Privatizing "The Commons"

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Patrick

Republished with permission.
Source: The Anarchist Library


“Anarcho”-capitalists aim for a situation in which “no land areas, no square footage in the world shall remain ‘public,’” in other words everything will be “privatised.” [Murray Rothbard, Nations by Consent, 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? Here we will concern ourselves with private ownership of commonly used “property” which we all take for granted (and often pay for with taxes).

Its clear from even a brief consideration of a hypothetical society based on “privatised” roads (as suggested by Murray Rothbard [For a New Liberty, pp. 202–203] and David Friedman [The Machinery of Freedom, 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 has been introduced). In London, the local government has introduced a scheme which allowed people to pay for public transport by electronic card. It also allowed the government to keep a detailed record of where and when people travelled, with obvious civil liberty implications.

If we extrapolate from these to a system of fully 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 every 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 at worse. Would giving companies that information for all travellers, including pedestrians, really eliminate all civil liberty concerns?

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. So the costs in creating a transport network and then running it explains why capitalism has always turned to state aid to provide infrastructure (the potential power of the owners of such investments in charging monopoly prices to other capitalists explains why states have also often regulated transport).

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]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.” [Society Without A State”, p. 199] So with the total privatisation of society we could also see the rise of private Big Brothers, collecting information about individuals for use by property owners. The example of the Economic League (a British company which 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 anywhere. As Rothbard himself makes clear, “anarcho”-capitalism means the end of the right to roam. He states that “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.” What happens to those who cannot afford to pay for access or travel (i.e., exit) 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 increases freedom. For Rothbard, a “totally privatised country would be as closed as the particular inhabitants and property owners [not the same thing, we must point out] desire. It seems clear, then, that the regime of open borders that exists de facto in the US really amounts to a compulsory opening by the central state... and does not genuinely reflect the wishes of the proprietors.” [Nations by Consent, p. 84 and p. 85] Of course, the wishes of non-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 increase freedom for anyone bar the capitalist class.

Rothbard acknowledges that “in a fully privatised world, access rights would obviously be a crucial part of land ownership.” [Op. Cit., 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. 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 very restricted and limited to those whom the owner considered “desirable.” Indeed, Murray Rothbard supports such a regime (“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.” [The Ethics of Liberty, p. 119]). The threat to liberty in such a system is obvious — to all but Rothbard and other right-“libertarians”, of course.

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 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 political activists picketing or handing out leaflets in shopping centres 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 (as Rothbard himself gleefully argued. [Op. Cit., p. 132]). If the owner of the pavement also happens to be the boss being picketed, which Rothbard himself considered most likely, 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. The city bosses worried by the wobblies’ open air public meetings simply made them illegal. The I.W.W. used direct action and carried on holding them. Violence was inflicted upon wobblies who joined the struggle by “private citizens,” but in the end the I.W.W. won (for Emma Goldman’s account of the San Diego struggle and the terrible repression inflicted on the libertarians by the “patriotic” vigilantes see Living My Life [vol. 1, pp. 494–503]). Consider the case under “anarcho”-capitalism. The wobblies would have been “criminal aggressors” as the owners of the streets have refused to allow “subversives” 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 really stop restrictions on free speech being a bad thing?

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 them such restrictions are of no consequence. As Rothbard argues, any “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.” [Nations by Consent, 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. As Tucker noted, the state can be defined as (in part) “the assumption of sole authority over a given area and all within it.” [The Individualist Anarchists, p. 24] If the property owners can determine “prohibitions” (i.e. laws and rules) for those who use the property then they are the “sole authority over a given area and all within it,” 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 increasing 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 reduce freedom for everyone else. Ironically, therefore, Rothbard ideology provides more than enough evidence to confirm the anarchist argument that private property and liberty are fundamentally in conflict. “It goes without saying that th[e] absolute freedom of thought, speech, and action” anarchists support “is incompatible with the maintenance of institutions that restrict free thought, rigidify speech in the form of a final and irrevocable vow, and even dictate that the worker fold his arms and die of hunger at the owners’ command.” [Elisee Reclus, quoted by John P. Clark and Camille Martin (eds.),Anarchy, Geography, Modernity, p. 159] As Peter Marshall notes, “[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.” [Demanding the Impossible, p. 564]

Little wonder Proudhon argued that “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?” [System of Economic Contradictions, p. 371]




Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 4.0 International License.