“Nobody got rich on their own. Nobody. People worked hard, they buil[t] a business, God bless, but they moved their goods on roads the rest of us helped build, they hired employees the rest of us helped educate, they plugged into a power grid the rest of us helped build.”
That’s newly-elected Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Cherokee Nation) speaking earlier this year. From defense from foreign aggression and Batman-like protection from bloodthirsty criminals, the state is reduced to defending itself with claims that the essential attributes of government consist of formerly-free-market businesses — road-building, education and energy — that the state has usurped and now holds hostage.
For a second thing, obviously none of these activities requires the use of force. To the contrary, the imposition of the state’s monopoly on force has made all of these businesses worse.
But for the first thing, this is a straw-man argument, anyway. Warren — and Barack Obama in subsequent mimicry of her — was not defending the supposed benefits the state provides by taking money from tax-payers and then shoveling some of it back their way with substandard replicas of businesses the government destroyed by monopolizing them. Her goal was to silence objections to the welfare state by claiming that the people being suckered by this dumb-show are somehow complicit in it. Some of them are, of course — rent-seeking “business-people” who feed on tax dollars. But the objective of these specious claims is to cause tax-payers to self-censor their eminently reasonable complaints about having their earnings stolen, to be “redistributed” to people who did not earn that wealth. Warren — and Obama — sought to defend the welfare state by sleight-of-hand.
That’s an important point, because I want to talk about roads — about how badly they are built by “the people” and how much better they could be built if the business of transportation were to be restored to the free market — no force, no taxes, no subsidies, no regulation, no sweetheart deals — no rent-seeking. I’m interested in roads as a practical matter, but I don’t wish to imply that I am plucking out just that one quill. Human civilization is being destroyed by all of statism, not by specific egregious practices. I want to talk about this one because it’s interesting — and because it is illustrative of larger issues — but it doesn’t do to suppose that freeing the roads while continuing to enslave everything else will make any difference. The fact is, nothing that I am proposing here can happen unless the entire statist apparatus is dismantled.
With all that as prologue, here is the discussion of roads I promised the other day. This post consists of a slightly-edited colloquy I had in October with an old friend on Facebook.
> If I say true libertarians shouldn’t use public roads, you say you’d gladly pay a toll in exchange for less taxes.
“Public” roads should not exist. It’s not my fault that they do.
> But you never say how that’s gonna work in the real world.
All roads were privately built until very recently. Government monopolized this business in order to buy off three cadres of rent-seekers — real estate developers, building contractors and ordinary people seeking “free” access to their miniature imitations of the English country manor home. The roads are Rotarian Socialism at its worst — inducing as a side-effect an insane waste of land.
> As example, I understand companies wishing to invest in highways, major urban arteries and even retail zones. In all those places there are consumers who are willing to pay for access, either for themselves or for their customers. Our governor in Indiana privatized our toll road a few years ago. [….] I understand how it could work in gated communities too, and even in my little ungated neighborhood. I wouldn’t mind so much paying a type of HOA fee that would cover our streets. [….] What I don’t get is how it will be profitable on regular city streets where much of the traffic is cross through? Or who is going to maintain the roads that lead from one rural city to another? Tolls to cover those costs would be prohibitive for the lower number of drivers and don’t we risk turning our small towns into ghost towns?
Yes, gated communities have private roads without tolls. The same sorts of ideas could apply to extant residential communities, but the simple solution is just to devolve the property rights back to the homeowners and let them work things out on their own. This will be decried as “CHAOS!!” for about three years and then everyone will move on to the next “CRISIS!!”
Every commercial parking lot and many access roads running from one to another are private roads without tolls. The owners of those parcels work things out on their own, much as the shoe stores get inventory without my having to care about how they do it.
The people most likely to pay for commercial thoroughfares are the vendors fronting on those roads: They want to make it easy for everyone to shop for shoes.
Commuter corridors can have all sorts of business models, such as pay-to-play for water, sewer and communications lines. Municipalities already milk phone and cable companies, but the rent-seeking nature of government requires that these services be built in the stupidest and most costly ways. The Brother-In-Law Construction Company always needs work.
(Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you want better DVRs, sell the roads. Set-top boxes of all sorts suck because the cable TV business is cartelized, which in turn is the result of municipal monopolization of rights of way. True competition will make all of these businesses run better — very probably in ways that you cannot even imagine, this because entrepreneurs cannot innovate in “regulated” markets.)
City-to-city travel is where we hear about tolls, but I expect this is more a failure of imagination than anything else. Were the expressways in Indiana actually sold to the highest bidder, or are they concessions? The right way to build a toll road now is with a bar-code on the bumper or an onboard transponder and monthly billing. If you don’t have something like that, you don’t have a free market in roads.
Little towns with a local industry — like a mine, for example — can expect to be connected to the world at that industry’s expense.
Little towns that have zero economic reason to exist will make excellent farmland or wilderness, once the taxpayers are freed of their slavery to the “rugged individualists” residing there. Those of them who wish to remain will maintain their own roads or do without. This is the way things were done in those places until about 100 years ago.
But all of this is just the same-old one-size-fits-all thinking that got us into this mess. A road is real estate, and as such it has enormous economic potential — which cannot be realized because the roads are monopolized by one-size-fits-all minds. An actual free market in the ground-transportation business will spawn dozens of new business models, many of them all in one locus.
Like this, from well below the earth’s surface to well above it:
* Heavy rail freight lines
* Light rail transportation lines
* Limited-access expressways and/or commuter corridors
* A linear shopping mall, miles long, all the traffic will bear
* A linear park, well above grade level with no wheeled vehicles beyond strollers, roller blades and bicycles
* Skycrapers: Office, apartment and hotel towers
Interspersed amidst all that are water, sewer and communications lines, along with parking and accessways for commercial vehicles and trash haulers. Heavier industries can straddle this linear commerceway, and most day-to-day personal transportation will be done on foot — the way nature intended.
The completely-disconnected-from-reality objection I hear about ideas like this is, “But I don’t want to live with that kind of population density.” Okayfine. Just pay for for the level of luxury you crave on your own dime. Everyone would like to get their shoes from Nordstroms, and yet most of us are delighted to shop at Famous Footwear instead. The kind of real estate development I am talking about can be hugely cost-efficient per-square-inch of grade-level dirt, which means that everyone living there, traveling through there or doing business there should realize significant cost advantages. A bargain price can make any compromise taste like ice cream.
I started thinking about structures like this in 1981. We have moved about five inches in my direction since then, all because “free” roads make it impossible to do anything better.
Everything in the world is screwed up, and the source of all that upscrewing is paranoid people with guns who cannot bear to leave each other alone.
A few years ago, I wrote about building this kind of structure on Las Vegas Boulevard. My original hypothetical pilot project was the Long Island Expressway, using that linear commerceway to house the entire population of Metropolitan New York. The existing U.S. freeway network could easily house, shop, move and work the entire population of the world.
If government declared shoes to be an “essential” service, we’d all be wearing wooden clogs — one size, one style for all. Freedom begins with the freedom to think. All statute laws exist to outlaw the utterly amazing human mind, with “free” roads being the perfect example of the consequences of legislated mindlessness.