I’m talking about America’s publicly owned roadways.
You have been brainwashed into believing that the State is the only possible solution to the problem of publicly accessible roadways. I am here to take the blinders off your head. The reality of how fully privatized roads would operate in a free society is most likely 180 degrees from what you have been lead to believe. If any private industry had millions of people die on their property the public would be outraged, yet this is what is happening with America’s publicly owned roads today. It is important that we look very carefully at road ownership due to the vast number of lives that are at stake.
Let us look at what the State has done with our roads. Every year around 40,000 people die on America’s publicly owned roadways. Traffic congestion in the major cities is deplorable, creating vast amounts of wasted time and energy. The condition of the roads themselves are deplorable, with bridges collapsing and pot holes needlessly destroying vehicles. How can anyone seriously look at our roadways today and say with a straight face that government has done a wonderful job of managing them?
The NHTSA lists 125 possible causes of deaths on America’s highways. These are proximate causes, not ultimate causes. If we want to address ultimate causes then we must address the management of roads themselves. Consider a restaurant owner who gets run out of business. The owner could list off a huge number of potential excuses as to why he was run out of business, but ultimately there is only one reason why the restaurant failed – bad management decisions.
It is self-evident that the government is one of the worst managers of roadways in the history of man. All one needs to do is look at the condition and safety of private tollways in comparison to government operated highways in order to see the vast difference private ownership of roads makes in terms of the safety and efficiency of the roads themselves.
I will address the problem of public ownership of roads from two perspectives. The moral perspective and the economic perspective. By the end of this article I hope to have convinced you that privatizing roads is the only rational way for roads to be operated.
A brief statement on the morality of publicly owned roads:
There are only two ways to acquire resources from others; the voluntary way or the coercive way. The free market is entirely voluntary in nature. The market is the concatenation of all voluntary acts of trade. When people deal with each other through private markets, they deal with each other in a civilized non-violent way. In the public sector we treat each other like barbarians. It is immoral for armed men to threaten individuals (who may not even own a car) with violent theft in order to fund the operation of roads that they might not even use.
Now we shall move on to the economics of road ownership.
First off, because there is no profit and loss test for government when it decides to build and maintain a roadway, it is impossible for the government to make rational plans about the placement and utilization of roads. This comes down to something called the Economic Calculation Problem that was first addressed by Ludwig von Mises. Prices are necessary in order to determine how resources should best be utilized.
Central planning has been thoroughly debunked as an economic system. If we know that centrally planned shoe production does not work (thanks to the Soviet Union), it follows that centrally planned roads don’t “work“ either; at least not nearly as well as a system of private ownership would allow for. The Soviets barely managed to get shoes on their peoples’ feet, and as we can clearly see by the conditions of our roadways today, the US government barely manages to create and maintain a functional system of roadways. Sure, we have roads, but they are terrible in the same manner that the Soviet peoples’ shoes were terrible – no choice, no competition, and no quality.
In a system of competitive road ownership, individual road owners would compete with each other in terms of price, efficiency, quality, and safety. The weeding out process of the market would ensure that only the best managers of roadways would become the largest owners and caretakers of roadways.
In our current state of affairs, there is no widespread experimentation on how to reduce traffic fatalities. Since there is no experimentation, it is impossible to know exactly how much improvement could come from privatizing roads. Markets are the only mechanism for discovering how best to reduce deaths. If we had a competitive system in road ownership, we would be able to see what works best at reducing deaths. Government has no direct financial incentive for engaging in experimentation to improve the quality, efficiency, and safely of roads, nor can it obtain feed back from the market since there are no profit/loss tests on publicly owned roads.
Economist Walter Block suggests that private proprietors might engage in things like putting up a huge cross or wrecked car at each accident location. They might fiddle with speed limits, bumpers, traffic dividers, or they might remove every restriction completely. There are thousands of different approaches to reducing fatalities and increasing road quality that never see the light of day because government roads are operated consistently in the same manner across all regions. Block estimates that traffic fatalities could be reduced to as few as 8,000 annual deaths vs. the current 40,000 annual deaths if all roads were privatized.
Let us move on to looking at an anecdotal example of private vs. publicly owned roads. Consider the case of Disney World vs. Detroit. The contrast is so stark that it leaves one almost speechless.
Does anyone seriously think that Disney would ever allow such a disgusting dilapidated road to exist on its properties? Disney senior management would fire the grounds manager responsible for such a catastrophe faster than the blink of an eye.
There is NO LEGITIMATE REASON why all roads should not look like Disney roads at all times. If Disney is capable of managing its roads to ensure maximum safety and quality, there is absolutely no reason to think all the other roads in America could not be brought up to the same quality standards. Government has been given the opportunity to do this for centuries and has failed. Disney has been managing its own roads for decades and has NEVER failed to maintain the quality of its roads.
Moving on to the issue of congestion. If we look at how government manages congestion on heavily traveled public highways, we can see that it has been a complete disaster. Since government does not face market competition, it has no incentive to adjust prices in a manner that would reduce congestion during peak hours. Government often INCREASES traffic congestion on its tollways by offering discount rates to frequent users during peak hours. And of course, free public highways have no mechanism to reduce traffic congestion at all since it costs nothing for consumers to use the product. Further, the government faces political blowback for engaging in congestion relieving pricing in the way a normal private proprietor would do.
The market is a natural rationing mechanism. The road is a limited resource that must be rationed. High toll prices during peak hours accomplish rationing by ensuring only those who have the greatest need will pay to access the road at times when it would be heavily congested.
So let us move on to covering some of the more prominent objections to privately owned roads.
1. “The Trap” – whereby a private road owner could charge millions of dollars for simple access to a restricted roadway that people are required to use for some reason.
In response to this, Block points out the obvious – people would obtain access insurance and bind access rights to contracts prior to building any residence or business facility.
If one considers the most likely scenario, all the little roadways around subdivisions would most likely be managed by private road management corporations. It would be an inconvenience for individual property owners to manage their own roads outside of their homes. Many houses in subdivisions today have to pay a Homeowners Association fee. There is no reason why these associations could not be expanded to include the maintenance of roadways around the subdivisions. It would be rare to see a private residence owner attempt to block access to a roadway through exorbitant toll pricing.
Further, private businesses would obviously not want to charge their customers for the simple privilege of accessing their business property. Privately owned roads by individual business owners would never charge for access as they would drive themselves out of business. As for highways, we already have privately owned toll-roads and they work wonderfully well. There is no reason why all highways could not be privatized.
2. “The Blocker” – whereby a private land owner who owns a long stretch of land could block the construction of new roads.
This argument is predicated on the Ad Coelum doctrine, which states that property owners own everything above and below their property. This doctrine is incompatible with libertarian homesteading and should be abolished. If we took Ad Coelum to its logical extreme, air travel would be impossible because people could sue airlines for simply flying over their property without permission.
Under libertarian homesteading, a property must be in use for it to be legitimately owned. This means a private road builder who runs into a person that is unwilling to sell his property to facilitate the construction of new roads could legitimately dig a tunnel underneath the property or build a bridge over the property that was blocking the progress of their road.
Further, consider that since the road would be for-profit, it would be a simple matter for the road builder to offer the property owner a portion of the proceeds he collects from tolls – which would be a rather large incentive for land holders to allow new roads to be built across their property. Currently government uses coercive force to simply take property from those who are unwilling to sell, which again is morally reprehensible.
There are a few other objections to privately owned roads as well, which Block refutes in his book The Privatization of Roads and Highways – Human and Economic Factors.
Watch Walter Block lecture on the issue of privatizing roadways:
Additionally, an audio lecture: Privatization: Roads, Eminent Domain – Walter Block