b>, 
p. 85] Thus we yet again see the blindness of right-libertarians 
to the commonality between private property and the state. The
state also maintains that submitting to its authority is the
requirement for taking up residence in its territory (see
also <a href="secF2.html#secf23">section F.2.3</a> for more on this). As Benjamin Tucker noted, 
the state can be defined as (in part) <i>"the assumption of sole 
authority over a given area and all within it."</i> [<b>The Individualist 
Anarchists</b>, p. 24] If the property owners can determine 
"prohibitions" (i.e. laws and rules) for those who use the 
property then they are the <i>"sole authority over a given area 
and all within it,"</i> i.e. a state. Thus privatising "the commons" 
means subjecting the non-property owners to the rules and laws 
of the property owners -- in effect, privatising the state and 
turning the world into a series of Monarchies and oligarchies 
without the pretence of democracy and democratic rights. 
<p>
These examples can hardly be said to be increasing liberty for society as 
a whole, although "anarcho" capitalists seem to think they would. So far 
from <b>increasing</b> liberty for all, then, privatising the commons would 
only increase it for the ruling elite, by giving them yet another monopoly 
from which to collect income and exercise their power over. It would
<b>reduce</b> freedom for everyone else. As Peter Marshall notes, <i>"[i]n the name 
of freedom, the anarcho-capitalists would like to turn public spaces into 
private property, but freedom does not flourish behind high fences protected 
by private companies but expands in the open air when it is enjoyed by all"</i> 
[<b>Demanding the Impossible</b>, p. 564]. 
<p>
Little wonder Proudhon argued that <i>"if the public highway is nothing but
an accessory of private property; if the communal lands are converted into
private property; if the public domain, in short, is guarded, exploited,
leased, and sold like private property -- what remains for the proletaire?
Of what advantage is it to him that society has left the state of war to 
enter the regime of police?"</i> [<b>System of Economic Contradictions</b>, p. 371]
<p>
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