Over the past few years, environmentalist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil have caused a grand amount of disruption within the UK. Their methods include gluing themselves to roads and trains, blockading oil terminals and breaking bank windows among other methods of vandalising property.
This can also be said for groups such as Black Lives Matter who have also caused disruption by throwing a statue of Edward Colston into the River Avon or defacing the statue of Winston Churchill. Regardless of whether you believe in the causes of these groups, their actions have led to an immense amount of suffering and general annoyance which the British public has been forced to endure.
The Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill punishes protestors for being disruptive, making it illegal to “intentionally or recklessly cause public nuisance” with these reckless acts, such as blocking people from accessing medical help and going to their job. This involves setting a start and finish time and noise limits.
Activist groups have used freedom of expression as a justification for their actions and to criticise the bill, stating that the point of protests is to be disruptive. That may be true, but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that there are consequences to being disruptive. If you violate private property, whether that be breaking a window or toppling a statue, you should face legal punishment. As Friedrich von Hayek summarised, “the system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom”. Activists should stop smearing the name of freedom when they have no regard for respecting anyone else’s freedom but their own.
The problem for liberals comes when we stop talking about private property and get onto public property. If an environmentalist group wants to glue themselves to a public road, who has the authority on how to respond? The assumed liberal position might be the one that assures the most freedom, allowing protestors to glue themselves to roads and cause as much disruption as necessary for the sake of freedom of expression. Yet this would be catastrophic. If the road which the protestors glued themselves to was private, it would be in their interest to remove the disruption as quickly as possible since it would lead to a major profit loss if those on the road couldn’t count on the company to provide a safe and smooth journey.
This would be a whole different conversation if the roads were privatised since the property owners could use their property in whatever way they wish. Yet even the most radical libertarians agree that in the situations where goods and services are public, they should be run like a business, catering to the customers. As Murray Rothbard stated, “I’m in favour of privatising everything but short of that glorious day existing government services should be operated as efficiently as possible.”
We can apply this logic to other areas. Should a liberal allow a state school teacher to teach their students something that is undoubtedly factually incorrect for the sake of freedom of speech? Should they be allowed to show primary school students inappropriate sexual material for the sake of freedom of expression? Of course not! While in the hands of the state, representatives should be allowed to determine the rules of the property they have been delegated control over.
This is not to say that freedom of expression must be completely limited as this, too, is not within the public’s interest. Political protest has brought about great change over the past centuries. However, this should not override the freedom and property rights of others – including that of the public’s, in areas of government services.
To fight for freedom does not have to come at the cost of fighting for safety. Until the day the roads and police are privatised, it is within the public’s interest that they work for the good of ordinary men instead of militants with no regard for property.