Left libertarians, like all libertarians, believe that all State control of industry and all State ownership of natural resources should be abolished. In that sense, libertarian Leftists advocate complete and absolute privatization of, well, everything. Governments, or quasi-governmental
public monopolies, have no business building or running roads, bridges, railroads, airports, parks, housing, libraries, post offices, television stations, electric lines, power plants, water works, oil rigs, gas pipelines, or anything else of the sort. (Those of us who are anarchists add that governments have no business building or running fire departments, police stations, courts, armies, or anything else of the sort, because governments — which are necessarily coercive and necessarily elitist — have no business existing or doing anything at all.)
It’s hard enough to sell this idea to our fellow Leftists, just on the merits. State Leftists have a long-standing and healthy skepticism towards the more utopian claims that are sometimes made about how businesses might act on the free market; meanwhile, they have a long-standing and very unhealthy naïveté towards the utopian claims that are often made on behalf of government bureaucracies under an electoral form of government. But setting the substantive issues aside, there’s another major roadblock for us to confront, just from the use of language.
There is something called
privatization which has been a hot topic in Leftist circles for the past 15-20 years. It has been a big deal in Eastern Europe, in third world countries under the influence of the IMF, and in some cases in the United States, too. Naomi Klein has a new book on the topic, which has attracted some notice. Klein’s book focuses on the role that natural and artificial crises play in establishing the conditions for what she calls
privatization, as understood by the IMF, the neoliberal governments, and the robber baron corporations, is a very different beast from
privatization as understood by free market radicals. What consistent libertarians advocate is the devolution of all wealth to the people who created it, and the reconstruction of all industry on the principle of free association and voluntary mutual exchange. But the IMF and Naomi Klein both seem to agree on the idea that
reforms like the following:
Tax-funded government contracts to corporations like Blackwater or DynCorp for private mercenaries to fight government wars. This has become increasingly popular as a way for the U.S. to wage small and large wars over the past 15 years; I think it was largely pioneered through the U.S. government’s efforts to suppress international free trade in unauthorized drugs, and is currently heavily used by the U.S. in Colombia, the Balkans, and Iraq.
Tax-funded government contracts to corporations like Wackenhut for government-funded but privately managed prisons, police forces, firefighters, etc. This has also become increasingly popular in the U.S. over the past 15 years; in the case of prisons, at least, it was largely inspired by the increasing number of people imprisoned by the U.S. government for using unauthorized drugs or selling them to willing customers.
Government auctions or sweetheart contracts in which nationalized monopoly firms — oil companies, water works, power companies, and the like — are sold off to corporations, with the profits going into the State treasury, and usually with some form of legally-enforced monopoly left intact after
privatization. One of the most notorious cases is the cannibalistic bonanza that Boris Yeltsin and a select class of politically-connected
Oligarchs helped themselves to after the implosion of Soviet Communism. Throughout the third world, similar auction or contract schemes are suggested or demanded as a condition for the national government to receive a line of tax-funded credit from the member states of the International Monetary Fund.
Yet Another Damn Account schemes for converting government pension systems from a welfare model to a forced savings model, in which workers are forced to put part of their paycheck into a special, government-created retirement account, where it can be invested according to government-crafted formulas in one of a limited number of government-approved investment vehicles offered by a tightly regulated cartel of government-approved uncompetitive investment brokers. This kind of government retirement plan is supposedly the centerpiece of
privatization in Pinochet’s Chile, and has repeatedly been advocated by George W. Bush and other Republican politicians in the United States.
Klein and other state Leftists very claim that these government
privatization schemes are closely associated with Right-wing authoritarian repression, up to and including secret police, death squads, and beating, torturing, or
disappearing innocent people for exercising their rights of free speech or free association in labor unions or dissident groups.
And they are right. Those police state tactics aren’t compatible with any kind of free market, but then, neither are any of the government auctions, government contracting, government loans, and government regulatory schemes that Klein and her comrades present as examples of
privatization. They are examples of government-backed corporate kleptocracy. The problem is that the oligarchs, the robber barons, and their hirelings dishonestly present these schemes — one and all of them involving massive government intervention and government plunder from ordinary working people — as if they were
free market reforms. And Klein and her comrades usually believe them; the worst sorts of robber baron state capitalism are routinely presented as if they were arguments against the free market, even though pervasive government monopoly, government regulation, government confiscation, government contracting, and government finance have nothing even remotely to do with free markets.
I’d like to suggest that this confusion needs to be exposed, and combated. In order to combat it, we may very well need to mint some new language. As far as I know,
privatization was coined by analogy with
nationalization was the seizure of industry or resources by government, then
privatization was the reversal of that process, devolving the industry or the resources into private hands. It is clear that the kind of government outsourcing and kleptocratic monopolies that Klein et al condemn don’t match up very well with the term. On the other hand, the term has been abused and perverted so long that it may not be very useful to us anymore, either.
So here’s my proposal for linguistic reform. What we advocate is the devolution of state-confiscated wealth and state-confiscated industries back to civil society. In some cases, that might mean transferring an industry or a resource to private proprietorship (if, for example, you can find the person or the people from whom a nationalized factory was originally seized, the just thing to do would be to turn the factory back over to them). But in most cases, it could just as easily mean any number of other ways to devolve property back to the people:
Some resources should be ceded to the joint ownership of those who habitually use them. For example, who should own your neighborhood streets? Answer: you and your neighbors should own the streets that you live on. For the government to seize your tax money and your land and use it to build neighborhood roads, and then to sell them out from under you to some unrelated third party who doesn’t live on them, doesn’t habitually use them, etc., would be theft.
Government industries and lands where an original private owner cannot be found could, and probably should, be devolved to the co-operative ownership of the people who work in them or on them. The factories to the workers; the soil to those who till it.
Some universally-used utilities (water works, regional power companies, perhaps highways) which were created by tax money might be ceded to the joint ownership of all the citizens of the area they serve. (This is somewhat similar to the Czechoslovakian model of privatization, in which government industries were converted into joint-stock companies, and every citizen was given so many shares.)
Some resources (many parks, perhaps) might be ceded to the unorganized public — that is, they would become public property in Roderick’s sense, rather than in the sense of government control.
Now, given the diversity of cases, and all of the different ways in which government might justly devolve property from State control to civil society,
privatization is really too limiting a term. So instead let’s call what we want the
socialization of the means of production.
As for the IMF / Blackwater model of
privatization, again, the word doesn’t fit the situation very well, and we need something new in order to help mark the distinction. Whereas what we want could rightly be called
socialization, I think that the government outsourcing, government-backed monopoly capitalism, and government goon squads, might more accurately be described as
I’m just sayin’.
Update 2007-11-08: Minor revisions for typo fixes, clarity, and to add a link I forgot to add.