Government: Trafficking in Failure
Economists of an Austrian bent just can't take off their analytical spectacles, even when undertaking simple life activities like driving from here to there. Fortunately, this unusual way of looking at events and institutions yields fascinating results, as with a recent commute that nicely illustrated the universal truth that governments cause problems whereas markets solve them.
It was cold, damp and foggy. The rain was ice cold and the wind was picking up. I was cold for the first time in many months. Mother Nature was not at her best that morning, but I would soon find that government had even worse plans for me. Government roads would turn a one hour and forty-five minute drive to the airport into a four hour and fifteen minute nightmare.
I was in the Bay area for the Mises Institute’s Supporters Summit and it was a thoroughly successful and enjoyable affair with a packed crowd of loyal supporters and an All Star lineup of speakers. After the conference I drove north to Calistoga in Napa Valley for a quick visit with my brother and sister-in-law in wine country.
The previous night I checked the weather forecast and knew about the rainstorm and made plans to leave early enough so that if I averaged twenty miles per-hour I could still make it to the airport on time. Mentally prepared for the long plane ride home and even the humiliation of the modern-day strip search by Homeland Security, little could prepare me for the horrendous results of government control of highways in the Bay Area.
Things started out badly. I heard on the radio that a truck had crashed on my planned route over the Bay Bridge. It was on fire and blocking all five lanes of traffic. I decided to divert my course west over the Golden Gate Bridge, but right before my turn another radio report indicated that path was blocked by a new truck accident and a multi-car accident further south. A quick telephone call to my sister-in-law and I had a new route to the east, only to learn on the radio that a propane truck had overturned and was completely blocking traffic on that route.
It was like the Highway Department’s version of Three Card Monty, so with great trepidation I choose my original route which was the most direct and where the accident happened earliest. No more accidents happened along my route. The traffic was moving far too slow for that. The radio announcers called it the worst commuting day in San Francisco history.
Callers to the radio station that I was listening to began to complain about large trucks on the highway that were involved in accidents. The announcer was sympathetic to the suggestion that trucks should be banned from the highways during rush hour. Next, we heard several callers come to the defense of truck drivers, claiming that truck drivers were more cautious and better drivers than automobile drivers. The announcer then made several pleas for automobile drivers not to pull in front of trucks and to maintain a safe distance between vehicles.
What followed was a string of rather bizarre suggestions for fixing the traffic problem which is really a daily problem for hundreds of thousands of people in the Bay Area. One caller suggested that police officers be placed “everywhere” to prevent bad driving, but that was quickly dismissed by the announcer as impossible. Another caller suggested a monthly “do not tailgate day” where everyone would pledge not to tailgate on a certain day. Before completing his description of this altruistic holiday, the caller lamented that it “was probably a pie-in-the sky idea.”
This was a classic case of everyone thinking inside the box. Everyone failed to realize that the basic problem was government ownership of the roads. The everyday problem had simply become a much bigger problem on that particular day. Private roads would be run to please the customers, not to infuriate them and put them at great risk.
Apparently, the roads were covered by a layer of oil that builds up during the summer when it doesn’t rain. When the first rains of the fall occur the roads become very slippery making it difficult to stop your vehicle. This happens almost every year and yet no one at the Highway Department has done anything about it, even though “slippery pavement” is a “first priority in roadbed maintenance.”
I would imagine that a private road company would do preventive maintenance to solve this problem. Perhaps they would send out street sweepers at night that were designed to remove the oil and provide better traction. The alternative would be lawsuits and competition from safer roads and modes of transportation.
Private road companies would design and build safer roads and they would apply techniques to reduce congestion on the roads during peak-use periods with the use of higher tolls and restricted access. In areas controlled by the private sector road signs tend to be clearly visible and safety precautions such as speed bumps are often used. Private companies would set reasonable rules and properly enforce them with the result that people would drive safer.
In the public sector such safety indicators tend to be poorly placed and often blocked by overgrown bushes and trees. With government, speed limits are influenced by political and environmental consideration and the rules of the road are enforced in an arbitrary manner. As a result, the bulk of drivers simply flaunt existing rules resulting in more accidents and in the extreme we have the problem of “road rage” where people take the law into their own hands.
These are just some obvious ways in which the private sector would be superior to government roads. However, it is plausible to suggest that in the absence of government roads and other interventions that our entire system of transportation would be much different and much improved in terms of efficiency and safety.
I was five minutes late for my flight, but fortunately the government also controls the airports and air traffic control towers so my flight was delayed by one hour. This little adventure points out that the Austrian way of thinking—outside the box—sheds valuable light on the everyday problems of government.
Mark Thornton [send him mail] is an economist who lives in Auburn, Alabama. He is author of The Economics of Prohibition, is a senior fellow with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and is the Book Review Editor for the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He is co-author of Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War. Comment on this article on the economics blog.