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Government Police on Privately-Owned Roads

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Andrew Grathwohl
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I got asked this question recently and was pretty stumped by it.

In a fully capitalist government, the government would consist of all functions required to protect individual rights: the courts, the military, and the police. The government would not be allowed to trample on one's right to property. The government would also not be allowed to own any property that wasn't directly related to those legitimate functions. The government would be in the business of protecting the property rights of its citizens - not trampling them. Following this logic, it would necessitate that the government would not own or operate any roads. All roads would be privately-owned.

So what would be the appropriate response to the following scenario: the government police need to respond to a crime-in-progress (let's say a bank robbery) as quickly as possible. Perhaps the road options are limited to only a few different paths. Perhaps one of those options is by-far the best path to take. Does the government police force have the right to speed down an individual's privately-owned road at fast velocities, sirens ablaze, even if the road owner makes it clear that speed limits are to be obeyed by all, including police and other government workers?

Essentially, the question boils down to how the ideal Objectivist capitalist government reconciles the issues that would exist between private-property protections and the efficient, effective execution of legitimate government tasks that would rely on private property and private individuals to accomplish successfully. If the protection of private property rights must exist in this society, how could other legitimate government protections be guaranteed to be effectively carried out? Could anybody point me in the right direction here?

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The government has the right to use the appropriate level of force when responding to a crime. For instance, when a suspect runs through a store, church, or mosque (oh my God, the humanity), the Police have the right to follow without permission. If he runs into some strangers house (and he committed a serious crime, he's not just someone who let his dog poop on the sidewalk and failed to pick it up), the Police have the right to break down the door and go after him. If it's a terrorist with a bomb, the authorities even have the right to level whatever building he ran into, even if it's someone's property.

Of course they would also have the right to use the private road, even against the owner's wishes. If the owner actively thwarts their efforts, he can be arrested for obstruction of justice. Property rights are not a meme, they are the application of the principle of rights, in various societies. In some contexts, the application of that principle often means someone doesn't get to draw a physical line in the sand and say: no one can cross this - because such a line might actually contribute to a violation of someone else's rights. The principle isn't the line in the sand, it is far more complex than that. It involves related concepts such as rationality, justice, etc.

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I agree with Tanaka, but what they would not be able to do is pull anyone over for breaking the regulations of the Road company. There would also be no such thing as a random police checkpoint, spot searches etc.

It irks me that in our world now so much of our police spend so much of their time not enforcing the law, but enforcing traffic regulations.

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It seems like a problem at first, but its actually very simple.

But this is not a problem unique to capitalism. Even under current socialized road conditions, this is still the case. If a suspect is ensconced in some piece of property which is only accessible by going through some other persons' property, the police can be authorized to go through that person's property, their permission not being required in a delimited manner to allow execution of the law. Essentially, the rules aren't any different than current. The police have the moral right, and therefore in the laissez-faire society, the legal right to go on others' property in lawful pursuit of a suspect. If the police couldn't go anywhere, or couldn't leave the headquarters without prior permission of every surrounding property owner, they couldn't do any (or very little) policing, and there would be no point to having them.

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So what would be the appropriate response to the following scenario: the government police need to respond to a crime-in-progress (let's say a bank robbery) as quickly as possible. Perhaps the road options are limited to only a few different paths. Perhaps one of those options is by-far the best path to take. Does the government police force have the right to speed down an individual's privately-owned road at fast velocities, sirens ablaze, even if the road owner makes it clear that speed limits are to be obeyed by all, including police and other government workers?

Since there are other options and you have made it clear that this property owner does not wish to have even police exceed the speed limit, then the police would not be able to violate that person's property.

However, I see this as a very unlikely scenario. What rational reasoning would someone with the capacity to own and operate a successful road have for not allowing police on it? And, if you can come up with a good reason, then why wouldn't you respect that?

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I agree with Tanaka, but what they would not be able to do is pull anyone over for breaking the regulations of the Road company.

If I travel 65mph on a private road that the owner has forbidden travel at greater than 60mph, am I not violating that road owner's rights? If not, why not? If so, aren't the police obligated to stop me from violating the road owner's rights?

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A rationalist error made in several Objectivist threads concerning property rights is to claim that a property owner can exclude others from crossing his property because the right to property is some kind of absolute, devoid of context.

The correct explanation of the property owner's rights regarding those who wish to cross his property was first given, as I recall, in a very early English King's Bench decision in which all of a property owner's neighbors decided to not allow him to cross their land to get to his property. The court correctly decided the right to property did not allow such exclusion; the property owner had the right to cross his neighbors' land in a "reasonable and customary" manner to get to his property.

What this phrase meant in a given case, especially as the land and technology developed, obviously was the source of much legal haggling.

This right of passage is commonly now formalized in the property deed as an "easement."

It would be hard to argue that a police "hot pursuit" is not reasonable and customary.

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Property rights are not a meme, they are the application of the principle of rights, in various societies. In some contexts, the application of that principle often means someone doesn't get to draw a physical line in the sand and say: no one can cross this - because such a line might actually contribute to a violation of someone else's rights. The principle isn't the line in the sand, it is far more complex than that. It involves related concepts such as rationality, justice, etc.

I don't understand the analogy. I'm not saying that a property owner is drawing a line in the sand and saying "none shall pass." I am saying that the property owner sees police speeding down his road as potential destruction of his private property. I could easily envision a road owner not wanting to risk lowering the value of his property (or his land that the road is on, or the other properties on that land that may or may not be his) to a police pursuit that has nothing to do with the owner's interests.

The example was intended to pose as an abstraction of the true meat and potatoes of the question I'm trying to ask. The question is to what extent, if any, that a laissez-faire capitalist government could encroach upon the wishes of a property owner if the protections they're aiming to accomplish are of no concern to the respective individual. To me, it sounds like either the government would be unable to guarantee the rights its citizens have to do what they wish with their property (so long as it is not initiating force against others), or it would be unable to use every possible means of guaranteeing an efficient and effective police force. Surely, there is a way to allow both things to happen?

Since there are other options and you have made it clear that this property owner does not wish to have even police exceed the speed limit, then the police would not be able to violate that person's property.

However, I see this as a very unlikely scenario. What rational reasoning would someone with the capacity to own and operate a successful road have for not allowing police on it? And, if you can come up with a good reason, then why wouldn't you respect that?

Well, as I alluded to above, the immediate reasoning I would consider is the potential to lower the value of the road or to disturb the land (and other potential properties on that land) that the road owner possesses.

If I travel 65mph on a private road that the owner has forbidden travel at greater than 60mph, am I not violating that road owner's rights? If not, why not? If so, aren't the police obligated to stop me from violating the road owner's rights?

I would imagine that this would be the job of private industry, no? The police couldn't be in the business of policing roads as they do today if the roads are privately-owned.

This right of passage is commonly now formalized in the property deed as an "easement."

It would be hard to argue that a police "hot pursuit" is not reasonable and customary.

I agree that, if there is no explicit statement against driving furiously down a privately-owned road, then the police would be able to do so. That could very easily be reasonable and customary. However, does the property owner have the right to specifically outlaw such things from happening on his property and forbid individuals from using the road if he has a specific reason for doing so? As I said before, what if the property owner doesn't want that kind of thing happening on his property? Perhaps he owns the road because he owns a bunch of shopping plazas that surround it. Maybe he doesn't want potential customers being put in harm's way. Maybe he doesn't want the loud noise disturbing consumers he is hosting on his privately-owned and operated property.

But the reasoning isn't relevant, is it? Surely, a laissez-faire government couldn't prohibit a restaurant owner from disallowing any racial minorities from entering his place of business - even if the rationality is (obviously) completely devoid of reasonable and customary considerations? We have the right to be idiots if we want, as long as the rights of others aren't being violated in the process.

Edited by Andrew Grathwohl
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The example was intended to pose as an abstraction of the true meat and potatoes of the question I'm trying to ask. The question is to what extent, if any, that a laissez-faire capitalist government could encroach upon the wishes of a property owner if the protections they're aiming to accomplish are of no concern to the respective individual.

The property owner does not have the right to interfere with the Police doing its job. As long as their use of force is objectively justified, the property owner's wishes are irrelevant.

In case the Police do destroy his property (or reduce its value) in the course of a justified action, the property owner's legal recourse would be against the criminal who caused the Police to act. If the Police action was not fully justified, then he would also have a case against the Police.

the protections they're aiming to accomplish are of no concern to the respective individual.

As a (partially relevant) aside, I have to disagree with this part of your premise. A criminal act in his area ought to concern the property owner. His right to be irrational an unconcerned about it ends when he decides to get in the way of justice because of that.

To me, it sounds like either the government would be unable to guarantee the rights its citizens have to do what they wish with their property (so long as it is not initiating force against others)

The principle of non-initiation of force, out of context, does not fully describe Capitalism. In its proper context, it is dependent on the principles of rights and justice. Initiation of force occurs when a person is interfered with, when his right to self defense is interfered with, or when the right to retaliation that he delegated to the government is interfered with.

So, when initiation of force is not used as a floating abstraction, but is instead put in the context Ayn Rand used it in, a property owner which seeks to interfere with the just actions of the Police is helping the criminals, and is initiating force against the victims and against other potential victims (society).

Property rights, in Objectivism (as opposed to Libertarianism) are actually a positive right: a right to action. The property owner has the right to all the actions involving his property, except those which interfere with others' rights. He does not have the right to put up barriers (physical or legal), in front of a justified action by the Police.

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I agree that, if there is no explicit statement against driving furiously down a privately-owned road, then the police would be able to do so.

Police in pursuit are not going to read statements before acting. Nor should they. If you are against high speed chases then persuade the police department and fellow citizens that such chases are against policy before one breaks out. Such a policy need not be a total ban, but it does need to be worked out ahead of time.

Policemen that are members of racial minorities could not be prohibited from entering private property on official business regardless of the racist's wishes. Property rights are not limitless.

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If I travel 65mph on a private road that the owner has forbidden travel at greater than 60mph, am I not violating that road owner's rights? If not, why not? If so, aren't the police obligated to stop me from violating the road owner's rights?

The Police are obligated to provide reasonable protection from trespassers. But that just means they must step in if the property owner's efforts to prevent trespassing fail.

The Police are not obligated to stand by in movie theaters for instance, to make sure no one violates the no-talking rule. If someone does, the property owner must try to get them to leave, and may call on the Police if he fails. Similarly, the Police and legal system would only be needed when a speeding driver refuses to stop and leave the road, or when he tries to repeatedly come back despite being banned.

An analogous real life example would be the case of the Muslim student group who's members were recently charged with a felony, for organizing to repeatedly disrupt the speeches of pro-Israeli speakers on various California campuses. While the legal system does not concern itself with individual hecklers who show up at events and are removed by the organizers, this group became too much for organizers to handle. The Police, and later the DA, had to step in. Similarly, the Police or the legal system would have to step in when someone cannot be prevented from speeding by reasonable measures on the part of the road's owner.

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The Police are obligated to provide reasonable protection from trespassers. But that just means they must step in if the property owner's efforts to prevent trespassing fail.

The Police are not obligated to stand by in movie theaters for instance, to make sure no one violates the no-talking rule. If someone does, the property owner must try to get them to leave, and may call on the Police if he fails. Similarly, the Police and legal system would only be needed when a speeding driver refuses to stop and leave the road, or when he tries to repeatedly come back despite being banned.

An analogous real life example would be the case of the Muslim student group who's members were recently charged with a felony, for organizing to repeatedly disrupt the speeches of pro-Israeli speakers on various California campuses. While the legal system does not concern itself with individual hecklers who show up at events and are removed by the organizers, this group became too much for organizers to handle. The Police, and later the DA, had to step in. Similarly, the Police or the legal system would have to step in when someone cannot be prevented from speeding by reasonable measures on the part of the road's owner.

Hmmm.... I understand your point, but I'm not yet on board. How does this work with my other, non-contract, rights? Do I have to make an effort to prevent someone from killing me before the police are obligated to provide reasonable protection from my murderer? If someone has me locked up in their basement, must I make an attempt at escape before the police are obligated to protect my right to liberty? If someone steals my property, must I make an effort to get it back, or must I make an effort to prevent it from being stolen in the first place before the police are obligated to protect my right to property?

Either the function of the police is to protect the rights of its citizens, and thus they must protect those rights, or it is not. Just as the police have every right to enter my house to protect me from a would-be murderer, they have every right to travel my private road to protect my contract rights. Moreover, it is in my self-interests that they should do so. If I have limits on speed, it's presumably a self-interested business decision (perhaps travelers prefer my road because they feel those speed limits save lives). Speeders degrade that business decision and harm my ability to earn a living just as surely as a thief, murderer, or kidnapper harm me.

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Hmmm.... I understand your point, but I'm not yet on board. How does this work with my other, non-contract, rights? Do I have to make an effort to prevent someone from killing me before the police are obligated to provide reasonable protection from my murderer? If someone has me locked up in their basement, must I make an attempt at escape before the police are obligated to protect my right to liberty? If someone steals my property, must I make an effort to get it back, or must I make an effort to prevent it from being stolen in the first place before the police are obligated to protect my right to property?

I don't really see this issue as one where the police aren't obligated to step in until you do something. Rather, most of the time the police getting involved in small matters just doesn't make sense, from the violated party's perspective. Take the movie theater example. If my rights are being violated and I ask the police to help, I think they should be obligated to so in some capacity. However, for small, local things, it just makes more sense for me to do some of my own enforcement, throwing people out myself and only calling in the police if I have to. This is the same reasoning behind someone carrying pepper spray to protect against muggings and rapes and whatnot. Of course the police should be obligated to help protect against those crimes in progress, but sometimes its simply not feasible to rely on them.

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Either the function of the police is to protect the rights of its citizens, and thus they must protect those rights, or it is not.

First, if a crime is small enough to not warrant jail time, there is nothing the government can do to punish a violator that the road owner can't do better. The best punishment is the banning of the violator from the road system, or from an entire voluntary association of road systems. Fines, anger management, mandatory rehab, suspension of license etc. are just poor replacement solutions in our current, socialized system. Going through the justice system is also far more expensive than the streamlined decision making of a private company.

Second, law enforcement resources would be limited by people's willingness to donate to that cause. There would be no reason for citizens to donate more, just to have it spent on something the road owner could do for cheaper. Road owners would recognize this immediately, and simply withhold some of their donations and turn the funds to private enforcement of the road rules instead.

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I don't really see this issue as one where the police aren't obligated to step in until you do something. Rather, most of the time the police getting involved in small matters just doesn't make sense, from the violated party's perspective.

I understand, and agree. However, to state that the police "would not be able to pull anyone over for breaking the regulations of the Road company" is simply not true. If someone is violating the terms of my contract, then I fully expect the police to get involved. If the terms of my contract are explicitly and publicly stated (such as a speed limit sign), then I fully expect the police to pull them over for driving over the speed limit.

Road owners would recognize this immediately, and simply withhold some of their donations and turn the funds to private enforcement of the road rules instead.

So, it would be okay for road owners to have their own police force to ensure their own private rules are being followed? Can that work for all contracts? Can I, for example, have my associates, Sammy-the-Bull and Little Joey, visit the people who haven't paid back their loans and "convince" them to do so?

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So, it would be okay for road owners to have their own police force to ensure their own private rules are being followed? Can that work for all contracts? Can I, for example, have my associates, Sammy-the-Bull and Little Joey, visit the people who haven't paid back their loans and "convince" them to do so?

No. The government should have a monopoly on retaliation. My previous answers made the difference between what the Police should do, and what owners of property can do themselves, clear.

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No. The government should have a monopoly on retaliation. My previous answers made the difference between what the Police should do, and what owners of property can do themselves, clear.

The government does not have a monopoly on retaliation. I as an individual in immediate danger or even under immediate threat have the moral right (and obligation) to retaliate when there is no other course of action open to me.

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Typically I do not see the cops getting involved in a contract violation... until one or the other of the parties has been sued and a judgment for damages levied, then cops might help with the collection. Or in an eviction--though here it can be argued that continued use of a property without the owners consent is a direct rights violation (trespassing), not a failure to abide by contract so it wouldn't be a counter example to what I am saying.

I can see privately owned roads having their own private security. Such exists in many other businesses today. However the reason this is not some sort of anarcho-capitalism or "competing governments" is that private security companies are ultimately subject to the same government (and police) as everyone else.

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No. The government should have a monopoly on retaliation. My previous answers made the difference between what the Police should do, and what owners of property can do themselves, clear.

We're not discussing retaliation. We're discussing a rights violation in process. If the terms of using my road are that you cannot travel over a particular speed, and you travel over that speed, then I fully expect the police to use force to prevent the continuation of that rights violation. Just as I would expect the police to stop someone from stealing my property.

Would you mind telling me whether or not the police would be able to stop someone on a private road for violating any particular terms of that road owner's contract?

I can see privately owned roads having their own private security.

Certainly, but that is not really the question. Just as I can stop someone from trying to steal my T.V., I have every right to stop someone from speeding on my road. The question is, are the police under the same obligation? Certainly they're obligated to stop someone from stealing my T.V. Are they not also obligated to stop someone from speeding on my road?

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Certainly they're obligated to stop someone from stealing my T.V. Are they not also obligated to stop someone from speeding on my road?

First of all the nature of the two interactions is completely different: one is involuntary the other is voluntary. Police don't usually get involved in contract disputes, that is usually left to the courts (remember, they can protect your rights also) unless there is some factor that makes the particular situation especially dangerous. So maybe if someone was driving 160 mph, the police could stop them but then they'd probably get a ticket for unsafe driving. Probably there wouldn't be much of a speed limit on private roads, think Autobahn.

Beyond that is the practicality issue. We don't and shouldn't have preventive or proactive law. Most of the TV stealing and speeding that goes on today is not caught by the police but that isn't a reason to have a police officer assigned to every person to ensure that they don't commit a crime. I suppose you could be ensured of no rights violations that way but I wouldn't call it a free society.

I'm sure most private road owners would invite the police to travel their roads, would be glad that they did and it would be a good selling point for their product.

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If a satisfying technical solution to this and similar difficulties could be devised, it would greatly help the O'ist cause. This is the number one objective raised to me personally in conversations where I advocate Capitalism to others and attempt to convince them on the merits.

Tanaka made excellent points; but they still rely on human beings behaving rationally in the heat of the moment, which may be asking a lot at our crude level of social development.

I have found that rather than try to change people when thorny issues like this crop up, it is often easier to provide them with a technical solution to the problem so they don't have to worry about it and can plan accordingly (i.e., without the extra uncertainty clogging the conceptual engine).

So, rather than debate the morality of the situation (I find Tanaka's take spot on in this regard), is it possible to devise a technical or contractual means to resolve it?

I am kicking around some ideas but none yet satisfy me. My point, nonetheless, is that where possible it is better to erect technical and/or contractual solutions, rather than ask people to change more than they are ready to.

In fact, I think most if not all social change occurs as a result of increasing technical or contractual forces, in spite of history's focus on personalities. For example, without radio, the Battle of Britain would probably have gone the other way. That seems to me much more relevant to history than whatever psychological hijinks the Allies thought Hitler was falling for.

- ico

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