Six Shooters and Bullet Trains: High Speed Rail in Texas

California might have some competition in the race for high-speed rail.

Texas Central Railway wants to begin construction on a high-speed line from Dallas to Houston as early as 2017. The current plan is to go from downtown to downtown, with possibly one stop along the way in College Station. An environmental impact assessment is under way and the hope is to be operational by 2021.

Vancouver's driverless Sky Train

Vancouver’s driverless Sky Train

The company claims that the price per ticket will be competitive with airfare and that the run will take a mere 90 minutes. To give that some context, current travel time from Houston to Dallas by car is about 3.5 hours according to Google (but closer to 4.5 according to my prior experience).

While there’s a lot to be skeptical about here, the impact of connecting the nation’s 4th and 6th largest urban economies could be significant. If a high-speed line does get built and if it does manage to deliver on its specs (two major “ifs” already), it would be the equivalent of a magic portal…or a stargate…or a warp pipe…or a tesseract…or…well…the point being it would make the two places functionally much closer together, and that’s a big deal.

Cities become economically vibrant through agglomeration. Bringing people closer together lowers search costs for both employers and employees. It also increases the likelihood of “creative collisions”. What high-speed rail could do is combine the benefits of agglomeration that each of these two cities already enjoy.

And, as early in the day as it is, there’s already speculation that a line connecting Dallas and Houston would be a precursor to additional lines connecting all four of the state’s pillars of civilization: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. The unbridled optimist in me imagines high-speed rail as the embryonic bones of a future mega-city encompassing the entire Texas Triangle.

…but…I’m still skeptical.

Texas Central Railway is backed by private investors. It claims it can pull off the project without resorting to either government subsidies or land development. This means total reliance on fares to cover operational costs as well as recoup capital investment. To my knowledge, no mass transit system in the U.S. covers operational costs on fares, let alone operational and capital costs combined.

That said, it’s a cool project and I’d love to see my home state get a little more diverse in terms of transportation infrastructure, especially if it’s being paid for out of private pockets. And hopefully, if there’s a bait and switch, it’ll turn into a land play rather than politicking for subsidies. Combining transit and land development works pretty well in Hong Kong, so I wouldn’t mind seeing the same approach tried back home.

Book Review: Perverse Cities by Pamela Blais

In her new book Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban SprawlPamela Blais explores the impact of flat-rate fees for development charges and network services like sewer, water, and cable. She explains in detail how these little-discussed policies play an important role in shaping development and redevelopment and how the current funding of these network goods incentivizes large lot, greenfield development over infill development on smaller lots.

Blais focuses her analysis on Canada and the United States. Development charges provide an easy inroad into her critique of average cost over marginal cost pricing for infrastructure. Many North American municipalities charge developers a flat-rate fee for each lot they develop. They often set this fee at the rate for lots of varying sizes, even though larger lots require more asphalt, sewer and water pipes, and cable to service them. While the cost differences may be small between one 25-foot versus one 60-foot lot, infrastructure for a new suburb of 100 houses will cost significantly more if the houses have 60-feet of frontage versus 25, but because these costs aren’t reflected in prices, residents don’t take them into account. Because the same development fee will be capitalized into each house, those who live on smaller lots cross-subsidize the services like road maintenance, garbage collection, and snow clearance of those who live on larger lots when these services are provided by local governments.

Blais provides detailed accounts of how these fees shape development patterns and that the resulting sprawling development is both environmentally detrimental and expensive for cities to maintain. She points to several network services that fit a model similar to development charges: water and sewer, electricity, gas, telephone, cable television, internet connectivity, and postal service. While she cites extensive empirical evidence that the cost of delivering these services is inversely related to population density, local and federal governments tend to charge flat rate fees for these services per lot, creating a situation in those who live on small lots provide substantial subsidies to those living on larger lots.

Blais advocates a model in which user fees are set as closely as possible to the actual costs that each household imposes on its municipality, which would significantly improve incentives compared to the current system. She doesn’t discuss subsidies that run the other way, though, benefiting residents in center cities at the expense of those on the fringe. For example, residents in center cities may live near a subway station and use it frequently. Train systems are typically subsidized by the taxes of suburban residents of the same city who may rarely use the train system, and capital costs of transit systems are often paid for by federal taxpayers who receive little if any benefit from transit systems. Blais sees setting user fees close to actual costs as a tool to encourage more compact development, so she selects only examples in which city-dwellers cross-subsidize those in the suburbs rather than the other way around.

While I think Blais provides a clear and detailed account of the side effects from funding network services with fees set at average costs, my primary critique of her work centers on her use of the word “efficiency.” First, she uses the word in the sense that economists call pricing “efficient” when the price of a good is equal to the marginal cost to suppliers of providing that unit. But she also uses “efficient” to describe dense development. While denser development is more efficient in the sense that it uses less land, Blais doesn’t make clear that sprawling development can be efficient in the economic sense if people are willing to pay the full costs of this type of development. Blais seems to draw much of her support for setting user fees equal to marginal cost from a 2002 paper by economist Donald Dewees. Both Dewees and Blais come from the perspective of increasing allocative efficiency within the model of municipalities or regulated monopolies providing the same services that they do today. However, this static view doesn’t factor in that private sector firms are driven to relentlessly search for ways to reduce their production costs and improve the quality of the services that they offer over time through innovation. Not so for monopolists protected from competition, which is why many people celebrate the arrival of private services like cable killers, VoIP phone providers, and ISPs that don’t bundle their services with cable that will save them from having to deal with the protected monopolists that will never match the prices of competitive markets. While marginal cost pricing would introduce efficiencies over the current system, greater gains are possible by allowing the market to provide these services rather than attempting to set prices as the market would. While competitive provision of water supply and wastewater treatment are unlikely in the near term, existing Business Improvement Districts provide a model for voluntary public space maintenance and improvements that improve upon that provided by municipal services.

While I found a few pieces of  Blais’  analysis frustrating, I learned a lot from her book and highly endorse her approach to looking at prices, rather than regulation as the key to improving development outcomes. She succeeds in bringing attention to an under-discussed and important issue in the tangle of policies that shape urban development. Setting municipal service fees at marginal cost would be a significant step toward market-based development.

Private Buses: Econtalk Takes A Second look at Santiago

Back a couple years ago, I noted an Econtalk podcast with Russell Roberts and Duke University Professor Mike Munger on the private bus system in Santiago, Chile.  This week’s episode starts with Munger’s update on the Santiago transportation system after visiting for three weeks and spending a lot of time traveling the city’s buses and transit.  This discussion comes at a perfect time to follow-up on Stephen Smith’s post on private busing in New York.

Munger and Roberts discussed the advantages and problems of the evolution of the system over the years.  In the case of the private system with over 3,000 competing private bus companies, accidents and injuries were common, and pollution was problematic.  However, the regulation and publicization of the buses led to unintended consequences that were probably far worse than the drawbacks of the private system.  Unfortunately, although the administration has apologized for the failures of the system, it would be politically impossible to revert to some of the beneficial aspects of the private system.

Private buses make a comeback in NYC

by Stephen Smith

Transit activists have been bemoaning recent cuts in the MTA’s bus routes throughout New York City, but the cuts may have a silver lining, in particular for market urbanists: they may usher in the return of private buses to the streets of New York City. Private buses (and subways, and streetcars) were once the only transit options available to New Yorkers, but since the early 20th century, and especially after World War II, virtually all intracity routes have been subsumed by various levels of government, and the network has barely grown at all since nationalization (not withstanding the Second Avenue Subway, conceived eighty years ago by a private company).

Now that’s not to say that private operators haven’t tried to compete – the outer boroughs’ immigrant communities have had robust networks of informal private vans (known in NYC as “dollar vans”), which operate illegally but have been hard to prosecute, likely due to the fact that they are used mostly by linguistically-distinct immigrant communities. The recent cuts even propelled the bootleg bus phenomenon out of its immigrant ghetto, when a brave bus operator named Joel Azumah made headlines by operating a bootleg bus route along routes cut in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. This experiment was quickly quashed by an unrelenting bureaucracy, but at least it demonstrated the mutual desire on the part of riders and entrepreneurs for private service.

The city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission appears to have headed that call, and under the direction of chairman David Yassky is trying to replace at least some of the old bus routes with private buses. Unlike the city’s much-abused private van service, where operators are technically not allowed to pick up riders off the street who haven’t called ahead of time, the buses would operate with many of the privileges of regular city buses, with the added flexibility of being able to alter their routes to fit customers’ needs. Cap’n Transit has speculated that this discretion could be used as a back-door way to expand the private buses’ reach to areas not officially sanctioned by the program.

The pilot program has its detractors, the most prominent of whom are (not surprisingly) unionized MTA employees, who recently failed to get an injunction halting the program, which is scheduled to start in early September. Some transit activists also have mixed feelings about the program, which puts transit decisions in the hands of profit-seeking entrepreneurs. Benjamin Kabak at the NYC transit blog Second Avenue Sagas has argued that the private buses are a “necessary evil” and that “[i]nstead of offering services everywhere, privatized companies offer service only along profitable routes,” but considering that private operators are apparently making profits on the MTA’s least profitable routes, it’s unclear which current routes couldn’t also be served by the private sector. (In fact, only five MTA bus routes in the whole of New York City actually make operating profits.)

But even the transit union seems to view the program as to some extent inevitable, as they themselves have submitted an application to run one of the five routes up for grabs, which looks likely to be approved. (They plan on paying drivers their old union wages, though I’d be surprised if they can survive the competition.)

The program as it currently stands does not allow for unbridled competition, but as usual, the devil’s in the details. According to the TLC’s solicitation for bids, each “service area” has the potential to be served by up to three operators, which seems to allow for relatively free market entry and exit – even the wildly successful private subway and streetcar lines of the late 19th and early 20th century often negotiated exclusivity agreements with municipalities. The document also indicates that “preference” will be given to those who can offer $2 fares and accommodate wheelchairs, but if those two goals clash, it’s unclear which will take precedence. Fixed fares have also been a problem in the past – it has been argued the legally-mandated five cent fare doomed an earlier generation of private mass transit – and the fares charged by Joel Azumah’s nascent bootleg company were apparently as high as $6 for express service.

There are some ambiguities in exactly how the service will be regulated, but the mere fact fact that the program is being run by the relatively competition-friendly TLC and not the MTA is a promising sign. Despite the potential hang-ups, this program seems to be a serious step in the direction of privatization, and we at Market Urbanism will follow the story closely, as we’re eager to see private transport make a comeback in America’s commuting capital.

LA’s partial parking privatization

by Stephen Smith

The LA Times reports that Los Angeles is considering “privatizing” ten public parking garages to fill a budget shortfall. The story is, unfortunately, a reminder of how infrastructure “privatization” is often little better than the status quo, and how media reporting of the issue can doom real reform.

Whereas pure privatization would mean selling the buildings and underlying land to anyone for any use, this scheme is actually a 50-year outsourcing of the garages’ management (mostly, at least) and profits (again, mostly). The new “owners” could only use the structures to park cars, and using them to house people and businesses that would increase the walkability of the areas where the garages are located is out of the question.

True privatization would also bring in more money for the city, which is the stated goal of the privatization. The garages would be worth more if they were being sold with complete development rights, and the tax revenues from whatever’s built on them (not to mention possible increases in adjacent properties’ values) would probably exceed the “small negotiated share of future proceeds” that the city “could retain.”

The only possible benefit I can see to this plan is that parking rates will move upwards towards the true market price. But even that would be too much for the city to stomach, as the city would “retain authority over parking rates at the garages” – and who wants to guess which way they’ll be pressured to push prices?

The potential downfall of this plan, however, is that the public may forever associate privatization with this pseudo-corporatism, as happened in Russia in the early 1990’s and Chicago’s parking meter privatization scheme last year, which could impede future, more truly libertarian urban reforms.

Originally posted on my blog.

Rothbard The Urbanist Part 6: Traffic Control

Maybe the delay in posts led you to believe the Rothbard Series was complete.  The good news is that there are a few more posts to go, and the ones coming up next should be the most interesting to urbanists. 

If you haven’t kept up with our discussion, Murray Rothbard’s classic For A New Liberty can be downloaded free from Mises.org as pdf, web page, and audio book read by Jeff Riggenbach, and you can read the first five posts:

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 1: Public Education’s Role in Sprawl and Exclusion
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 2: Safe Streets
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 3: Prevention of Blockades
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 4: Policing

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 5: Diversity and Discrimination 

Not long ago, I posted a video from a friend showing one traffic intersection in Cambodia that appears to function well without any signaling.  Here are some other resources on the emergent order of traffic without signals:

I caught some flak from a commenter who considered it “disingenuous” to present the video of the intersection as evidence “of a workable intersection.”  Of course I had to remind the commenter that I don’t consider these types of intersection something that I advocate as a “free market” solution: 

Don’t mistake me as an advocate of a world without traffic signals. I am quite certain that some sort of traffic signaling would likely emerge from a free-market street system. But, my bigger point is that when information is dispersed widely among decision-makers without government monopoly, sustainable solutions emerge from the uncoerced behavior of individual agents over time.

This is a case where governance is needed, but not necessarily provided by government.  Some sort of cooperation would emerge among road operators, just like with technologies such as USB, DVD, or plain old electrical outlets and light bulbs.  A coercive government authority is not needed to dictate to manufacturers to use certain standards, manufacturers choose to produce industry-standardized equipment simply because it is what the customer desires.  If a lighting manufacturer decided to make a bulb that did not fit into standard sockets, who would buy it?  Probably nobody. 

I see roads as no different.  Road customers will likely choose to avoid intersections as nerve-wracking as the one in the Cambodia video if they have a more stress-free option.  Thus road operators will work to optimize flow through their intersections while minimizing unpleasantly stressful situations. 

Of course, Professor Rothbard communicates this more elegantly. I find the railroad example particularly interesting:

The principle that property is administered by its owners also provides the rebuttal to a standard argument for government intervention in the economy. The argument holds that "after all, the government sets down traffic rules — red and green lights, driving on the right-hand side, maximum speed limits, etc. Surely everyone must admit that traffic would degenerate into chaos if not for such rules. Therefore, why should government not intervene in the rest of the economy as well?" The fallacy here is not that traffic should be regulated; of course such rules are necessary. But the crucial point is that such rules will always be laid down by whoever owns and therefore administers the roads. Government has been laying down traffic rules because it is the government that has always owned and therefore run the streets and roads; in a libertarian society of private ownership the private owners would lay down the rules for the use of their roads.

However, might not the traffic rules be "chaotic" in a purely free society? Wouldn’t some owners designate red for "stop," others green or blue, etc.? Wouldn’t some roads be used on the right-hand side and others on the left? Such questions are absurd. Obviously, it would be [p. 208] to the interest of all road owners to have uniform rules in these matters, so that road traffic could mesh smoothly and without difficulty. Any maverick road owner who insisted on a left-hand drive or green for "stop" instead of "go" would soon find himself with numerous accidents, and the disappearance of customers and users. The private railroads in nineteenth-century America faced similar problems and solved them harmoniously and without difficulty. Railroads allowed each other’s cars on their tracks; they inter-connected with each other for mutual benefit; the gauges of the different railroads were adjusted to be uniform; and uniform regional freight classifications were worked out for 6,000 items. Furthermore, it was the railroads and not government that took the initiative to consolidate the unruly and chaotic patchwork of time zones that had existed previously. In order to have accurate scheduling and timetables, the railroads had to consolidate; and in 1883 they agreed to consolidate the existing fifty-four time zones across the country into the four which we have today. The New York financial paper, the Commercial and Financial Chronicle, exclaimed that "the laws of trade and the instinct for self-preservation effect reforms and improvements that all the legislative bodies combined could not accomplish."3

3. See Edward C. Kirkland, Industry Comes of Age: Business, Labor, and Public Policy, 1860-1897 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961), pp. 48-50.

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 5: Diversity and Discrimination

This 5th installment of the Rothbard Series dovetails well with the most recent post on segregation by guest blogger, Stephen Smith, as well as a post back in July over at Austin Contrarian

If you haven’t kept up with our discussion, Murray Rothbard’s classic For A New Liberty can be downloaded free from Mises.org as pdf, web page, and audio book, and you can read the first four parts:

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 1: Public Education’s Role in Sprawl and Exclusion
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 2: Safe Streets
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 3: Prevention of Blockades
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 4: Policing

In the comments of the first post of this series on public education’s roll in segregation, the discussion delved into the topic of discrimination.  Bill Nelson and I shared our thoughts on discrimination by co-op boards, while another guest inquired about my statement, “elitist institutions often exclude others to their own detriment”  (Rothbard’s words further below make a similar case)  I also referred the guest to a great article on the economics of discrimination and a snippet from an article discussing how private streetcar companies fought discrimination:

The Market Resists Discrimination

The resistance of southern streetcar companies to ordinances requiring them to segregate black passengers vividly illustrates how the market motivates businesses to avoid unfair discrimination. Before the segregation laws were enacted, most streetcar companies voluntarily segregated tobacco users, not black people. Nonsmokers of either race were free to ride where they wished, but smokers were relegated to the rear of the car or to the outside platform. The revenue gains from pleased nonsmokers apparently outweighed any losses from disgruntled smokers.

Streetcar companies refused, however, to discriminate against black people because separate cars would have reduced their profits. They resisted even after the passage of turn-of-the-century laws requiring the segregation of black people. One railroad manager complained that racial discrimination increased costs because it required the company to “haul around a good deal of empty space that is assigned to the colored people and not available to both races.” Racial discrimination also upset some paying customers. Black customers boycotted the streetcar lines and formed competing hack (horsedrawn carriage) companies, and many white customers refused to move to the white section.

In Augusta, Savannah, Atlanta, Mobile, and Jacksonville, streetcar companies responded by refusing to enforce segregation laws for as long as fifteen years after their passage. The Memphis Street Railway “contested bitterly,” and the Houston Electric Railway petitioned the Houston City Council for repeal. A black attorney leading a court battle against the laws provided an ironic measure of the strength of the streetcar companies’ resistance by publicly denying that his group “was in cahoots with the railroad lines in Jacksonville.” As pressure from the government grew, however, the cost of defiance began to outweigh the market penalty on profits. One by one, the streetcar companies succumbed, and the United States stumbled further into the infamous morass of racial segregation.

From Jennifer Roback, “The Political Economy of Segregation: The Case of Segregated Streetcars.” Journal of Economic History 56, no. 4 (December 1986): 893–917.

So, now we get to hear what Professor Rothbard had to say about discrimination:

Street Rules

One of the undoubted consequences of all land areas in the country being owned by private individuals and companies would be a greater richness and diversity of American neighborhoods. The character of the police protection and the rules applied by the private police would depend on the wishes of the landowners or street owners, the owners of the given area. Thus, suspicious residential neighborhoods would insist that any people or cars entering the area have a prior appointment with a resident, or else be approved by a resident with a phone call from the gate. In short, the same rules for street property would be applied as are now often applied in private apartment buildings or family estates. In other, more raffish areas, everyone would be permitted to enter at will, and there might be varying degrees of surveillance in between. Most probably commercial areas, anxious not to rebuff customers, would be open to all. All this would give full scope to the desires and values of the residents and owners of all the numerous areas in the country.

It might be charged that all this will allow freedom "to discriminate" in housing or use of the streets. There is no question about that. Fundamental to the libertarian creed is every man’s right to choose who shall enter or use his own property, provided of course that the other person is willing.

"Discrimination," in the sense of choosing favorably or unfavorably in accordance with whatever criteria a person may employ, is an integral part of freedom of choice, and hence of a free society. But of course in the free market any such discrimination is costly, and will have to be paid for by the property owner concerned.

Suppose, for example, that someone in a free society is a landlord of a house or a block of houses. He could simply charge the free market rent and let it go at that. But then there are risks; he may choose to discriminate against renting to couples with young children, figuring that there is substantial risk of defacing his property. On the other hand, he may well choose to charge extra rent to compensate for the higher risk, so that the free-market rent for such families will tend to be higher than otherwise. This, in fact, will happen in most cases on the free market. But what of personal, rather than strictly economic, "discrimination" by the landlord? Suppose, for example, that the landlord is a great admirer of six-foot Swedish-Americans, and decides to rent his apartments only to families of such a group. In the free society it would be fully in his right to do so, but he would clearly suffer a [p. 207] large monetary loss as a result. For this means that he would have to turn away tenant after tenant in an endless quest for very tall Swedish-Americans. While this may be considered an extreme example, the effect is exactly the same, though differing in degree, for any sort of personal discrimination in the marketplace. If, for example, the landlord dislikes redheads and determines not to rent his apartments to them, he will suffer losses, although not as severely as in the first example.

In any case, anytime anyone practices such "discrimination" in the free market, he must bear the costs, either of losing profits or of losing services as a consumer. If a consumer decides to boycott goods sold by people he does not like, whether the dislike is justified or not, he then will go without goods or services which he otherwise would have purchased.

All property owners, then, in a free society, would set down the rules for use of, or admission to, their property. The more rigorous the rules the fewer the people who will engage in such use, and the property owner will then have to balance rigor of admission as against loss of income. A landlord might "discriminate," for example, by insisting, as George Pullman did in his "company town" in Illinois in the late nineteenth century, that all his tenants appear at all times dressed in jacket and tie; he might do so, but it is doubtful that many tenants would elect to move into or remain in such a building or development and the landlord would suffer severe losses.

While Rothbard had some good things to say on how the free market enables diversity in terms of racial discrimination and diversity among and within districts, he missed the opportunity to specifically address ideas relating to Jane Jacobs’ generators of diversity within urban districts other than stating, “commercial areas, anxious not to rebuff customers, would be open to all.”  Jacobs generators of diversity:

  1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two.  These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.
  2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
  3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including  a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce.  This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
  4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there.  This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

Obviously, Jacobs wasn’t referring to racial diversity, and I’m glad she wasn’t because the abuse of the concept has gotten tiresome to me.  She was referring to the types of diversity in the built environment that are necessary to make a urban places vibrant. Nonetheless, Rothbard’s analysis of racial discrimination and diversity could be applied to the built environment, because a landlord would have market incentives to provide as much space as is economically optimal to as many potential tenants as possible, likely forgoing personal preferences and prejudices. Thus, mixing of uses is likely to occur when a landlord is unlikely to discriminate one use over another or give undeserved preference to one type of tenant over another.

I can see a system of fully private ownership emerging into two very distinct patterns: – aglomerative consolidations and bottom-up dispersion of ownership, each existing in certain circumstances.

  • One could argue that Jacobs’ generators of diversity would likely exist within large privately-owned districts, but a landowner would likely need to consolidate a significantly-sized district in order to properly capture the positive externalities associated with diversely mixed uses.  At the same time, large, privately-owned gated communities would likely exist in less centralized locations where private space and separation could meet the desires of those who are willing to pay a premium for the extra space.
  • In other locations it would be optimal for land to be owned by smaller dispersed entities.  In this case, diversity would simply emerge bottom-up through the free-market process, as it had prior to zoning.  I could imagine that, left unhampered by government coercion, diverse patterns that meet people’s specific needs and natural pursuit of interaction would inevitably emerge through dispersed and competitive ownership of smaller parcels.  (See Mathieu Helie’s Emergent Urbanism)

I would think the larger-scale commercial activity and gated communities will occur in the former, and just about everything else, the later. 

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 4: Policing

I apologize for the extended delay between posts.  Personal (newborn) and professional priorities have prevented me from having the free time I once had. Unfortunately posts will probably continue to be sporadic until things settle down a little.

We are now at Part 4 in the multi-part series delving into the urbanist-friendly ideas in Murray Rothbard’s classic For a New Liberty.   (available free from Mises.org as pdf, web page, and audio book)  In case you missed them, here are the first three parts:

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 1: Public Education’s Role in Sprawl and Exclusion

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 2: Safe Streets

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 3: Prevention of Blockades

As we continue through Chapter 11 of For A New Liberty, Rothbard continues to make valid points regarding safety and policing in a fully private-landowner system.  This passage is notably interesting in its discussion of the successes of private railroads.  Whether competition in the private street market would create a vibrant marketplace similar to the early days of the railroad is an interesting topic for discussion.  I’d tend to agree with Rothbard, but of course some imagination is required to envision such a radically different society:

There is of course nothing new or startling in the principle of this envisioned libertarian society. We are already familiar with the energizing effects of inter-location and inter-transportation competition. For example, when the private railroads were being built throughout the nation in the nineteenth century, the railroads and their competition provided a remarkable energizing force for developing their respective areas. Each railroad tried its best to induce immigration and economic development in its area in order to increase its profits, land values, and value of its capital; and each hastened to do so, lest people and markets leave their area and move to the ports, cities, and lands served by competing railroads. The same principle would be at work if all streets and roads were private as well. Similarly, we are already familiar with police protection provided by private merchants and organizations. Within their property, stores provide guards and watchmen; banks provide guards; factories employ watchmen; shopping centers retain guards, etc. The libertarian society would simply extend this healthy and functioning system to the streets as well. It is scarcely accidental that there are far more assaults and muggings on the streets outside stores than in the stores themselves; this is because the stores are supplied with watchful private guards while on the streets we must all rely on the “anarchy” of government police protection. Indeed, in various blocks of New York City there has already arisen in recent years, in response to the galloping crime problem, the hiring of private guards to patrol the blocks by voluntary contributions of the landlords and homeowners on that block. Crime on these blocks has already been substantially reduced. The problem is that these efforts have been halting and inefficient because those streets are not owned by the residents, and hence there is no effective mechanism for gathering the capital to provide efficient protection on a permanent basis. Furthermore, the patrolling street guards cannot legally be armed because they are not on their owners’ property, and they cannot, as store or other property owners can, challenge anyone acting in a suspicious but not yet criminal manner. They cannot, in short, do the things, financially or administratively, that owners can do with their property.

Furthermore, police paid for by the landowners and residents of a [p. 205] block or neighborhood would not only end police brutality against customers; this system would end the current spectacle of police being considered by many communities as alien “imperial” colonizers, there not to serve but to oppress the community. In America today, for example, we have the general rule in our cities of black areas patrolled by police hired by central urban governments, governments that are perceived to be alien to the black communities. Police supplied, controlled, and paid for by the residents and landowners of the communities themselves would be a completely different story; they would be supplying, and perceived to be supplying, services to their customers rather than coercing them on behalf of an alien authority.

A dramatic contrast of the merits of public vs. private protection is provided by one block in Harlem. On West 135th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues is the station house of the 82nd Precinct of the New York City Police Department. Yet the august presence of the station house did not prevent a rash of night robberies of various stores on the block. Finally, in the winter of 1966, fifteen merchants on the block banded together to hire a guard to walk the block all night; the guard was hired from the Leroy V. George protection company to provide the police protection not forthcoming from their property taxes.1

The most successful and best organized private police forces in American history have been the railway police, maintained by many railroads to prevent injury or theft to passengers or freight. The modern railway police were founded at the end of World War I by the Protection Section of the American Railway Association. So well did they function that by 1929 freight claim payments for robberies had declined by 93%. Arrests by the railway police, who at the time of the major study of their activities in the early 1930s totaled 10,000 men, resulted in a far higher percentage of convictions than earned by police departments, ranging from 83% to 97%. Railway police were armed, could make normal arrests, and were portrayed by an unsympathetic criminologist as having a widespread reputation for good character and ability.2 [p. 206]

Of course, those who embrace a government monopoly on policing would proclaim privatization would result in some kind of privately-run police-state, but let’s examine a few examples in today’s society.  In the comments of a recent post, Benjamin Hemric and I discussed some examples of privately-run pedestrian environments.  Here’s what we came up with:

So, private streets wouldn’t result in tolls of valuable sidewalk space every 10 feet?  No, I think that’s an Urban[ism] Legend just waiting to be debunked.

You may have noticed that while some of these are examples of environments where exclusivity is maintained by the owner, most are examples of privately secured pedestrian environments that are accessible to anyone, without charge.  Private operators are keenly interested in maintaining the safety of the streets for their customers or tenants.  No mall owner would stay in business too long if its mall earned a reputation of muggings. Had Rothbard written a later edition, he may had mentioned shopping malls.  As I mentioned in a previous post, it seems clear that dense, vibrant, mixed-use places are very well equipped to police themselves at little cost to the residents and business owners.  Thus, wouldn’t a private society tend towards vibrant urbanity?

I think it would be interesting to discuss other examples of privately policed environments.  What examples can you think of?

At the same time, it seems that the most unsafe places I can think of are publicly maintained. Am I missing something, or does it seem obvious once we take the time to think it over?


1. See William C Wooldridge, Uncle Sam the Monopoly Man (New Rochelle, N Y Arlington House, 1970), pp 111ff.

2. See Wooldridge, op. cit., pp 115-17. The criminological study was made by Jeremiah P Shalloo, Private Police (Philadelphia Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1933). Wooldridge comments that Shalloo’s reference to the good reputation of the railway police “contrasts with the present status of many big-city public forces, sanctions against misconduct are so ineffective or roundabout that they may as well not exist, however rhetorically comforting the forces’ status as servants of the people may be.” Wooldridge, op. cit., p 117.