This article was published in the Spring 1995 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
 
Protection from Mass Murderers
 
Communication of Danger:  A Formulation
 
by Richard O. Hammer

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Outline
--Introduction
Discrimination
Privacy
Tragedy in the Commons
Communication of warnings
The Bohr
Property rights and bills of rights
Conclusion
Notes
 
 

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On a Thursday afternoon in January a deranged law student opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle on a downtown street in nearby Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Before he was stopped he had killed two people, evidently selected at random.

Would this sort of thing happen in the libertarian land we would like to build? Many libertarians shrug when challenged to explain how such carnage could be avoided, saying that self-government does not promise perfection, that not all violence can be stopped. But I speculate that most violence such as this might be avoided. As I learn the implications of libertarian theory I am struck that our society, with little or no government, would differ radically from this society with which we are familiar. We must work to imagine it.

 
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Discrimination

The libertarian position on discrimination often confuses newcomers to the movement. We oppose discrimination by government. But we accept discrimination by private parties as a right, no matter how foolish or unfair it may be. Where the government owns a street we would typically say that the government has no business barring people from carrying guns on the street. If, however, a private company owns a street, then we would say the company can exclude from entry anyone it wants including people carrying guns.

So while the government in our land would have no power to bar people from owning weapons, neither would it have power to guarantee that owners of weapons could carry their weapons except on their own private property. And since I believe we would follow the advice of David Friedman, and sell the streets (to private operators), we cannot predict that guns would be allowed on all streets. It is, after all, not within our power to set policy for private property owners.

I expect many owners of streets, perhaps even all owners of streets in some cities, would disallow carrying guns. And if left-leaning attitudes, such as those in Chapel Hill, influenced the owners of the streets in a city in our Free Nation, you can bet that guns would banned on those streets. People entering the city might even be required to pass through airport-style security. (They would take your gun, but give you free hypodermic needles and a fistful of condoms.)

 
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Privacy

Free Nation policy regarding privacy, as I understand it, might also surprise newcomers to the libertarian view. As with discrimination privacy would be an entirely private affair. I would have no right granted by government to learn any of your past. But I also would have no compulsion to interact with you. If you want something from me, such as admission with a gun to my street, I may demand something in exchange from you, such as: certification of your psychiatric stability, bonding against the possibility of your misconduct, or at least the payment of a premium to cover my insurance.

Privacy has a price. If you purchase the space which you occupy there you may keep your secrets. But all your trading partners have a right to balk in any interaction in which they feel insecure for want of knowledge about you. If you would rather not tell them, they may demand other assurance.

Carried to an extreme, it might seem that the Free Nation would offer almost no privacy. But I do not think so. Life is a positive-sum game. In all normal transactions your trading partners gain by interacting with you; they want the interaction so long as it brings them no nasty surprises. If they snoop more than necessary, or demand too much assurance, you can go to the competition. The most successful trading partners, those whose business blossoms and with whom you will most likely conduct most of your business, will be the best at balancing what they need to know with what they can ignore.

In stateless society I believe a norm emerges regarding privacy. And we have a word which describes that norm: civil. In our Free Nation I hope to see mutual respect mixed with caution: hospitality mixed with clear, although sometimes unstated, rules.

 
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Tragedy in the Commons

When I first heard the account of the tragedy of the commons1 I was struck with curiosity. I sensed that it promised to explain many public wrongs. My subsequent study now harvests the fruits I sought: I can blame almost all public wrongs on the commons, on the existence of a public space.

I use the term public space to refer not only to three-dimensional space, but also to decision space. Legislation, when it affects a decision you make, makes public space of the realm in which you make the decision. For instance, if legislation affects your decision to admit a person to your law school then the space of that decision is no longer your private affair, but is public.

 
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Communication of warnings

In this section, inspired by the tragedy in Chapel Hill, I will look at ways that information travels from person to person through human society. I will note differences between private and public spaces. And, drawing from my personal experiences, I will try to develop a picture of a private network which would communicate warnings more successfully.

In deciding whether to communicate, and what to communicate, people seek their own interest, as they tend to do in all their transactions. Since a communication involves two parties (or more) most patterns of communication that continue can be characterized as win-win.

For an example, consider my experience with owning a house and having neighbors. If I become aware of some hazard in the neighborhood which might threaten my neighbors, I try to warn them. This is not mere neighborliness. It is in my economic interest: at low cost I volunteer the warning knowing that, to some extent, this act will sustain among my neighbors a value which may pay back manyfold in the future. While private neighbors sometimes squabble, incentives favor mutuality. And mutuality to some degree becomes the norm.

Now it cannot be predicted from the outset, or guessed from the outside, exactly what information will flow through the private channels between me and my neighbors. If I discover that a neighbor welcomes warning of spreading dandelions but pooh-poohs warning of tornados, I will adjust my communications accordingly. Each relationship of exchange between partners will tend to be unique.

So I maintain that any attempt by government to regulate this communication would deteriorate its quality. If government compels certain communications, in spite of a lack of interest, one party will soon stop listening to the other. If government prohibits certain communications, then valuable warnings may be muted, and neighbors will have to rely on second best means of assurance.

For another example think of successful business relationships. In my business building houses, I dealt continually with particular suppliers and subcontractors. My attitude toward these trading partners was stingy but protective. I wanted their price to be about the best that I could expect to find. But, to save myself the work of finding and building new relationships of trust, I also wanted them to want to continue doing business with me. So, within bounds, I looked out for their interest and they looked out for mine. We warned each other of hazards. And here again, I think my experience describes not an exception but a norm: in private spaces incentives favor mutuality.

Unfortunately, for the security and efficiency of business transactions, government maintains a panoply of public spaces through which cheaters may escape. Obvious examples are: bankruptcy law; law which shields individuals within corporations; government monopoly on coercion coupled with ineffectual enforcement of court-ordered payments; the high transaction cost of getting anything done in government courts, with lawyers who are granted a monopoly by government.

And there are other examples of government-run protections for cheaters. These are less obvious but potent:

In a Free Nation, a cheater might find himself in a phone booth (the only business that will accept his quarter) frantically trying to reach either me or one of the 24-hour bonding or arbitration services listed in the yellow pages.

I am trying to build the image here of a network of communication which would develop in a Free Nation. It would be a mesh of interconnected win-win private relationships. I believe that it would communicate warnings about dangerous or threatening people better than the state-sullied mess in which we now live. And I believe that misbehaving or threatening people, having no public space in which to range, would find their options quickly limited.

 
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The Borh

Now I recall again the borh. In England before the Norman Conquest:

Was the murderer in Chapel Hill a member of a borh? Let us look at some accounts from the Chapel Hill Herald, and see if that will help us guess. This killer was a troubled person. Even though he was physically close to people, moving freely through the public space, he was isolated. He was not a member of a borh, and no one would have admitted him to their borh unless he showed a great effort to modify his fit in life.

Knowledge of the danger of this man existed aplenty in certain places. Yet this knowledge did not travel through public space to people who would have made a difference had they known and had they, because of private responsibility, been compelled to care. The private owner of a street might be crazy to admit someone with a gun without first demanding to see a borh membership card. Similar pressure, I expect, would bear upon arms dealers. Also, but to a lesser extent, pressure to conform to the norms which concern us here could be communicated through other trading partners such as those who lease apartments, teach law, or sell gasoline or food.

So the picture of communication through interconnected private spaces differs radically from that of communication through public space. Discretion, civility, practicality, mutuality: these I think describe the communications through a private network.

 
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Property rights and bills of rights

Since the murders the local newspapers have been ringing, as we might expect, with new calls for gun control. If I were owner of a private street I would have some policy limiting the flow of weapons onto my street. Therefore, for statists unaware of the benefits of private control, I can empathize with the calls for gun control.

I am struggling to clarify for myself the distinction between private space and public space. And as I hear the debate on gun control, I am struck that most of us do not think about this distinction when we think about our rights, such as those protected in bills of rights.

Naturally we fear that government will outlaw our right to keep and bear arms on our own private property, so naturally we want something like the Second Amendment. Unfortunately, our insistence that government not meddle with our right to do X (in our own private space), when coupled with statist confusion of public and private space, can lead to wanton unregulated X-ing in public spaces.

Unregulated permissiveness in public space might present a small problem if public space were small. But as public space grows it becomes a nightmare. Statists naturally will imagine only one way to regain control; they will want to overrule the right (Second Amendment or otherwise) and police the public space with public means. We, on the other hand, build arguments for a better way to end the nightmare of unregulated permissiveness too close to home privatize the space.

 
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Conclusion

In our Free Nation the "public spaces," such as streets and malls in which a person might move among large numbers of strangers, would not feel like the public spaces in America.

I often think of the feeling in a private restaurant, or a private mall. These spaces have, in my experience, a feeling of a texture of rules. People in these spaces know that their behavior must conform. And even though these rules may not have been stated or written, for the most part we know the rules well enough. There is unmistakable authority: the owner or the owner's representative can kick you out. The owner has no obligation to continue a relationship with you that does not benefit him.

So as I try to imagine the feel of the Free Nation, I imagine a series of private spaces connected. As I leave a private restaurant I enter, not a public space of unlimited and unregulated mixing, but another private space where once again my welcome is limited by my conformity to rules. Generally, I cannot expect to go anywhere where I may threaten, injure, or insult with impunity.

So I posit that the murderer in Chapel Hill, if transported to the Free Nation, would find himself tied in a social network much more binding. He would have difficulty obtaining and traveling with a weapon till he removed from himself any stigmas of mental instability. And potentially he would be restrained in many other ways, since no private party would be obliged to trade with him unless confident that the trade would result in a win. Without borh membership, he might even have difficulty finding a road on which to travel to Chapel Hill.

We welcome debate. D

 
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Notes

1 Tragedy of the Commons: This phrase may have originated with a paper "The Tragedy of the Commons," by Garrett Hardin, in Science, 13 December 1968. It refers generally to abuse and degradation of public spaces. (Although in this paper Hardin focused particularly on his fear of overpopulation.)

The concept of the tragedy of the commons is often introduced with this story: during colonial times many villages in New England had a common, a grazing ground open to the stock of any inhabitants or visitors. Typically, these commons were overgrazed and almost worthless, while nearby private pastures were lush and valuable to their owners.

2 Roderick T. Long, "Anarchy in the U.K.: The English Experience With Private Protection," Formulations, Vol. II, No. 1.
 

Richard O. Hammer, of Hillsborough, NC, for the time being works full-time on his hobby, the Free Nation Foundation. In the past he has worked as a residential builder and engineer.

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