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New Ideas for Roads

Mises Daily: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 by

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The Privatization of Roads and Highways

Is there nothing new in the world of libertarian ideas? There is plenty with Walter Block's remarkable new treatise on private roads, a 494-page book that will cause you to rethink the whole of the way modern transportation networks operate. It is bold, innovative, radical, compelling, and shows how free-market economic theory is the clarifying lens through which to see the failures of the state and to see the alternative that is consistent with human liberty.

But let me first set the context.

Stuck in traffic with a friend in the passenger seat, those of us with libertarian views try the following from time to time. We observe the massive bog of cars and trucks before us, and the time being sucked away. It strikes us and so we blurt it out: if this road were private, we wouldn't be suffering like this. We don't wait in endless lines at the private grocery store or the private car rental. Why do we put up with state ownership and management of the roads? The roads should be privately built, owned, and managed.

Our passenger is shocked and alarmed. You libertarians are really nuts. Roads are too expensive to be built privately. We'd be bumping into tollbooths every few feet. And don't you realize what would happen? Some mogul would raise prices and restrict access. We would all be dependent on the rich guy with the road title and our freedom to move around would come to an end. Why depend on the willy-nilly whims of some capitalist exploiter when the state is there to provide this wonderful service for free?

And so we sit there, stuck at a standstill, because there are too many cars attempting to crawl around too few roads. Americans spend two billion hours per year tied up in congested roads. And then there's road construction, which the government decides to undertake whenever and wherever it so desires, reducing a three-lane road to a one-lane road in the name of expanding it to a five-lane road but taking as long as a full year to do it and generating hazards along the way.

And then there are accidents, which tie up traffic for miles and hours, especially on interstate highways. The whole system is oddly unprepared for anything to go wrong even though something goes wrong every day. The pileup happens, with a truck stretching across the entire highway, and everyone just sits there waiting for the government to send its police, its ambulances, its cranes and devices, so that traffic can continue.

Just last week, I sat on an interstate for two hours and missed a flight, and thereby had to eat my $300 ticket, and also had to buy another one on a different airline for another $350. Normally, in private markets, if some service is responsible for making you lose $750 — say, if the CD in the software package is blank — you would have some recourse. But who am I going to charge for my losses due to shoddy road management? The DMV? Forget it.

"You libertarians are really nuts. … Why depend on the willy-nilly whims of some capitalist exploiter when the state is there to provide this wonderful service for free?"

There are other costs. We pay through the nose for gasoline in order to fund road construction and maintenance. Some 40,000 people die on government roads every year. We are constantly harassed by policeman on the make who hand out tickets for doing things that hurt no one, like not buckling up or driving fast or changing lanes without signaling or rolling slowly through stop signs. Do these really endanger others? Sometimes, perhaps, but that is not why we get tickets. We get tickets because they provide a revenue stream for state and local governments.

Road failures define massive swaths of our lives. They influence where we live and where we choose to work. They eat away at our household budgets. They introduce horrible tragedies in our lives, when friends and children are maimed or die on the killing fields of public roads.

Anyway, for the person who wants a full catalog of the inconvenience, the outrage, the incompetence, the coercion, the massive social costs of government-owned and government-run roads, there is more than enough of that in Walter Block's astounding new book The Privatization of Roads and Highways (Mises Institute, 2009). He shows that even the worst, off-the-cuff scenario of life under private ownership of roads would be fantastic by comparison to the existing reality of government ownership of roads.

But that is only the beginning of what Professor Block has done. He has made a lengthy, detailed, and positive case that the privatization of roads would be socially optimal in every way. It would save lives, curtail pollution, save us (as individuals!) money, save us massive time, introduce accountability, and make transportation a pleasure instead of a huge pain in the neck.

Because this is the first-ever complete book on this topic, the length and detail are absolutely necessary. He shows that this is not some libertarian pipe dream but the most practical application of free-market logic. Block is dealing with something that confronts us everyday. And in so doing, he illustrates the power of economic theory to take an existing set of facts and help you see them in a completely different way.

What's also nice is that the prose has great passion about it, despite the great scholarly detail. He loves answering the objections (Aren't roads public goods? Aren't roads too expensive to build privately?) and making the case, fully aware that he has to overcome a deep and persistent bias in favor of public ownership. The writer burns with a moral passion on the subjects of highway deaths and pollution issues. His "Open Letter to Mothers Against Drunk Driving" is a thrill to read!

It should go without saying that roads were originally private in the United States and were only later taken over by government, before public ownership had become an accepted convention. The dramatic expansion in road building took place after mass ownership of cars became essential to the American way of life. So we know it can be done, but is it practical? In fact, quasi-private roads are being built every day and run well, in California, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Governments are increasingly turning to private solutions out of desperation.

What's interesting too is how Block explores the role of modern technology in making private roads more viable than ever, with digital readers that can scan cars as they go by and send monthly bills or debit your bank account. He explores how competitive solutions can overcome the limits of geography, and allocate road space optimally according to the highest priority of consumers. We have many options in groceries, movies, computers, and household services. Why should it be any different for travelers?

There is a bracing realism about Block's treatment. Again, this is not a utopian scenario. He is dealing with realities that affect your hometown and presents a scenario for managing the transition to private ownership in accordance with principles of justice and workability. In short, this man is very serious about this topic. His footnotes are gargantuan and the bibliography covers the entire field and back again.

He is particularly tough on those who have advocated public-private partnership in the name of privatization or toll-based solutions for congestion that do nothing about the core problem of who owns the roads in the first place. Just so that we are clear, this book is an uncompromising call for the authentic and full application of the principles of free enterprise: no government taxes, construction, management, or ownership of roads at all.

People have known that Block was working on this book for many years, and some chapters have been seen in journals here and there. But there is something thrilling about seeing it all put together in one place. It comes together as a battle plan against government roads and a complete roadmap for a future of private transportation.

Is there anything new in the world of Austrian and libertarian ideas? This book answers the question with a resounding yes. It offers a way out of one of the most persistent problems of modern life. The problem with the roads is government. The answer is free enterprise. If you doubt it now, this book will make a believer out of you.