This morning brings news of new plans by Britain’s Tory/LibDem coalition, this time to privatize parts of the road network. Presented (again) merely as a way of getting things working more efficiently, this is both part of a pattern and – the philosophical point here – a further reduction in the liberty of individuals. The pattern is a gradual shift of resources that used to be common in to the private or quasi-private sector. Not long ago, higher education was free: now it is not. Fairly large amounts of formerly public space in cities are now in the hands of private developers who employ security guards to enforce their rules on what can be done on their land. Government plans to privatize publicly-owned forest and woodland have been defeated, but for how long? The “reforms” of Britain’s National Health Service allow for new charges to be brought in for treatments and services deemed “non-essential” (although NHS trusts are already denying treatment for some conditions that used to be treated for free). Generally, there’s a shift from formerly taxpayer-funded services towards privatized ones that users have to pay for.
No doubt our “libertarian” friends approve of this shift, but those who don’t have an ideologically distorted view of liberty should be alarmed. First, the extension of chargeable private space means that the range of actions permitted to individuals who lack money is reduced. Lack of money reduces your purely negative freedom, as anyone who tries to perform actions encroaching on the state-enforced private property of others will quickly discover. Second—and this point should hold even for those silly enough to reject the view that private property restricts the freedom of those who have less of it—the increase in privatized public space means that we are increasingly subject to the arbitrary will of private owners concerning what we can and can’t do. Rights of assembly? Rights of protest? Rights to do things as innocuous as take a photograph? All of those things are now restricted or prohibited on formerly public land across the United Kingdom or subject to the permission of the new private owner. The interest of those who endorse a republican conception of freedom is thereby engaged, as is those of liberal persuasion who think a list of basic liberties should be protected: less public space, less capacity to exercise those basic liberties. The proposed privatization of the roads is just an extension of this.
(The Liberal Democrats as part of the Tory-led coalition bear a particularly heavy responsibility for failing to prevent these changes for which the UK government has no democratic mandate. With luck they will be destroyed at the next election, as they deserve to be. Let no-one forget, though, how far the last Labour government took us down this path and legitimized these changes through measures like student fees and the Private Finance Initiative.)
fn1. For an argument to this effect and a demolition of the idea that lack of money confers lack of ability rather than unfreedom, see G.A. Cohen, Freedom and Money (PDF)