Libertarian propaganda on roads does not help their cause
I preface this with that statement because I genuinely like libertarians and the philosophy of rights, liberty, and non-aggression. I have observed that the reaction to their propaganda is a negative one. They are turning away and frustrating those who might come to love liberty as they do.
I consider myself a classical liberal. I was on my way to libertarianism. I was enchanted to find people who had such a firm understanding of agency and rights. I am curious by nature and when Ron Paul really came onto the scene I saw around me many people who were excited by him. They all seemed a bit on the crazy side to me. I’ve never been one to get overly excited about a person and seeing others do so is a bit of a turn off. Since there were so many of them I just had to see what all the fuss was about. Because I’m actually honest about such thing I’m willing to take new information and compare it to my existing information and, if need be, kill off bad thinking and take on new ideas.
Psychologically that’s very difficult for people to do and I feel quite blessed that I can do so with relatively little personal discomfort. Somethings are more difficult than others. For example, it took a number of years for me to square my hatred of drugs with the idea that people should be free to choose for themselves to use or not and that prohibition of drugs is no more successful in stopping them than prohibition of alcohol was in the 1930’s. I still hate drugs but understand that someone else taking them does not violate my rights or make me a victim. Anyway, that is fleshed out elsewhere and here it’s just an example of how, sometimes, it’s difficult to change. However, change I did.
On my way to learning and absorbing libertarianism I was stalled by their two favorite pieces of propaganda. That’s right, one of the most pernicious pieces of propaganda I run into on a daily basis comes, not from leftists, but from libertarians.
They have a few but one they seem to love the most relates to government and roads (the other is taxation is theft). It takes several forms, all of them sarcastic and all implying that the government shouldn’t build the roads. Like all propaganda it’s built on a lie and repeated ad nauseam in order to inculcate that lie into the minds of others. Libertarians make no effort in their constant and daily barrage of posting this meme to explain their reasoning or the validity of their position. But it generally goes like this, “without the government, who will build the roads?” As best as I can reason out their answer is that private business will. We’ll get there in a moment but first I want to examine the fallacy of the claim in the first place.
Government doesn’t build the roads.
The first error libertarians make is in stating that it is government which builds the roads. In fact, private contractors build the roads, the very businesses libertarians claim should be building them, already do. What government does is plan the roads and commission them. In many cases, however, such as master planned communities, the government doesn’t even plan the roads they just take over maintaining them after the fact. In such communities the roads are planned, commissioned, and built all by private business in conjunction with the government’s approval and standards.
Some libertarians will say that the meme “but without the government who will build the roads?” doesn’t mean that government builds the roads but is a reference to their position as middle man a position that they claim is not necessary.
Government does a great job planning and maintaining the roads
Despite the ever-present pothole, which libertarians post randomly as proof positive of their position, government generally does a fantastic job maintaining the roadways of America. Examples can always be found of roads in disrepair. They may be public roads, but private roads are also likely to have potholes.
To point to a pot hole and say that it’s there because the government is involved in the roads is a type of logical fallacy known as Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc which roughly translates to “with this, therefore because of this”. Government is involved with road planning, there are potholes, therefore government causes pot holes. When one breaks it down like that the bad logic is actually pretty glaring isn’t it?
America has an incredible system of roads and highways.
So yes, while potholes exist, so do freeway systems like this one. It’s an interchange that gets people from one place to the other and uses the minimum amount of land required to do so and allows cars to maintain their speed. It represents a cooperation between taxpayers, government, and contractors. We likely take it for granted but it represents a modern marvel. I can get on a road in LA and drive in an unbroken line to New York City. A full tank of gas and the road before you and you are a king!
Each stretch of road connects us to family, friends, jobs, adventure, and pleasure. Roads also play a very important function on national defense and commerce. It’s likely not commonly known but in Germany, home of the very famous Autobahn, there was a group of socialists that partnered up with a group of communists to sabotage the construction of the roadway. The socialists were known as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) and they agreed with the communists that this new high-speed cars only roadway was bad. They printed in propaganda pieces that it would only benefit “the rich aristocrats and Jewish big capitalists”. That socialist party I speak of is better known by the shortening of its full German name, “Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei”. That’s a mouthful even in German so they took the word “Nationalsozialist” and shortened it for ease of use. That shortened name is what we know it by today, NaTionalsoZialIst – NAZI.
When Hitler came to power the Nazi party made sure to take credit for the incredible roadway that was the envy of the world and Hitler made sure he was photographed breaking ground on each new section of road. Now that he was in power the mighty Autobahn represented speed, movement, and German greatness. To the people it represented getting from point A to point B.
Roads very much represent freedom (as do cars). There is a reason the American left works so hard to make gas prices high and through regulation on engines to make car prices high as well. In a way it’s understandable that some would be suspicious of the government’s involvement in roads. A government bent on reducing freedom and controlling people could easily do so through the roadways of America. However, such a government wouldn’t care who owned the roads and could do the same if they were all privately owned. Private road owners could keep you off their roads with much less effort, just a word, “trespassing”.
What would happen if all roads were privatized
This is where libertarian thinking falls off. I was going to say falls short, but based on experience I don’t think it’s a matter of their not thinking it through all the way so much as simply not thinking about it at all. I don’t mean that to be insulting nor do I mean to imply that there aren’t very thoughtful individuals within the libertarian movement. There are or else I wouldn’t be desirous to spend time among them. Yet the constant barrage of these memes accompanied with no explanation or context is a catalyst for acceptance without thought. That’s the nature and disposition of propaganda.
You see, there’s a very good reason that the government plans the roads and maintains control of them in the name of the taxpayer, well, more than one good reason, but the main reason is that common ownership of roads is essential for maximum freedom.
Let’s take Amtrak as an example of private ownership of roads, only in this case it’s railroads.
Amtrak provides us with an interesting story on this. Amtrak itself is owned by the government. Notoriously, the railroad does poorly. It’s been propped up for years by tax payer money. What happened was this, in 1970 the railroads were not making money from passenger trains. They were doing well with cargo but not with people. Air travel had once been a thing for the brave but became something considered safe. It was faster and affordable so taking a train to your destination wasn’t reasonable. Travel by car was the norm for a family trip. Back up the kiddies and head east or west or north or south and there was a road, wide and well maintained, that would take you there.
Then government does what government does, they passed a law. In this case it was similar to the GM bailout but rather than bailout a company they created one of their own, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation which created a passenger service the name of which combined America and Tracks to form Amtrak. This passenger line has wonderfully attractive silver trains. For a rail lover such as myself they are iconic and easily recognizable.
Overtime, however, they developed a bad reputation. After several crashes people started seeing rail services as more dangerous than flying. The line did poorly and the government had to continue to subsidize ticket prices. The federal government pays around 40% of the price of a ticket. There are some lines where the government pays so much of the cost that it would be cheaper for the government to cancel the line and simply buy an airline ticket for those people.
While the reputation for crashing is actually not earned one part of Amtrak’s bad reputation is – they are always late! They have a terrible record of being on time. The reason for this tardiness? You see, Amtrak does not have free access to the rails because they are owned by the private railroad companies. Around 97% of the track is owned by private businesses who control who uses the track and when.
The Association of American Railroads stated their official position on behalf of the industry.
“However, passenger service must not degrade freight railroads’ ability to serve their freight customers. Freight railroads lower shipping costs by billions of dollars each year and produce an immense competitive advantage for our farmers, manufacturers, and miners in the global marketplace. If passenger railroads impair freight railroads and force freight that otherwise would move by rail onto the highways, those advantages would be squandered.”
In other words, passenger trains are great and we would love to have them as long as they don’t hamper freight and the unstated truth is that they do just that so the railroads don’t put passenger trains first.
Now take this concept and expand it out to private ownership of all roads. There is no reason to believe that the owners of those privately owned roads would not act in the same judicious and business-wise manner as the railroads do. If one company, say Wal-Mart, pays me twice what Target does then I, as the road owner, am going to give Wal-Mart trucks the right of way. Perhaps Wal-Mart wants an even tougher approach and they pay me to deny access to all Target delivery trucks. It’s a private road, so the road owner has the right to do that. They have the right to deny you access to their road as well. One company could pay the road owner to deprive access to the road which would keep employees from a competing company from getting to work easily. Road closed to you so you have to park and walk. Of course walking is only possible if the sidewalk isn’t also private property. We talk about roads but we take sidewalks for granted.
Common ownership of roads prevents this kind of access blocking. One might be temped to say that the government can just pass a law that says the private property owner can’t do all that and can’t deny access. There are a couple of things wrong with that. First, to do so isn’t really all that libertarian. In an effort to keep government out of the road business a system has been created where they are needed. Why not avoid that and just let the government do what it’s doing now? Second, such a law would deprive the land owner of the full use of his property. Such regulations would make owning a road unprofitable. It’s very likely that roads would fall into disrepair or be closed down because the owner cannot maintain them anymore. We know what business killers government regulations are.
Then there is the issue of competition.
You see, private roads would be private for one reason, they would make the road owner some cash. Otherwise why on earth would someone even build a road that other people can use? The problem with that is the natural inclination in capitalism to compete. I own a bit of land near by your busy road, I want a chunk of that toll cash, so I build my own road across my land. I charge less than you do and so people use my road. But, ever one to get in on a good deal John also builds a road on his land and charges even less and manages to open up an extra lane so his road is even faster to travel on. He figures he’ll make it up in volume, and he does! So the two other roads go out of business. Now there are unkempt roads a few hundred yards apart and just running next to John’s road. It’s an ugly mess.
Then there is the river. Bridges can be slow so John builds a bridge. Mad about his road being closed the first fellow builds one two. Pretty soon there are 4 or 5 bridges across the river that runs through the heart of town. They are built on the private land owned by the road and bridge builders where ever they could find a plot of land to accommodate it.
City and country life becomes a mess of roads all built on whatever land was purchased for that reason.
How are they making money off these roads anyway?
Well, glad you asked. That would be you paying them a toll to use their road or bridge. That any toll exists on a road or bridge owned and operated by the government should be a crime. But that’s for a different day to discuss. For now we’ll focus on the fact that for private road owners the only incentive to build is to make money and that money comes from you. If you are lucky you pay one or two tolls. But in some locations where maybe a mile is owned by one company and the next two miles by another, and the last mile by a third, you have to pay them all. Not only is this costly but it’s slow. Sure, the company could invest in a system to make it quicker like some electronic service that knows you paid and you just drive by, but they don’t have to. That system would manage the slowing issue, but not the impact on your wallet. If you don’t like the price they are charging well, you can always find a different road, that is, if there is one where you want to go.
Just like Amtrak, you better plan on being late – a lot.
Why does the government “build” the roads now?
The Constitution specifically gives the Federal government the right to build “post roads” meaning roads designed for the delivery of goods and mail. As long as a road is used for this the government has the Constitutional authority to build it. It can safely be said that all of our roads serve this purpose. Not a single road isn’t used for the delivery of post.
The Federalist papers spoke this way about post roads, “Nothing, which tends to facilitate the intercourse between the states, can be deemed unworthy of the public care.” There was concern among Founding Fathers like Jefferson who debated the issue with Madison. Madison supported government built roads but Jefferson was worried about them. Jefferson’s concern, However, wasn’t about the use of tax payer dollars to build roads or in the common ownership of the roads but rather the abuse that might take place in the hiring of cronies to do the actual construction. This is an issue we suffer from now.
Jefferson wrote to Madison this aside, ” Have you considered all the consequences of your proposition respecting post roads? I view it as a source of boundless patronage to the executive, jobbing to members of Congress & their friends, and a bottomless abyss of public money.”
To overcome this, many states (where the road building actually takes place) have a process in place where multiple blind bids are taken and the lowest accepted. It is a felony to tell any other company what the competing bids are. While it may happen, if caught, they go to jail and get fined.
Since I’m not fully sure what libertarian concerns about government roads is I can’t say fully they are unfounded.
I’ve never had a libertarian actually state the reasons for their objection to roads. Just memes. I’ve posted the individual arguments above on sites that display those memes. I don’t get a reply from them refuting my points. I get plenty of agreement from others who feel the same way and are just as perplexed by the OCD libertarians have with roads. Still, I get nothing in the way of refutation.
The fact of the matter is, things work well the way they are now. Roads have a purpose in commerce, defense, and liberty. All of that would be slowed, thwarted, and at best complicated by private ownership of roadways. I am for limited government but even I put the American highway system and roadway system in the hands of government and having traveled those roads from one coast to the other and back again I am grateful for what we have accomplished and the absolute freedom of movement our incredible highway system gives me. Over 157,000 miles in just the US Numbered Highways alone.
Muh roads? Damn Straight they are!