Skip to comments.Highways and Roads in a Free Society
Posted on 02/06/2013 2:00:16 AM PST by Tolerance Sucks Rocks
As a libertarian, I believe that you have a right to live your life as you see fit as long as you dont violate somebody elses right to do the same. Libertarianism represents the only non-coercive political/economic philosophy in the universe. All other such philosophies: democracy, republicanism, monarchy, dictatorship, socialism, and communism employ the brute force (violence) of government to enforce compliance of one groups wishes on another group.
Many Americans believe that libertarianism is an unworkable framework because without government to provide and enforce laws, society would be in chaos. Additionally, opponents of greater freedom question how the services currently provided by government would be handled in a free market environment.
It is understandable that many Americans hold these doubts about libertarianism. As a society, we are socialized through the government-dependent schools, universities, and mass media to accept that we need big government to protect us from the excesses of capitalism and freedom in general. If that doesnt get the job done, those members of society who, for a long time, have held statist views, and are therefore closed to thinking for themselves, ridicule us for believing such nonsense in an effort to get us to conform. After all, normal human behavior requires that we want to be liked, or at the very least, not thought to be a weirdo.
One of the biggest questions raised against a totally free society is, who would build roads and regulate their use? Where would we be without government-provided speed limits, traffic signals, and road construction?
Well, in the early 1800s, America actually had a huge network of private roads and highways. According to Thomas J. DiLorenzo, hundreds of private road building companies invested over $11 million in turnpikes in New York, $6.5 million in New England, and over $4.5 million in Pennsylvania. By 1840, this resulted in the private production and operation of about 3,750 miles of road in New England, 4000 miles in New York, and 2400 miles in Pennsylvania. In fact, in real dollar terms, this production exceeded the interstate highway program financed and run by the federal government after World War II.
And we still have private roads in America today. Besides examples like the Reedy Creek Improvement District and Dulles Greenway, the National Bridge Inventory, a database compiled by the Federal Highway Administration, lists approximately 2200 privately owned highway bridges in forty-one states! Many of these thruways charge tolls which are fairer because they are user fees. All are proof that government is not necessarily needed to build and maintain roadways in America.
Okay, well, what about local roads in residential and business districts? In a libertarian society, all land would be owned privately. Thus, roads would no longer be public, but private property with certain deed restrictions for easements and right-of-way privileges. The land would be owned by business proprietors and homeowners. They would have an incentive to maintain it as a right-of-way, because otherwise the value of their property would decrease, or in the case of a business, sales would plummet. Freeing property owners from paying property taxes eliminates the middleman (inefficient bureaucracy), and frees up more money to go directly into road repair. If you dont think property owners would maintain their rights-of-way, think of the endless number of them who pave their own driveways and then seal them each year.
In my own case, my house is located in a rural part of North Carolina on the side of a mountain. The properties of my neighbors and me extend into our street. Consequently, I own a portion of street which is allocated as a right-of-way. Even though I pay property tax to the county, it does not maintain this right-of-way. Instead, the property owners on our street must maintain it. Every year, I spend about $300 as my contribution to maintaining the road. Thats a small price to pay if I didnt have to pay the larger county tax amount. Now, it is true that some folks on the street do not contribute anything to road maintenance. But I am no worse off with that than I am with paying taxes for public schools in the county that I will never use.
As to what would happen if we didnt have government provided speed limits, stop signs, and traffic signals? There is a misconception that a libertarian society would be devoid of rules. Of course, you could still have speed limits, stop signs, and traffic signals on your road; otherwise, for safety reasons, motorists might not use it. Again, if you were a homeowner, this would decrease your property value and also provide an unsafe circumstance for your own property, including your house and vehicles. Unsafe business districts would be littered with the shattered dreams of bankrupt enterprises.
In the last century, how many Americans attended local city council meetings to petition their municipality to install stop signs or traffic signals at busy intersections? How many homeowners with children or pets requested that speed limits in their neighborhoods be reduced? When there is a need, people react. It is naive to believe that people who have a stake in their communities and a financial interest therein would not fill the void left by government relinquishing its responsibility over roads.
Lastly, we have built the roads and instituted rules for the same. How would those rules be enforced? I suppose local police agencies could still have jurisdiction. But what is more likely is for homeowner and business associations to hire private security companies to handle patrolling and enforcement of the property rights of landowners. After all, if someone litters on my property, it is a violation of my property rights, not a crime against society. Thus, violators could be apprehended either physically or through identifying perpetrators to a local magistrate for the administration of justice.
At the end of the day, no libertarian believes their ideas for society would be perfect. But we do believe they would be possible and better than what we have now. Private ownership of all material things is always better. It has been proven that the freer a society is the more prosperous it is. One need only look at the history of America: we have more government restrictions on our freedom now than ever before and our decline is imminent. What is needed is an intellectual awakening in America. This awakening must open our minds and seek to question the tired mantras of statist institutions like schools and the mass media.
The author says,
“As a libertarian, I believe that you have a right to live your life as you see fit as long as you dont violate somebody elses right to do the same.”
in describing a free society but does that equate to a just society? Or help to choose among competing interests?
“But we do believe they would be possible and better than what we have now.”
Except that libertarians have no evidence that their ideology is, in fact, possible. Point to another successful libertarian society in history. Now if you were to say you wanted a more libertarian society, then we could certainly agree that’s possible. However, there will always be competing interests in any society. I think the closest this world ever came to achieving your ideal was at the founding, but things happen that cause government to expand. I’m just wondering if there’s a historically proven way to back a government down without things falling apart? In other words, do governments ever substantially change without a crisis? Or, is government expansion inevitable short of war, revolution, or economic collapse?
“Many of these thruways charge tolls which are fairer because they are user fees.”
Here’s the problem: If the governor clears a right-of-way for a “private highway”, and then sells the use of that right-of-way to a private company for, say, $2 Billion, and then promises to ‘protect’ that company from competition (i.e., nearby new highway, or nearby upgraded roads) for 75 years, and then allows that private company to charge whatever level of tolls it wants to charge during that time - is that really a “free-market solution”.
I would argue that private company was just used as a tax collector for the state - because where does that $2 Billion go? It goes into state coffers for general use. So a good chunk of everyone’s toll is not just paying off the highway, but also paying off $2 Billion that the governor got to spend as he wished, on anything he wished. In fact, often the “concession fee” is higher than the cost of the highway. By the time the project is finished, you have a beautiful ribbon of concrete that costs so much that no one uses it, as has the been the recent history of private toll roads in this country, particularly when there wasn’t a captive audience to extract money from (i.e., for undeveloped areas).
So, maybe if private highways were structured differently - such as no long-term “partnerships”, no up-front fees, and no no-compete clauses, then it might be possible to have some of these roads. Part of the bidding process would be to find out which company would operate the road cheapest. Of course the big companies wouldn’t be nearly as interested in the projects, and the big wad of money the governor was hoping to get to hand out to his friends wouldn’t materialize, but the roads would be cheaper and probably get some use.
But, in the end, why bother. Just raise the gas tax a dime.
On other thing, he doesn’t talk about the little detail of eminent domain, which is practically required to build a highway in most of the country. Without it, nothing can get built, particularly in Texas and the Eastern half of the country where nearly all of the land is privately owned.
I guess one has to assume that he would use the state in a way similar to Kelo, to take property from reluctant owners, and hand it to a private company.
I always get annoyed at people that leave out inconvenient details of their schemes because they can lure people into thinking it’s a good idea. Take Communism. The missing detail was how to get people to work, when they received no personal benefit from it. No one bothered with that concern up front, so they got Communism, the economies tanked, and the people had to be turned into virtual (or real) slaves, to get anything at all done.
“Except that libertarians have no evidence that their ideology is, in fact, possible. Point to another successful libertarian society in history.”
I was thinking the same also. In college we used to have arguments about whether Communism was better than Capitalism. People on my side would point out all the failed Communist states, the Berlin Wall, etc. The response would be that those countries are not “true” Communist countries, and that no country has tried “true” Communism yet...and if we would just do it right, everyone would be happy.
Needless to say, thinking that the results would be any different with that bunch in charge of the next Communist society was a joke, and they didn’t get very far convincing most of us (but some idiots did believe them).
The most powerful tool a government has in its management of transportation infrastructure in the U.S. is not its powers of taxation or eminent domain, but a legal principle called "sovereign immunity." Without this immunity, a government body would be subject to massive civil lawsuits every time an accident occurs on a road in its jurisdiction. Auto accidents in the U.S. number in the millions every year, with tens of thousands of fatalities among them.
This very issue has been a subject of dispute in one of the big public-private toll road deals in recent years (I believe it involves the Indiana Turnpike). The private company that now operates the road is involved in a lawsuit related to an accident that occurred on the highway, and has been trying (unsuccessfully, so far) to get the same legal immunity from lawsuits that Indiana had when it was a state-owned and state-operated highway.
Personally, I think this problem of potentially unlimited liability is what is ultimately going to doom any large-scale privatization efforts for highways and bridges in the U.S.
Libertarianism is OK with me as theory, but I don’t think it’s achievable in reality. It would require a moral people who would choose to use their great freedom very sparingly. That doesn’t seem realistic in the long term.
This article strikes me as somewhat strange. It’s like the author actually thinks libertarians matter, like they are on the ascendency (while the world moves rapidly left). If leftists keep concentrating power at the federal or, worse, world level, we will end up with totalitarianism—not libertarian or conservative government.
Unfortunately, I just don’t see how our federal government is going to give up any power until some major crisis happens. I don’t want that crisis, btw. I’m just saying I think it’s inevitable. I was hoping a fellow FReeper could point out some governments that willingly shed power. Historically, these things never work out well.
With all that’s happening, do libertarians seriously believe they’re winning?