Highways and Roads in a Free society
As a libertarian I believe that you have a right to live your life as you see fit as long as you don’t violate somebody else’s right to do the same. Libertarianism represents the only non-coercion political/economic philosophy in the universe. All other political/economic philosophies, democracy, republicanism, monarchy, dictatorship, socialism, and communism employ the brute force (violence) of government to enforce compliance of one group’s 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 doesn’t get the job done, those members of society that have for a long time held statist views, and are therefore closed to thinking for themselves, ridicule those of 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, which is 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 don’t think property owners would maintain their right of ways, 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. That’s a small price to pay if I didn’t 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 didn’t 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 traverse 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 have attended local city council meetings to petition their local municipality to install stop signs or traffic signals at busy intersections? How many homeowners with children or pets have 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 thereof 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 land owners. 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 to 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.
Article first published as Highways and Roads in a Free Society on Blogcritics.