By Ernest Partridge, The
In colonial Philadelphia, firefighters were employed by
private insurance companies which, of course, had financial
incentives to minimize damage to their clients' properties.
Plaques with the insurance company's insignia were placed
on buildings, so that the fire fighters would know whether
or not it was their business to put out the fires on the premises.
(These plaques are often found today in antique shops). If
the wrong plaque was on the building, well, that was just
tough luck. Of course, with their attention confined to a
single building, fire fighters were ill-disposed to prevent
a spreading of the fire to adjacent non-client structures.
Occasionally, when the building's insurance affiliation
was in some doubt, competing fire companies would fight each
other for the privilege of putting out the fire, resulting
in more water aimed at fire fighters than at burning buildings.
Eventually, the absurdity and outright danger of this system
led one prominent Philadelphia citizen to come up with the
idea of a publicly funded and administered fire department.
His name was Benjamin Franklin: America's first anti-free-enterprise
commie pinko nut-case.
Franklin's subversive left-wing ideas were extended to include
libraries, post offices, and public schools, and, if we are
to believe some of today's self-described "conservatives,"
1] it's been downhill ever since.
These conservatives contend that virtually all economic
and social institutions are better managed when privatized
and unregulated. According to this libertarian theory, the
greed (i.e., profit motive) of investing private individuals
is, in virtually all cases, mystically transformed into the
optimum public good. The exceptions are the police, the military,
the courts and the legislatures which, they concede, are properly
confined to the public sector [Note
However, today even these exceptions are succumbing to creeping
privatization, as the hyphen in military-industrial complex
erodes, as members of Congress are clearly more beholden to
their corporate sponsors ("contributors") than to their constituents,
and as conservative judges routinely rule that corporate property
rights trump personal injury suits and civil liberties. Critics
such as William
Greider charge that the Bush Administration and the Republican
Congress wish to take America back to the days of William
McKinley. It appears that they have miscalculated by more
than a century. Instead, it seems that the right-wing ideologues
in charge of our government want to take us back to the days
before Benjamin Franklin. (As an added bonus, this would be
before the American Revolution, and those troublesome documents,
the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the
Bill of Rights.) So now that Ben Franklin's socialist dispositions
have come to light, surely Tom Delay will propose that William
McKinley's image replace that of Franklin on the $50 bill.
But is it just possible that old Ben Franklin had a point?
Are we not all better off now that the fire department doesn't
first look for the insurance medallion on our homes before
they turn on the hoses? Isn't the function of the military
to defend the country - all of us, rich and poor, male and
female, white and "other" - from foreign enemies, rather than
enrich the industries that supply the armed forces? And shouldn't
the members of Congress represent the public at large, and
not the private corporations and individuals that finance
The issue turns on the question of whether or not there
are such things as "public goods" - in fact, on whether there
is such a thing as a "public" (or society) at all. Dame Margaret
Thatcher, Ronnie Reagan's favorite Brit, apparently didn't
think so when she famously wrote "There is no such thing as
society, there are only individuals and families." (Thatcher)
As noted above, fire protection is clearly a public good,
since fires are without conscience and completely oblivious
to the concept of property or property boundaries.
As further evidence of the existence of public goods and
(contra Thatcher) society, consider a parable.
Two communities are situated on opposite banks of a great
river: on the right bank is "Randville," and on the left bank
is "Rawlsburg." Randville is populated entirely by libertarians
- rugged individualists all, who shun collective activity
and who assume full responsibility for their personal safety,
welfare and property. Rawlsburg is comprised of individuals
who are properly covetous of their personal rights, yet fully
aware of the desirability of promoting public goods and of
acting collectively in the face of common emergencies.
News arrives at both communities from (gulp!) a government
bureau, that a great flood is approaching from upstream. The
citizens of Randville immediately get to work piling sandbags
around each of their individual dwellings. Across the river
in Rawlsburg, brigades of citizens are hard at work building
a levee around the entire town.
Come the flood, the puny separate efforts of the rugged
Randville individualists prove to be futile, while the substantial
communal levee surrounding Rawlsburg holds firm and the community
"Now hold on!," the libertarian retorts. "Surely, faced
with this common emergency, the folks at Randville would volunteer
to build a levee. That's just common sense."
Very well, but what about those Randvillians who say: "you
guys go right ahead and build that levee. I'd rather stay
at home - I have other priorities." Surely the good libertarians
wouldn't want to force anyone to contribute to the
And so we have the well-known "free rider problem," whereby
an individual gains unearned and cost-free advantage from
the labor of others. A profound injustice on the face of it.
The solution? What else than to coerce a contribution to the
common effort, either by labor or, failing that, cash assessments.
In other words, taxes.
So it comes to this: The only way for the Randvillians to
deal with the free riders is to coerce labor on the levees,
or assess taxes in lieu of labor. They must do so in behalf
(are you ready for this?) of the "common good" of the community-as-a-whole.
Just as the Rawlsburgers are doing across the river.
The free rider problem exemplifies a larger conundrum, well-known
to political philosophers back to Aristotle (and presumably
beyond): the tragedy of the commons - famously reiterated
by Garrett Hardin. Here is how the tragedy plays out: in numerous
cases, an aggregate of individuals who rationally seek advantage
for themselves, bring ruin upon all. Hardin's example was
of an overstocked pasture, the productivity of which is destroyed
as each private farmer attempts to increase his personal wealth
by adding livestock to the pasture. Substitute the common
atmosphere, or fish stocks in the common ocean, and you have
a similar situation. Or consider antibiotics. The overuse
thereof is commonly known to decrease their potency. Yet it
is clearly to my advantage to take antibiotics for even a
trivial bronchial infection - good for me, but minimally bad
for everyone else who takes antibiotics. Multiply the separate
personal advantages by millions, and eventually the antibiotic
becomes effectively useless to all.
Put simply, good for each, bad for all (e.g., antibiotics)
. And conversely, bad for each, good for all (e.g.,
Hardin's solution (along with Aristotle, Hobbes, Rawls,
and many others) is "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon."
In other words, government. And if we must have government,
then by all means let it be a democratic government, under
rule of law, and protective of the rights of all citizens.
The sort of thing that our founding fathers had in mind when
they ratified the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
To the contrary, the libertarian doctrine behind the radical
right-wing declares that government is the enemy - that the
free market and the self-interested use of private property
will, via Adam Smith's"invisible hand, invariably result in
the best result for society at large. Good for each, good
for all; bad for each, bad for all.
The absurdity of uncompromising privatism and market absolutism
is on full display when applied to environmental policy. The
libertarian Robert J. Smith writes:
"The problems of environmental degradation, pollution,
overexploitation of natural resources, and depletion of wildlife
all derive from their being treated as common property
resources. Whenever we find an approach to the extension
of private property rights in these areas, we find superior
results." (R. Smith, 42-3, my emphasis)
It thus follows that I own, not only my property, but also the
atmosphere above it and the ground below it. Can I then prohibit
fly-overs by aircraft? Can I sue if the inflow to the aquifer
beneath me is contaminated? Who, then? Are the "owners" of the
insects that pollinate my orchards entitled to charge me for
the service? The mind boggles. And it gets even worse (as I
elaborate in Section III of my "With
Liberty for Some" ).
The privatization regime being imposed by the Bush administration
is inherently unstable, unequal, and eventually oppressive.
Wealth and power act in behalf of and enhance wealth and power,
ever loosening the constraint of checks and balances, as it
proceeds to absorb government and make it an instrument in
behalf of wealth and power. The statistics tell it all: today,
the average CEO of a Fortune 500 company earns in half a day,
what his median worker earns in a year (a ratio of 500 to
1). Twenty years ago, the ratio was 40 to 1. Today, one percent
of the US households own almost 40% of the nation's wealth
- twice that of the 1970s. (United
for a Fair Economy). With the coming abolition of taxes
on estates, dividends and capital gains, that inequality can
only accelerate, as Leona Helmsley's maxim - "taxes are for
the little people" - achieves full fruition.
Furthermore, the privatizers' celebration of "competitive
enterprise" is essentially hypocritical. Capitalists hate
competition, as they relentless strive to build monopolies
and crush their competitors. All that stands in their way
are anti-trust laws and the courts - which is to say, government.
But let us stop well short of the deep end. Privatization
and free enterprise, constrained by popular government, are
fine ideals, the applications of which have undoubtedly yielded
great benefits to mankind. Moreover, government regulation
can often be excessive and a damned nuisance to the private
entrepreneur. Private enterprise should surely count for something.
But not for everything. Adam Smith was right: the invisible
hand of the market place can, without plan or intention, "promote
... the public interest." But we put ourselves in great peril
if we fail to acknowledge the back of the invisible hand -
the tragedy of the commons - whereby the unregulated pursuit
of self interest by the wealthy and powerful becomes parasitic
upon, and eventually destroys, the well-ordered society of
just laws, common consent, and an abundance of skilled and
educated workers who produce and secure that wealth.
Both the radical anarchism of the Busheviks and the communism
of Lenin and Stalin share the attribute of uncompromising
dogmatism: in both cases, these are doctrines which are assumed,
apart from experience and common sense, to apply to the real
world, fully formed and fully ready to be imposed upon that
reality. These are dogmas for which pragmatism and corrective
feedback have no part. Both libertarianism and communism err
in proposing extreme, simplistic and doctrinaire prescriptions
for conditions that are necessarily complex: communism by
condemning all property, and libertarians by condemning all
public governmental functions, other than that of the "watchmen"
(police and military) and the courts. (Cf. "Two
Lessons from Russia").
The complex arena of human economic and social behavior
has no place for such simplistic dogmas. Throughout our illustrious
and prosperous history, the United States has developed a
society and an economy that is a splendid mix of private enterprise,
civic association and public service. We have learned how
to progress through the trials, errors and successes of countless
policy experiments, all leading to refinements and compromises
amongst competing parties and interests, with the excesses
of both government and private interests constrained by the
rule of law and finely honed checks and balances.
Now all that is about to be thrown away. The Bush administration
has no use for these complexities, caveats and constraints.
They are comfortable in their assurance that they already
have all the answers. All that remains is for them to serve
their sponsors, and, as GOP activist Grover Norquist crudely
puts it, drown the beast (namely our constitutional republic)
in the bathtub.
With that demise we will see the end of Social Security,
Medicare, Head Start, the Environmental Protection Agency,
to just begin a recitation of a very long list. Vouchers will
drain support and funding from the public schools, and the
crippled social services will be forced to attach themselves
to religious organizations in order to qualify for faith-based
funding. The privatized replacement for the current government
social services - the insurance companies, the HMOs, the private
schools, etc. - will, of course, have as their prime objectives,
the enrichment of their stockholders and corporate officers,
rather than service to the public. And oversight and reform
of these private institutions will be out of reach of political
institutions: elections, legislatures, and the courts.
This will be a very different country, virtually unimaginable
to most American citizens today, but familiar to those who
are acquainted with third world kleptocracies in Central America,
Africa and Asia.
This will be a country that the public at large will not
want. But when, to their great regret and sorrow ,they discover
this, it will be too late to turn back.
The founders of our republic, let us never forget, recognized
the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness (rather than simple "property").. Furthermore, they
acknowledged that "to secure these rights, governments are
instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the
consent of the governed." And among the six functions of government
enumerated in the Preamble to our Constitution are, "to insure
domestic tranquility" and "to promote the general welfare."
This government - our government - is what the Bush and
his supporters wish to drown in a bathtub. They desire this,
firm in the conviction that a disconnected aggregate of self-serving
private individuals, in absolute control of their private
property, will serve us better.
Are you willing to allow these radical anarchists to try
out this bold experiment on the rest of us?
If not, what do you propose to do about it?
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer
in the field s of Environmental Ethics and Moral philosophy.
He publishes the website, The
Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website The
NOTES and REFERENCES
Simply put, those who call themselves "conservatives" aren't.
They are in fact radical anarchists. Authentic conservatives,
revere our founding documents (e.g., the Bill of Rights) and
respect the rule of law. (See my "Conscience
of a Conservative" )
The (self-described) "conservatives" thus exemplify the core
libertarian doctrine that the only legitimate function of
government is to protect the fundamental human rights to life,
liberty, and property. Hence, the only legitimate institutions
of government are the military, the police, and the courts.
(Bayes, Hospers) Right wing "conservatives" thus agree with
libertarian economic dogma. They disagree on matters of personal
conduct such as drug use, gay rights and abortion. The right
wing would "take government off our backs and put it in our
bedrooms," while the libertarians would keep government both
off our backs and out of our bedrooms. (For my extended critique
of libertarianism, see "With
Liberty for Some" . For my critique of "free market absolutism,
New Alchemy" and follow the links).
W. Bayes, What is Property?, The Freeman, July 1970, p. 348.
Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons", Science, 162:
1243 (13 De. 1968).
Hospers,. "What Libertarianism Is", The Libertarian
Alternative, (ed.) Tibor R. Machan, New York: Nelson Hall.
J. Smith, "Privatizing the Environment," Policy Review,
Spring, 1982, p. 11.
Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, Harper Collins,
London. P. 626.