Millions Dead And People Accept It As Perfectly Normal

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.

A Disney owned road (credit Google maps):

A Detroit publicly owned road (credit Google maps):

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

  • LessGov1976

    I have loved many an article on this site, however this is not one of them. The premise is ludicrous, and there was zero effort to come up with a counter point. Anyone can come up with any asinine theory and selectively provide evidence to support it. Just look at the Creationists. Corporations could just as easily see a road or a bridge was loosing money and walk away from it. There is no tax revenue in Michigan because most Corporations shipped their jobs/investments overseas. Go there and look at all the privately owned derelict buildings. There are many first world countries please name one with a great entirely privatized transit system.

    • http://www.libertariannews.org/ Michael Suede

      I cited an entire book + lecture by a published economist on this issue.  If you want more detailed arguments, the information has been provided too you.

      The premise is far from ludicrous.

      • LessGov1976

        Actually I get the argument above and the argument in the video. If the book is more of the same I’ll pass as I prefer rational arguments to flights of fancy. Thanks though.

  • LessGov1976

    Most of my previous comments were made from my cell phone so to make my point I used words that were a bit stronger than I would have liked in an attempt to get my point across quickly. Now that I have a keyboard in front of me…

    Neither the article above, nor the video, from this published economist actually discuss the financial viability of this premise. Does that seem odd to anyone else? How, pray tell, is this patch work of corporations going to finance these roads? Will they all be toll roads? How will goods be transported? Will they be exempt? What will be the impact on the price of goods be, if every road is a toll road? One might say, “Oh, let the market regulate itself of course.” The premise is that of freedom and choice, but what choice will people/companies have but to pay? I mean you can’t not go to work. You can’t not check in on your elderly mother. Businesses can’t create a viable business model if at any point they may have to reroute their goods around unanticipated price changes or bankrupt companies that have abandon large swaths of road. Of course the answer to this will probably be similar to the video where the word “maybe” is repeated incessantly or the phrase, “I don’t know,” will pop up again and again. This, in and of itself, is in essence saying that there is no real plan here. No economically viable alternative. Sorry but isn’t that an economists first task given what he is proposing?

    Furthermore, if private roads and toll roads are so superior why has google maps had an avoid toll roads button for as long as it has existed? I have been involved in OEM sales to GM, Ford and Chrysler and have traveled extensively in the U.S and abroad. I always avoid toll roads; and not because I am cheap. The Pennsylvania turnpike is notoriously dangerous with cattle shoots for miles. In case you don’t know what I mean by cattle shoot, as you travel there is a semi on your right 3 feet away (depending on how much sleep he has had) and a concrete barrier to its right as well as one to your left and these are less than a foot and a half away at times and there is no shoulder for miles, and these “construction” project lasts years (in the case of Penn Turnpike 7+) without completion. Chicago toll roads are still somewhat congested and often in worse repair than the public highways. Then there is the matter of unneeded stops to pay tolls increasing the wear and tear on your vehicle, and fuel consumption, in addition to paying for the time on the road. 

    As to your photo examples, it is just as easy to site private roads in disrepair as it is to site public roads: http://www.the-signal.com/archives/42367/, http://o4.aolcdn.com/dims-shared/dims3/PATCH/resize/600×450/http://hss-prod.hss.aol.com/hss/storage/patch/66ab2ef578702b0c2553da588e7bab29…and there are also plenty of examples of the public bailing out failed private toll roads: http://satollparty.com/post/?p=667, www.10news.com/news/28712446/detail.html, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_State_Route_267. Privatization just isn’t always the answer…wraltechwire.com/business/tech_wire/news/blogpost/8008913/www.10news.com/

    The logistics of the national highway system are enormous. set aside cranes and steam rollers and jackhammers concrete cutters other expensive pieces of machinery, skilled laborers, engineers, and the need to regulate traffic flow, let just look at raw materials and the dump trucks needed to move it. Just the procurement of steel, asphalt, gravel, sand, and salt is a monuments tasks and then getting it from one place to where it is needed across an entire continent is a monuments task. I just mention this because there is no patchwork solution for the U.S. highway system and  I am curious as to what company, that would be up to the task, should be put in control of this national asset. Halliburton? Enron? Exxon? IBM? GE? Berkshire Hathaway? AT&T (Ma Bell)? Hopefully, I don’t need to remind anyone of the amoral practices of the above companies or the horrendous conditions of the corporate towns in the roaring 20’s. What would prevent them from using their control of the highway system to make life difficult on their competitors?

    The problem with libertarians is, they take deregulation too far. This is why Ron Paul is considered a nut job and marginalized, even when he is obviously the best candidate (republican or democrat). No one wants to live in a world where chemical waste is disposed of in children’s playgrounds, where lake Erie catches on fire, where things like the love canal occur. Honestly, there are terrible, aggravating and disappointing companies that flourish and survive. Most of these companies benefit from near-monopolies. The only potential check to balance these corporations is government. The biggest threat to western society is the influence the private sector exerts over the government and vice versa.