The Roads

So long, old friend. Libertarians hate you.

 I, Roads

But, who would take care of the roads! Or the airports! Or the [insert state-monopolized capital asset here]! And that’s where someone asks you a question that is impossible to answer. The Statist Roads Argument (SRA) rears its silly head.

If someone asks you how a pencil is made, I’ve come to realize you should simply say, “I see what you’re trying to do here. You’re not going to trick me.” Why? Because no one knows how a pencil is made. The point of Leonard Read’s classic “I, Pencil” is that no one person alone has the knowledge required to describe how something as simple as a pencil is made from start to finish.

The more nuanced point is this: even though no one person can tell you how a pencil is made, pencils are made. Thus, we can conclude that the existence of pencils doesn’t depend on any one person knowing how to produce pencils. Instead, it depends on a complex network of economic activity that results in a pencil.

The same is obviously true of any provision of roads without state monopolization. The how and who would take care of the roads is the same as the how and who would take care of pencils: a complex network of economic activity that results in roads.

Burden of Proof

At this point I think it’s obvious that the burden of proof is on the naysayer to show how something as ubiquitous as automobile transportation would fail despite giving people the freedom to create the complex network of economic activity that results in roads. I can give a few reasons to suspect it would not fail.

In the first place, there’s a high demand for roads. People want them. A lot. However, not every road is equal. So the upkeep for a road without government supervision would depend on how likely the road is to be used, and therefore incur maintenance costs. That is to say, if a road is valuable enough to the people that use it, they will pay for it.

This begs the question, “Can all the users coordinate in order to maintain the road?”

The typical Statist answer to this question is, “Only through government.”

Which brings me to my second point: entrepreneurs exist.

The answer on a free market is, “Yes, and that responsibility falls to the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur coordinates goods such that a specific good or service is provided by coordinating users’ demand in the form of revenue, and perpetuating the provision of said good or service using profit margin analysis. If the entrepreneur fails, he loses money. If he succeeds, he benefits by profiting, and the provision of the good continues.”

Let My People Drive!

A third reason for thinking roads would thrive is that roads are capital assets with predictable fixed costs. The marginal cost of letting another driver on the road is minimal. So the obvious solution to maximizing profit is to have as many drivers on the road as possible. It is in the interest of a road entrepreneur to allow as many people as possible on any particular toll road, excepting dangerous drivers. Variable costs are definitely the products of accidents on the fixed capital assets known as roads. Your GPS will send you to an alternate route. And there goes the day’s take.

A fourth reason is that roads are essentially nothing more than long pieces of rock. I mean, really? Roads!? The market makes fake body parts for crying out loud. Complex molecules are created by private firms in order to coordinate biological activity inside a human being and you’re worried about long pieces of rocks and metal? Shame on you.

Less Talky, More Experimenty

The real farce about the SRA is that the Statist position is merely a hypothesis, but Statists refuse to make any experiment to test it, and accept it as an already established fact.

The real test of the matter isn’t how well a Libertarian can answer an unanswerable question. It would rather be to let Libertarians have their day and let the test be made. It’s unscientific to hypothesize, “The private ownership experiment concerning roads will fail,” and then not undertake the experiment to confirm or deny this hypothesis. It’s rhetoric, plain and simple. That’s all it is.

"Even very young children perform rudimentary experiments in order to learn about the world." -Wikipedia

What Statists are doing when they posit the SRA is confirming a hypothesis out of hand. So I think no matter what I write here today, it’s all beside the point if Statists are going to write off private ownership of roads by entrepreneurs based on unscientific analysis.

Until the experiment is made that confirms or denies roads can be handled by private parties, the suggestion that the same is a fact is nothing more than rhetoric.

And even without the experiment, we know at least one thing for sure: taking from one person to pay for another’s road is just as bad as taking from one person to pay for another’s car. What others posit as “public” goods are really goods enjoyed by private parties, but whose costs have been socialized by force by a bureaucracy that has exhibited an agency problem involving lack of cost control, roads being in a state of disrepair (I live in New Jersey, it’s like a virus), and the creation of artificial barriers to entry for alternative means of transportation.

The answer.

You can’t really assume that any specific ownership type or maintenance process for roads would prevail in the market due to its dynamic nature. It might be the case that some roads would be owned and cared for directly by the people who have property on the road. In other cases, people on the same street all get together and hire a road maintenance company that receives regular fees and fixes potholes when they come about. In yet another possibility, a toll collection company would take care of roads.

In order to see how roads would be provided without the government, one simply has to let people take care of the roads themselves.

So who would take care of the roads absent a state monopoly? The same people who make pencils. That’s who.

Andrew Rushford