One of the largest environmental problems facing society towards the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries was one smelly thing. Horse manure.
As the populations and markets of cities exploded, the need for transportation did as well. At its height, New York City had 200,000 horses. They produced on average 35 pounds of waste per day per horse. That is 7 million pounds of manure per day. It was piled in vacant lots and often lined the city streets like banks of snow.
When it would rain the excrement would flow through the streets–and this is a time in New York history when some neighborhoods were effectively slums. According to SuperFreakonomics, the beautiful stoops that line the streets of NYC were originally devised to keep homeowners above the sea of waste. The authors go on to say that “the world had seemingly reached a point where its largest cities could not survive without the horse but couldn’t survive with it either.”
So what happened? How did cities continue on this unsustainable path lined with excrement?
Electric streetcars and automobiles were invented and made the problem obsolete.
This question resurfaces and resurfaces continuously. Whether it’s roads or regulation or courts or police, the vast majority of people assume that the way things are are the way they must be.
But for people who are confronted with such questions as, “are there possible non-state-monopoly alternatives to services the state currently monopolizes?”, they are almost always totally positive in their answer of “no”.
Of course the state must provide roads, police, armies, schools, safety. This is common sense they say.
But what this really is is a lack of imagination. Because what you are essentially saying is the following: “I can’t understand how roads would be built and maintained absent state involvement, so it must not be possible.”
The arrogance in that statement is astounding.
The value you place on your own misunderstanding is a miscalculation.
There are many examples from both past and present, as well as numerous theories as to how roads would be built and maintained efficiently, cost-effectively, and cheaply for the consumer. It’s not my intention to list all those examples here. Look at the world around you and see all the things you need and want being provided by actors working through a relatively free market.
That’s all the “proof” you need.
Because the truth is, that classic, libertarian, anarcho-capitalist so-called “cop-out” holds true for roads and everything else the state currently provides or distorts.
And that apparent “non-answer” states that things will just work out. We don’t know exactly how police and courts and roads will work or look, but given that everyone needs and values those services, rest assured they will be provided.
Remove force as something that is normalized and permissible in some segments of society (as it is currently in the realm of government), leave individuals free to be creative and produce, and let people continue to fulfill the needs and wants of other people.
In fact, if you feel the introduction of force is necessary, the burden of proof should be on you to prove why that particular service cannot be provided without it. In other words, before you advocate theft to fund roads, you need to show conclusively why those same roads could not be provided by market actors without the use of force.
Spoiler alert: this is impossible.
We can’t predict the future. We have no idea what awesome new technology will be invented tomorrow that will make our problems of today vanish. The busy-bodies who seek endlessly to control the actions of others through government force only hinder the process of creative destruction that improves our lives.
They find it impossible to sit back and let individuals do their work and solve our problems. In their incessant need to control, and their insatiable lust for power, they use force to jump the gun. They pick one mode of doing things as the “right” one, and demand everyone else goes along with them.
This destroys immeasurable wealth and unfathomable amounts of potential.
That is the point of the story at the beginning of this paper.
Could some government agent or progressive activist have predicted that the problem of seemingly endless horse manure would be made irrelevant by electric streetcars and automobiles powered by tiny controlled explosions of a then useless byproduct of kerosene?
I doubt it.
And any attempts to “solve” the problem of horse pollution through non-market avenues almost definitely would have been counter-productive to the solution that eventually presented itself.
What if government had limited the amount of horses in large cities to 100,000 or 50,000 causing fewer goods and people to be moved, higher costs of transport, and less wealth to be created?
The great minds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that gave us so much, may have very well been too limited in their resources to produce what they produced. They might not have even been born. When you destroy wealth you destroy people.
It seems sensational but it’s not. This is what is at stake. This is what happens when the people of limited ability, imagination, and foresight can possess the reigns of power and force their unimaginative vision on the rest of us.
Human beings and modern economies need transportation. That need correlates to profits that a business can make by providing for it. That is all the motivation a savvy entrepreneur needs to make roads, cars, or something none of us has ever thought of.
We can’t know what the future holds. But we can be sure that restricting freedom inhibits the ability of people to try and find solutions.
The roads will be built. And if they are not, it will only be because we have found something better. That’s the power of the market.