<title>F.5 Will privatising "the commons" increase liberty?
<h1>F.5 Will privatising "the commons" increase liberty?</h1>
"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.
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>
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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>
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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].
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]