Privatizing government, in the interim.

AuthorBlock, Walter
  1. Introduction

    How shall the libertarian deal with government services, while they are still in operation, before full privatization? This question makes a strong assumption: that one day, government services will indeed be privatized, (1) and our society will arrive at a sort of free market nirvana in which all sales, rentals, loans, and other transactions will take place between private parties. Given that this change is not likely to occur anytime soon, why should we even bother ourselves with speculations regarding a situation that might never occur, and, if it does, will be in the far future? One reason is the pure pleasure of applying libertarian theory to a vexing problem: what to do in the meantime. How shall we treat this aspect of the marketplace while holding true to our principles? Another reason is that if we have a plan, now, for how to deal with this eventuality, even if it only takes place in the far future, we might reduce the time it takes for this to occur. A third reason is that there are examples of deregulation all around us, (2) and it would be good to adopt the Boy Scout motto, "Be prepared," for the next eventuality in this regard.

    Section 2 asks how Rothbard responds to this challenge. Section 3 wades into the deep waters of deontological libertarianism. Section 4 wrestles with the question, should we be button pushers in the hard cases? Section 5 concludes.

    How does Rothbard (1995) respond to this challenge? (3) In his view, we should divide the targets of privatization into two classes and treat them very differently. In the first category are institutions that are evil per se; they would not exist at all in the fully free society. Examples include military units abroad, central banking, torture chambers, jails that house victimless criminals, concentration camps, the alphabet soup of regulatory agencies, (4) and so on. With regard to these, the desiderata should be not efficiency, but rather its exact opposite, inefficiency. We do not want evil pursued effectively. Given that these enterprises must be undertaken, by stipulation, at least for the present, the libertarian goal would be to have them function as ineffectively as possible, so that the least harm is perpetrated on innocent people. Rothbard states in this regard:

    It is important to divide government operations into two parts: (a) where government is trying, albeit in a highly inefficient and botched manner, to provide private consumers and producers with goods and services; and (b) where government is being directly coercive against private citizens, and therefore being counter-productive. Both sets of operations are financed by the coercive taxing power, but at least Group A is providing desired services, whereas Group B is directly pernicious. On the activities in Group B, what we want is not privatization but abolition. Do we really want regulatory commissions and the enforcement of blue laws privatized? Do we want the activities of the taxmen conducted by a really efficient private corporation? Certainly not. Short of abolition, and working always toward reducing their budgets as much as we can, we want these outfits to be as inefficient as possible. It would be best for the public weal if all that the bureaucrats infesting the Federal Reserve, the SEC, etc. ever did in their working lives was to play tiddlywinks and watch color TV. The second class of government institutions are those that provide goods and services that would also be produced in the free society, such as schools, roads, mail delivery, (5) museums, parks, and opera halls. These, too, should be fully privatized to make them more efficient and compatible with the nonaggression principle of libertarianism (Rothbard 1978). But, suppose they cannot for some reason be returned to the rubric of laissez-faire capitalism (Meyer 2015). Or, suppose they can be, but only after a few or many more years. How shall libertarians view them in the interim? Shall we urge them, help them, support them, so that they can become more efficient? Or should we undermine them, since they are not, even now, compatible with the fully free society? Rothbard favors the former. As long as we must suffer under their inept operation, we should at least grin and bear them. Suggesting that they become less efficient, or actively working toward that end, would only make things worse for the innocent people forced to rely on their services during the period before privatization. Thus, for example, it should remain a crime for anyone to "liberate" a book from a public library.

    This author writes as follows:

    What should be done in the meantime? There are two possible theories. One, which is now predominant in our courts and among left-liberalism, and has been adopted by some libertarians, is that so long as any activity is public, the squalor must be maximized. For some murky reason, a public operation must be run as a slum and not in any way like a business, minimizing service to consumers on behalf of the unsupported "right" of "equal access" of everyone to those facilities. Among liberals and socialists, laissez-faire capitalism 5 5 is routinely denounced as the "law of the jungle." But this "equal-access" view deliberately brings the rule of the jungle into every area of government activity, thereby destroying the very purpose of the activity itself. For example: the government, owner of the public schools, does not have the regular right of any private school owner to kick out incorrigible students, to keep order in the class, or to teach what parents want to be taught.

    The government, in contrast to any private street or neighborhood owner, has no right to prevent bums from living on and soiling the street and harassing and threatening innocent citizens; instead, the bums have the right to free "speech" and a much broader term, free "expression," which they of course would not have in a truly private street, mall, or shopping center. Similarly, in a recent case in New Jersey, the court ruled that public libraries did not have the right to expel bums who were living in the library, were clearly not using the library for scholarly purposes, and were driving innocent citizens away by their stench and their lewd behavior. (Rothbard 1995)

    In this vein, we should not demand of public universities that they cease and desist from their rank discrimination against stupid people by imposing entrance requirements based upon ACT or SAT scores. These exams are similar to IQ tests, and vitiate against those applicants located at the lower end of the bell curve. But...

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