Roads to Serfdom

Soon after becoming a libertarian, I tried to imagine how society would function with a far, far smaller government, and I lost no time. It was not hard to see the appalling waste government produces, nor the towering inefficiency of its operations. I could quickly grasp that most major functions needed to be turned over to free competitive enterprise: health care, welfare, retirement insurance, education--especially education!--air traffic control, environmental protection, "justice," and yes, even the alleged "defense" industry. The lot, pretty well. Except roads.

How, I wondered, could one make a case for privatizing roads? American roads are the envy of the world, give or take a few pot-holed city streets. Their cost is hard to measure, and so hard to complain about. And most of all, to suggest that private road owners would compete for business (how?) and charge fees for usage (again, how?) was to invite ridicule and so undermine one's overall credibility. So I put that particular task on the back burner. That was 20 years ago. Today, it's front and center.

I must still concede that often, governments deliver quality roads. I have stood, and ridden, on the Via Appia Antica in Rome; and the 2,000 year old cobblestones still work. I was schooled in England near the remains of Watling Street, one of several Roman roads that radiated out from London to serve the needs of empire, straight as an arrow--and I could cycle over one of its bridges. Imperial military planners have built many a fine road, from the Emperor Claudius to Adolph Hitler to Dwight Eisenhower. True, individual property rights have been trampled in the process, but hey, society needs your land and you'd be anti-social to resist. In fact, you really don't own it anyway, except by the grace and favor of government, right?

Not only can government road quality be high, but there's the economic problem of fees, of use-charging in small sums. When I go shopping, I drive half a mile on the government roads of Town A, then two miles on a State road, then 3/4 mile on the road of Town B. How am I to be billed fractions of a penny for these transactions? - surely it's simpler to pay for roads by some percentage of general taxation, a socialist pot?

Not so fast, I can now say to my collectivist friend. Twenty years ago, lasers were in their infancy; today, that shopping trip will likely laser-scan every package you buy, with lightning speed and amazing accuracy, whether it's priced at $20 or 20 cents or (we can hope) 0.2 cents; and the cost of each scan is negligible. Take a trip on many a government Interstate, and toll booths offer an E-Z Pass channel where the same thing is done at a distance of several yards, not inches. Discrete capture of billing data in small sums is now entirely feasible; end of one major objection to free-market roads! Okay, so it's no longer so hard to do; but still, why bother? - where's the big payoff? Let us count the ways. And let's note first and foremost that when a government "owns" roads, it owns not just the stones and tar but the entire management system. The alternative of private ownership for profit would transfer those functions along with the hardware, and there's the win-win-win.

1. Property rights would be restored. The strange and ugly phrase "eminent domain" would be retired to the Governed Ages Dictionary. A road-builder wants your land? - then he must bid for it, and if you can't agree a price, he'll build it elsewhere or not at all.

2. Change rates would be natural. Because of Item 1, it's likely that development of roads will be slower than in the past; they will get built where investors think the risk is well justified by predicted traffic and profits, after counting the true market price of construction, but not otherwise. The resulting adjustments (like displacement of passenger rail traffic in the 1950s) will be more gradual, so minimizing bankruptcies and catastrophic job losses.

3. Rules would be simple, few, and contractual. You elect to use Able Co.'s road? - then you enter a contract. Able, however, has a direct incentive to make your experience as pleasant as possible. Perhaps he will limit speeds, perhaps not (as today in Montana and Germany), but in either case, he will set the rules to maximize his long-term profits, which will correlate closely to how pleasant is his customers' experience--and the terms offered would feature in sales promotion: "Drive Able--we set no limits / On the importance of your time." And in the case of breach, contracts would not be renewed--but the errant driver would be barred only from Able's road, not from Baker's or Charley's. Seat belt use would of course be optional, being nobody's business but the cars' riders. And if the road-owner installed CCTV cameras, his reputation would survive only if he gave solid assurance that they would not be used for spying on his customers. Because it "owns" the roads, government has found it easy to bully the population by erecting "traffic courts," which sidestep the clear words of Amendments 6 and 7--which require a jury trial of all criminal cases and all civil ones involving more than $20. Watch the sneer of the government judge when you demand a jury trial over a $30 parking fine! Such mangling of simple justice would be impossible in a free society with for-profit road ownership. The word "Freeway" would have meaning for the first time.

4. Roads would be safer--because it's in the owners' interests to keep them safe; safety would be a selling feature. Today, the most dangerous single thing on the road is the cop, especially one running a radar trap; as soon as the lead car spots him, the driver brakes, causing a concertina behind him. That's true even in towns; I was once flagged down for some very minor infraction, but while the cop was starting to record my ID, a rubbernecking lady in the stream of cars astern of his rear-end rear-ended the car in front of her, directly behind his behind. My lucky day, her unlucky one; hundreds of dollars' worth of damage, just because. Other hazards would be measured for importance and countered, on a cost-effective basis. This year a nearby stretch of I-89 was enhanced by pretty green signs with 3-color painting every fifth of a mile, to inform travelers that they are now passing "89-7-.2" as a position fix. It could have been done more simply for a tenth the cost, and was a clear sign of a budget unspent and so endangered. Or if Able or Baker found that real-time ice-detection equipment and flashing signs reduced liability claims and boosted business, they'd be installed; if not, not. The entire industry would in such ways be run on a rational basis for the first time ever.

5. Travel would be much cheaper-- for a heap of reasons related to government road ownership. Car designs, for example, would be set by the market and not by edict; if customers demand safe but heavy gas-guzzlers, that's what would be sold, and without the host of government-mandated, expensive gizmos like catalytic converters. It is a profound irony that as in the last two decades, technical advances have made computing costs plummet, car prices have relentlessly risen. This cannot happen unless government distorts a market. Government ownership of roads makes it easy for property and sales tax to be collected on the vehicles we choose to buy. Another major component of cost, which would not be facilitated when they are owned for private profit.

6. No Licensure, No Plates, No DMV. Even in the relatively non-intrusive days of 1993, and in the relatively benign State of New Hampshire, I wrote a newspaper article about the sheer nonsense that was involved in registering two vehicles and two drivers who had moved from elsewhere. Today it's just as incompetent and expensive and even more arrogant. Example: last May I was rear-ended. The other party's insurer (Peerless Co.) refused to pay directly for the repairs but insisted on writing-off the vehicle, because his valuation algorithm told him so. I could see at once he was grossly understating the car's value, but he insisted: "Sue me if you like, but the State will back me up." Had the State's DMV not existed, he could not have gotten away with that, and publicly available sources like Kelley's Blue Book would have likely prevailed. As it was, I had to go through the artificial procedure of getting the (repaired) car re-registered, for a government fee he refused to reimburse. All part of the ludicrous and costly burden placed on travel by the fact that government claims to own the roads. As for licensure, road owners might well require as a contractual term that customers show some evidence of ability to drive safely. So if a ten-year-old can bring a competence certificate from a reputable examiner, that would suffice; and of course, the certificate would last forever since driving is a skill which, once learned, isn't forgotten. The nonsense of getting "licenses" renewed periodically or upon changing State, is a total waste of resources that would, again, feature only in a Museum of Government Absurdities. That leads us to . . . .

7. No Government ID Card. This is the supreme reason to get government out of the road business: under the guise of securing our safety on "its" roads--for which it makes us pay--it has invented the need for a "license" and so prostituted its use as to identify and document us to the ultimate devastation of our security; to enter us in a database operated for its own malevolent purposes by the most powerful organization on Earth. The formation of a National ID database has had government people salivating for some decades, and it has been steadily building State by State with the useful identifier of the grotesquely misnamed "Social Security" system; but on December 9th 2004, Congress enacted a decree to force everyone who wants to drive--the vast majority of the population--to submit to "biometric" identification, a presumably far less ambiguous tag than a 10-digit number susceptible to theft. One writer whom I respect reported that news with a gloomy conclusion: "We're finished." I hope she's wrong, but have a hard time denying it. If she's right, the resultant slavery (with the freedom to do nothing without government approval)--or at the least, serfdom--is the ultimate logical and disastrous consequence of allowing government to run the roads.

Notice however, please: I'm not calling for government to be eliminated just from the management of roads. I'm calling for government to be eliminated, even from management of the roads. Nothing less will do.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?"