Government vs. Governance: Libertarianism and Private Communities.

AuthorMakovi, Michael
  1. Introduction

    Libertarians may be thought to be inveterate opponents of authority and hierarchy. After all, they demand freedom. Typically, economists argue that government is necessary to provide public goods. Libertarians tend to reply that (nearly) every public good can be provided privately by the free market. Who will build the roads? Why, the market will!

    However, not every public good can be privatized so easily. Collective action problems are real. And collective problems may require collective solutions. Pennington (2011, pp. 233-35) notes that "very few [collective goods] are completely indivisible in supply" and "most are territorial." He argues that a "simplistic form of 'privatization' where resources are simply parceled out to individual owners" is not always preferable to "variations of cooperative or shared ownership." Similarly, Ostrom (1990, pp. 12-18) criticizes those who believe the only way to solve the tragedy of the commons is by dividing a meadow into separately owned parcels. Fortunately, the essence of classical liberalism is not atomic individualism, but consent and freedom of contract (Pennington 2011, p. 235). Libertarians should not be averse to hierarchical and bureaucratic governance as long as it acquires its authority by a legitimate process that rests on the authentic consent of the governed.

    This paper argues that not every collective good can always be provided by firms that compete within a territory to serve individual paying customers. It may be necessary for private firms to provide a variety of bundled goods with a monopoly within a restricted territory. In other words, it may be more feasible to privatize some public goods as territorial club goods (cf. Buchanan 1965) rather than as purely private goods. These territorial club goods will be nonrivalrous in two different ways: first, consumption will be joint rather than separable, being equal for everyone within the territory. Second, there will not be rivalrous competition within the community but only among separate communities (Pennington 2011, pp. 233-35). These territorial clubs are able to internalize spatial externalities that impose jointness of consumption on all their residents (Foldvary 1994). For example, it would not be easy for a landlord to sell "quiet" to individual residents, but he will tend to set a noise policy for all his tenants in order to maximize his net revenue. (1)

    What distinguishes these firm-like private communities from typical governments, however, is that they acquire their property and authority by a legitimate process that rests on consent. Moreover, their governance tends to be structured in a way that promotes residual claimancy and incentive alignment, benefiting their residents. Libertarians should endorse what Spencer Heath MacCallum (1970) calls "the art of community." The essence of liberty is not competition within a territory, but consent--even consent to a hierarchical governing authority.

    This paper is organized as follows: section 2 illustrates the advantages of proprietary governance using the simple examples of roads and police. I show that the importance of proprietary governance is not always appreciated or sufficiently emphasized (cf. Makovi 2017). This discourse motivates our more abstract, theoretical discussion in section 3, showing how and why proprietary governance is an effective means of solving collective action problems in general. Section 4 closes with two examples of collective action problems that proprietary governance could possibly resolve in interesting ways, namely improving women's rights in societies where women are legally disadvantaged, and prosecuting sexual assault on educational campuses. I conclude that libertarians should not fail to consider hierarchical, bureaucratic means of solving collective action problems, as long as their governing authorities are private and rule with consent.

  2. Two Simple Cases: Roads and Police

    In The Machinery of Freedom, David D. Friedman ([1973] 2014, pp. 70-72) advocates "sell[ing] the streets," that is, "transferring the present system of governmentally owned streets and highways to private hands." He argues that gas taxes inefficiently charge drivers the same price regardless of the time of day, leading to rush hour congestion. Charging tolls would encourage drivers to change their working hours, use alternative forms of transportation, and even relocate. Friedman notes that modern electronic transponders would minimize the transaction costs of charging tolls, as cars would not need to slow down or stop at toll booths. However, Friedman barely suggests bundling roads with any other services, merely saying, "the difficulties [with privatizing roads] are much less for newly created communities, some of which are already being set up with private road systems." Except for that brief remark, Friedman's argument concentrates on toll roads, which are apparently provided as an independent good, not bundled with anything else. (2)

    By contrast, in For a New Liberty, Murray N. Rothbard ([1973] 2006, pp. 249-65) elaborates at great length concerning how road services might be bundled with other services. In fact, Rothbard discusses such bundling before he ever mentions charging tolls. Although the chapter is titled, "The Public Sector, II: Streets and Roads," Rothbard almost immediately opens with the case of police protection (p. 249). He argues that if Times Square were owned by the "Times Square Merchants Association," the association would have an economic interest in providing general police protection for all its customers (p. 250). A merchant association would minimize police brutality and guarantee the safety of its customers for the same reason a landlord provides his tenants with air conditioning and hot water (p. 251): because safety and amenities are capitalized in property values. Still ostensibly discussing the privatization of streets, Rothbard argues that black property owners could hire private security and "end police brutality against customers ... and end the current spectacle of police being considered by many communities as alien 'imperial' colonizers, there not to serve but to oppress the community" (p. 253). Rothbard notes that private stores already provide themselves with their own security guards. He suggests that privatizing roads would "simply extend this healthy and functioning [private police] system to the streets as well" (p. 253). Rothbard is not speaking of traffic enforcement alone. He is saying that roads would be bundled with general police services of all kinds, including antitheft services to protect the homeowners and merchants along the road. (4)

    Rothbard also considers the problem of local streets to a greater extent than other authors, who sometimes concentrate on limited-access toll roads. Rothbard asks whether a private street owner could decide to block access or charge an extortionate fee (p. 252). He replies that purchase or lease contracts would specify long-term easements. (5) In other words, a private constitution of sorts would prohibit opportunistic behavior.

    Only after ten pages of discussing police, discrimination, diversity, and local streets does Rothbard finally begin to discuss the limited-access toll roads that most other scholars focus on (pp. 258ff.). He notes--as Friedman does--that gas taxes are ineffective at alleviating congestion (p. 259). Charging tolls would encourage drivers to change their schedules and take alternative forms of transportation (p. 261). Modern technology eliminates the need for inconvenient toll booths (pp. 262-63).

    However, Robert C. Ellickson (2017, p. 376)--a self-described Hayekian--criticizes both Rothbard and Friedman, whom Ellickson says

    imagine a world in which individuals would govern their interpersonal interactions entirely by means of consensual contracts. These contracts would be enforced not by governments, but by competing private protective associations with whom individuals would have voluntarily contracted. These associations would employ arbitration to reconcile differences between, for example, the private firms that would own various roads. This is not an entirely accurate characterization of Rothbard who--as we have seen--suggested that roads may be supplied by associations that bundle real estate, police, and roads together. However, Ellickson's description does apply to Friedman, who argues that every individual would have a contract with a private security firm. Conflicts among security firms would tend to be resolved by mutual arbitration because these firms would recognize that violence is wasteful (Friedman [1973] 2014, pp. 110-16). And there are other anarchists who occasionally satisfy Ellickson's description. For example, Leeson (2011, p. 307) claims that "every supposedly non-excludable governance good is in fact excludable," and he argues (2011, p. 302) that a wide variety of "disarmament contracts" or "full-time police protection" may be offered to individuals. Like Friedman, Leeson imagines dedicated firms who sell security and police on a nonterritorial basis to individuals. Therefore, Ellickson's criticism is worth paying attention to, regardless of its target.

    Ellickson (2017, p. 378) complains that anarcho-capitalism has an "unrealistic sense of the transaction costs" entailed by "overlapping private associations" with "competition among rival protective associations within a given territory." Ellickson (p. 387) approvingly cites Milton Friedman, who argues that toll collection would be feasible for limited-access highways but not for the streets around Times Square. Ellickson concludes that local roads must remain under government management. He assumes that since tolls cannot be collected, the road cannot be privatized. Of course, electronic tolls--as suggested by both Rothbard and David Friedman--may reduce the transaction costs to nearly zero. But let us grant Ellickson's...

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