The Public/Private Problem
By Duncan Whitmore
For much of the history of classical liberalism and libertarianism, the primary battleground for freedom has been the economic arena. This is not difficult to understand given that the rise of Marxism and socialism towards the end of the nineteenth century (spawning the tyrannies of the twentieth) came on the back of economic promises: of freeing the workers from the supposed exploitation of the profit system, and imposing central control over industry for the benefit of “everyone”. This, in turn, focussed specific attention upon whether the means of production should be owned either privately or by the state, and which of these two options could furnish the highest standard of living.
As a result of this binary division, it became easy enough to regard capitalists, entrepreneurs, businesses, corporations and privatisations – i.e. anywhere where there is nominal private ownership over producer goods – as being automatically “good” on account of their efficiency, resourcefulness, competitiveness and affordability. On the other hand, anything that was state owned and/or state managed was afflicted by inefficiency, waste, and corruption, and so could be denigrated as “bad” without further question.
Of course, such a rule of thumb was validated empirically not only as the “capitalist” West had outshone the “communist” East by the end of the Cold War, but also within the UK as nationalised industries (such as the railways, steel manufacturing and coal mining) were run into the ground, while private businesses (such as supermarkets) flourished. Needless to say, the rule also reflects our understanding of just rights of ownership – that private ownership (as the result of either homesteading or voluntary exchange) is fully in accordance with the non-aggression principle and is therefore “good”, whereas state confiscation of previously owned goods is an egregious breach of that principle, and is therefore “bad”.Continue reading