The Privatization of Roads & Highways

…or as it’s better known “MUH ROADS!

Oh my goodness! If I have to hear “but who will build the roads?” one more time I will drive my car off the cliff – where there are no roads! Although I guess that will be counterproductive to my long-term goal of education here at Books of Liberty, so on second thoughts maybe I’ll just write a short blog post about it.

In all honesty, we’re all at different stages of our (re)education and it makes sense that at some point anyone who considers statelessness would have to grapple with the question of the roads. Fortunately enough, the great Walter Block has written The Privatization of Roads & Highways, an almost-500 page tome that covers this topic and this topic alone. Call me weird, but when people ask me to describe myself by way of reading interests, I brag about how fascinated I was to read almost 500 pages on roads!

Block tackles this issue from a wide variety of angles: theoretical, ethical, practical, pragmatic, emotional, economic, historical… what hasn’t he covered? The fact that he was so methodological and comprehensive makes it indispensable for those who need to dispel the myth of “the roads”.

When someone asks about the roads they don’t care exclusively about the building of it; rather they care about the maintenance, they care about the accessibility, they care about many aspects of the roads and transportation, in general. Heck, they might not even realize it but we all care about safety, and it’s not until reading this book that I realized that even from a practical perspective of reducing the 35,000 fatalities each year(!!) on American roads that privatization has the answer.

Issues

Speed, drunkenness and other factors commonly cited as the reason for road fatalities are actually only proximate causes, not the ultimate causes.

Take, for instance, a nightclub where a fight breaks out where one or both are carrying a handgun. The cause for the fatality might be the bullet coming out of the barrel but you can be sure that the nightclub owner will be held responsible – if not legally, then certainly through the harsh mechanism of the free market where nobody comes back after this brawl.

It is the nightclub owner’s responsibility to have big burly men at the doors and to evict those who are a menace to themselves and others. It is the nightclub owner’s responsibility to not serve more alcohol to someone who’s already past his or her limit.

Same with the roads… if the owner of the roads (government) can’t adequately handle drivers who are hazardous to themselves and others, they have no business owning or managing roads – yet somehow they still do.

Solutions

Solutions are abound in this book in terms of current problems – road safety, congestion, etc – as well as suggestions for anticipated problems of getting to private ownership of roads. Take speed limits, for example, and road safety.

Speed limits are arbitrary. Perhaps it’s the fact that you can go from lane to lane that is dangerous. Could it be that people driving anywhere between 45 mph and 70 mph on the same road (25 mph difference) is that which is unsafe?

Consider a private road owner who thinks she’s got it all figured out. Maybe she would have lanes that you can’t just go in and out of, where the range of allowed speeds is plus or minus 5 mph, even if the range of speeds is 90 to 100 mph… Might that be safer? Who knows? But a mechanism such as the free market could answer that question quite well over time.

This and many other thought-provoking scenarios are scattered throughout the pages of this book.

Past and present

There are those who bring up “the roads” question not even looking for an answer. Rather they use it as a blunt instrument with which to knock you (or your argument) over the head to prove a historical “fact” that apparently the government is needed for something. What they don’t realize (and neither did I prior to reading this book) is that the history of roads is actually quite free-market leaning.

Private roads have historical precedents. They existed in the past and they exist to this day in certain areas, where they have proven to be efficient. Theoretically speaking, if you just take a moment to think about it, private roads will have to compete with one another and so they will exhibit increased quality, increased safety, and/or decreased price.

Over time, the fact that roads are open to competition can only ever make them “better” by whichever characteristic you choose to discriminate (not to mention it being the ethical choice).

For a purely economic exploration into the nature of privatization, you’d do well to read the first part of this book, as it lays the foundation of the theory. Issues of political theory are covered as well, such as holding public events (like parades or street parties) on public streets, eminent domain and immigration. But some of the best chapters in this book relate to “getting from here to there” and critiques (as well as responses) to the concepts laid out in the preceding chapters.

Concluding thoughts

Are you debating this topic with your friends? Why reinvent the steering wheel when Block has systematically covered it all!

It’s hard to summarize a book with so much depth and breadth. In a way, I would actually rather not summarize it too well, so that you find yourself just reading the book. It behooves us all, who are on the other end of this unceasing jeer of what to do with the roads, to read this book cover-to-cover and learn once and for all what in fact we do with the roads. If it moves, privatize it; if it doesn’t move, privatize it; privatize everything! And as always, thank you for reading!


 

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