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 "defence" 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 centre.
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 favour 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
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 pay-off? 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 "Free-way" would have meaning
for the first time.
- 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-colour
painting every fifth of a mile, to inform travellers 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.
- 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
- 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...
- 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.