Who owns the streets?

When I was reading about the drug war for my last post, one of the articles talked about a pastor in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore calling out drug dealers openly dealing drugs down the street from his church. The context was that such open defiance of the law would not have been tolerated before Freddie Gray. Since the mass protests against the police following his death, the fuzz have held back. But to me the interesting question is what tolerating drugs means for the residents of a neighborhood. Must they tolerate any kind of activity in their own streets?

Are the streets owned or unowned?

A doctrinaire libertarian answer is that drug-dealing is a peaceful activity and law enforcement has no business interfering. But a more sophisticated response recognizes that no one has the right to deal drugs on a certain property against the will of the property owner. So, the sophisticated libertarian not only has to point out that drug dealing is itself a voluntary exchange but must also establish that the owners of the space where the drug dealing occurs do not object to the activity (or that the space is unowned and hence no one has any grounds to object to any peaceful activity that takes place there).

The sense I got from the pastor was that he felt in some sense that the street belonged to them. If he was correct, then he would have the right to forbid drug dealing there. Is that feeling justified? This depends on our theory of ownership of public spaces like streets. A lot of people accept the notion that the government owns those spaces and can make the rules. The legitimacy of the government¬† supposedly rests on majority rule. Indeed, there is a longstanding debate in libertarianism over who exactly “owns” public, i.e. government-run, spaces. I want to illustrate the problem with this in a more straightforward fashion.

The problem with majority rule

Let’s say the federal government drops drug prohibition tomorrow and Maryland follows by legalizing all drugs. The state’s decision has the backing of a majority of the state’s voters. However, a majority of the city still want drugs illegal, yet the state preempts any local legislation against drugs. Why should the majority of the smaller unit be cast aside for the majority of the larger unit? Why can’t each city and county decide what to ban and what to allow?

Now let’s move down another level. Let’s say the city wants to ban drugs, but some neighborhoods want to legalize them. It is conceivable that the illegal drug trade and drug usage affects different neighborhoods in different ways. It might make sense to ban drugs in one neighborhood but allow them in another, yet the centralization of city government does not allow this.

I hope this illustrates the problem of “majority rule”. Even if you accept the premise that the majority has the right of rule, you still have to define the unit. The majority of what? If there are different ways to divide up the population to get different majorities, what makes one division more legitimate than another? Why should the same rules govern neighborhoods as different as Sandtown-Winchester and Roland Park just because they happen to be in the same larger political unit?

Let local residents regulate their own streets

Which bring us back to the pastor’s church and their feelings about drug dealers doing their business in his neighborhood. Ultimately, those streets and other public spaces need to be handed over to the people who live and walk them every day and not be run by politicians from elsewhere that have no direct stake in the maintenance of those spaces. And while I don’t think any government has the right to forbid people from engaging in any peaceful exchange, including drugs, I do in fact acknowledge the desires of community members to regulate the use of spaces they use in common. I also happen to think that, when it comes to public property, the effective owners are those who habitually use it, i.e. the neighboring residents. So I say put it up to the vote of the people living on that block and leave everyone else out of it!