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PC's Opinion: Frisking the Freeloaders

"PC's Opinion" is a pithy, heavily spiced editorial from Peter Cresswell that can be delivered to your in-box once a week. If you like what you read then feel free to forward it to everyone you've ever met, and to subscribe at

PC's Opinion
20 March, 2002
Frisking the Freeloaders
By Peter Cresswell

A modern parable today - the story of Brett the private detective.

Brett has never worn a trenchcoat, "packed a rod", or described a blonde as being as "beautiful as a split lip" - nor have any "best-selling page-turners" been written with him as hero. Despite these manifest failings however, he has nonetheless achieved success in his chosen field: he has a comfortable small business protecting people's homes in an idyllic lakeside village in heartland NZ.

He should be happy, but despite his success he is not. He is, you see, upset about free-loaders.

People pay Brett and his colleagues to prowl around their homes to keep them safe, the theory being that if Brett and co are prowling around then others with less benevolent intent will not be. The theory works - burglaries all around the lake have plummeted since Brett's patrols began, and homeowners all around the lake are very happy.

Not all homeowners are coughing up though. Brett likes people to pay him an annual fee of $250 to keep their homes safe, and many people do: homes Brett and his men keep their eyes on are un-burgled, un-vandalised and un-invaded. So also are the homes that pay Brett isn't paid to keep an eye on.

Nearly half of the village's homeowners don't pay Brett, but he and his men keep the burglars away anyway - making these home-owners very happy, and Brett hopping mad. "We don't need to pay you to keep our home safe," point out the non-payers, "because you're already keeping the burglars away by protecting these other homes." "Well, yes," Brett usually agrees, "but I ain't doin' it for nothing." Hands firmly in pockets, the recalcitrant homeowners then argue that they shouldn't need to pay Brett's $250 annual fee anyway because the damn taxes they pay are supposed to provide a police force to protect them. Aren't they? Huh?

"Well, yes they are, agrees Brett, "but they don't. And I do." Joe and Josephine Home-Owner then agree that he does - for nothing. Some tell him it's one of the benevolent consequences of the free market. He calls them free-loaders. They close the door. Brett is still hopping mad.

But Brett has a plan. A plan so cunning you could set a tax collector on it and call it a compulsory levy - which is what he's lobbying council to impose!

He says his service is good, and everyone should pay for what they get. I say he has gone from protecting people's property to trying to steal some of it for himself. If his lobbying is successful, Brett is about to become one of the thieves.

This is wrong.

He says is service is a good one. It is. He says it is good for the community. It probably is. He says it is a public good, and so all the public should pay for it. At that point I say: "Hold it right there, Mister, and put your hands in the air!"

Let's just that run that slippery beast 'the public good' to ground, shall we? Let's start by establishing exactly what it means when we say something is 'good,' and who gets to decide.

'Good' presupposes two important questions: 'Good for whom?' and 'Good for what?' 'Good for what' suggests that some benefit will accrue to somebody; that somebody is the 'whom' that it is good for - a 'good' must have a recipient. Now, it seems clear that the only person to judge whether or not something is good for them (or not) is the person to whom the benefit is supposed to accrue. "That's good!" says the vegetarian tucking into a tofu burger - but not every steak-fed trencherman is likely to agree with them.

So a 'good' is a value identified as such by the beneficiary of that value. Uh huh. This makes sense on the individual level, when we each get to choose our own goods (and choose how we're going to pay for them) but how does that work with a so-called 'public good'? Ayn Rand had this scam worked out in her article 'The Fascist New Frontier,' saying: "There is no such thing as 'the public interest' except as the sum of the interests of individual men." The concept she says is undefinable, and is always a precursor to some attempt of public theft.

Throughout recorded history, politicians and people seeking to get their hands in other people's wallets have proclaimed "The public, c'est moi!" and claimed it would be 'good' if control of people's wallets was turned over to them. The results have never been good, as no act of theft ever can be. Brett is just the latest, and perhaps the least sophisticated, to turn from the job of protecting private property to attempting to steal it.

Brett is guilty of attempted theft; he's also guilty of abuse of the English language.

And so, for the same reason, is every politician who thinks the so-called public good gives them a direct pipeline into everybody's wallet.

© 2001

This column may be reproduced anywhere, anytime, by anyone as long as it is reproduced in full, with attribution to, and that you let Peter know at

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