Public goods and private action


On Monday evening, Dr Stephen Davies delivered the Libertarian Alliance’s third Annual Chris R. Tame Memorial Lecture. He spoke on ‘Public Goods and Private Action: How Voluntary Action Can Provide Law, Welfare and Infrastructure – and Build a Good Society’. As always, Dr Davies was first-rate, with much food for thought.

Dr Davies articulated an argument largely missing from the free market and libertarian arsenal, namely that voluntary collective action leads to a more robust and humane society. In consequence, a strong moral case exists for a reduced state, to permit individuals the freedom with which to collectively build their own institutions, separate from politics and managerial class that currently dominates it.

Examples were used to show how historically, private actions have produced public goods. Private companies built the UK’s railways and canals, while by the 1830s Turnpike Trusts has set up over 30,000 miles of private roads. In police, prosecution associations sprung up to facilitate justice for the poorest, the efficacy of which is proved by the fact that insurance companies offered cheaper cover to those in these associations. In welfare, mutual aid was the prime alternative to the state, not charity as is often supposed. These and many more examples show how we used to thrive with much less state.

Given the fiscal crisis and the structural deficit, Dr Davies argued that there will open up a very real opportunity for the revitalisation of civil society along these lines. He argued that the client-patron relationship between the governed and the governing could and should be broken down in order to turn back the infantilisation of the people. In this counter-revolution, Dr Davies suggested that education could be the key, with competition undermining both the elites’ qualifications and the passivity of the people engendered by state education. Let's hope he's right.

H/T Samizdata for the photo.