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Thursday, May 2, 2024

Could Privatized Oceans Have Prevented the Baltimore Bridge Collapse?

Private property rights and the profit motive can be expected to enhance safety on land. Why should things be any different on the water?

Image Credit: iStock

The Singaporean container ship Dali struck Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge at 1:27 a.m. on March 26, 2024. Fortunately, only a small amount of debris tumbled with the bridge into the Patapsco River below, and the deaths were limited to six construction workers. Had this accident occurred at 1:27 p.m. instead, the carnage would have been far greater. As it is, the deaths are still a tragedy, and there will be economic devastation aplenty, given that this harbor will have to be shut down for some time. The coal, autos, and much else shipped through this port will find alternatives in other East Coast states, but moving to these supply chain substitutes will be costly.

Terrorism was ruled out as a cause of this calamity. It appears as though the ship’s electronic system was faulty. The pilot lost control of the vessel and collided with one of the stanchions of the bridge, caving it in.

Is there anything that can be done to preclude such accidents forever in the future? No. Unfortunately not. We are all human beings, and our species is the mistake-making animal. Is there anything that can be done to decrease the probability of a repetition of such an occurrence in the future? Happily, there is: an acknowledgement of private property rights and the profit motive.

These two phenomena can be expected to work pretty well on land. Houses are certainly safer than they would otherwise be, thanks to building codes. But they would be even more protected if, instead, these rules were promulgated by private rating agencies which stood to lose money if they did not excel in this task, and would earn additional profits if they did. Think Yelp and Consumer Reports, or Fitch, Moody’s, and Standard & Poor’s in the financial realm.

Our highways have been safer since the advent of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration than they would have been in the absence of any rules of the road at all. But the number of people perishing annually in roadway accidents (currently 40,000) would be even lower if, instead, our streets and highways were privatized. Then, the road owners would gain or lose profits, in competition with others, based in part on how well they did in reducing fatalities.

But we have no such institutions that prevail on the high seas. Rather, the tragedy of the commons plagues this sector of the economy. I would say that “anarchy” prevails on the world’s oceans were I not a supporter of anarcho-capitalism.

How would privatization of all bodies of water function? Well, if I owned a patch of the Atlantic Ocean, I would charge greater fees to, or perhaps even ban, ships such as the Dali if they didn’t meet certain electronic certifications. Ships that lose power can crash into other boats, and I could be sued by the victims, depending upon the contracts I had with my customers.

With private ownership, there would be no more overfishing or danger of whale extinction. Privatization is the last best hope of quelling the tragedy of the commons.

While we are on the subject of water privatization, the repetition of the Katrina disaster of 2005, which killed 1,900 people in New Orleans, would be rendered far less likely. It was not due to the storm, but rather to the failure of the Mississippi River levees. Party City is situated below the water level, and when that failure occurred, massive flooding took place. Who, in turn, was responsible for that state of affairs? It was the much-vaunted United States Army Corps of Engineers. They are still in business! If this body of water had instead been in private hands, it would be under new management today. If McDonald’s were responsible for 1,900 deaths, it would be bankrupted and we would all be patronizing Burger King, Wendy’s, and their ilk.

Want to save some future Baltimore bridges? Apply to the oceans the very same institutions that work so well on land: private property rights and the profit motive.

Walter Block is the author of The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic Factors, and the co-author of Water Capitalism: The Case for Privatizing Oceans, Rivers, Lakes, and Aquifers.


  • Walter Edward Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.