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Privatize The Roads

Friday, February 17, 2017 15:49
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This post originally appeared on ""

On an ill-timed and ill-fated trip during rush hour today, I was
reminded of something I’ve wanted to write about: one of most
practical reasons for having private ownership of roads. Moral and
ethical reasons aside – and it could be strongly argued that using
forcibly appropriated funds (i.e. taxation) to build infrastructure
is unethical and morally indefensible – government management of
roads is just ridiculously inefficient.

There is a simple way to diminish the impossible congestion
at rush hour: charge people more (or at all) to use the roads at
those times. This is exactly the reason why subway systems
(like the London Underground) charge significantly higher rates
during “peak times,” and why Uber institutes “surge prices” during
excessively busy times.

This entices people to arrange their schedules or commute so
that they are not traveling during the busiest times, thereby
reducing traffic. In the case of Uber, the surge prices also serve
to incentivize as many drivers as possible to work.

Higher prices reduce traffic by encouraging those who don’t have
to be traveling at that time to travel later, or to use other means
of transportation. This leaves only those who have no other options
available using the train or Uber. This same principle could be
easily applied to freeways and all roads.

Tolls and Taxes

The usual answer is: tolls. But tolls are not market prices.
They do sometimes work to ration road space, but they aren’t
necessarily rational. They end up serving not economics, but
politics; just another way to extract money from the people.

Also, roads are considered “publicly owned” (which in reality
just means they are coercively controlled by the government).
People could, correctly, argue that they pay for the roads through
their taxes, and so they have as much right to use them as everyone
else. They could further argue that these “surge prices” bar them
access to the roads, and so they shouldn’t have to pay taxes for
them at all. I can also imagine the typical platitudes damning the
rich for being able to afford the high prices, while poorer people
are forced out.

These are the problems that arise when things are effectively
owned by no one (as is the case with public ownership) and when
people do not have control over where their dollars are spent.
People shouldn’t have to pay taxes for roads that additional
charges effectively prevent them from using. Additionally, when
something is touted as being owned by “everyone,” then no one
really has the right to prevent some of that group from using

So the arguments against having higher prices for road use
during rush hour are completely valid – so long as the roads are
coercively controlled and operated by the state.

A Multiplicity of Forms

These problems would be solved, however, were the roads made
private. Since roads have already been built, some method would
have to be established for turning them over to private hands.
Whether that would be through some sort of auctioning or
homesteading is debatable.

Highways and major roads would probably end up being owned in
sections (or in entirety, but that may be prohibitively expensive)
by private companies. The companies would make money off them by
charging prices or membership fees. They could also collect
maintenance fees from major businesses on their route.

When there is money to be made in something, entrepreneurs
figure out a way to make it a reality.

Residential roads, on the other hand, could be owned
collectively, with each resident owning a stake and having a say in
the operation. I could also imagine many, if not most, non-highway
roads being owned and maintained by the businesses they service.
For example, a Walmart would pay for the local roads leading to it
because they want their customers to have safe and easy access to
their store.

Nor would it necessarily be the case that roads would be priced
at all. Think of the Google search engine: it is unpriced, free for
everyone. It is a revenue generator through advertising. It is even
possible that road entrepreneurs would pay drivers through coupons
or other incentives, as a way a boosting ad revenue, just as
websites do.

In other words, private roads could take many forms, but we can
rest assured that spontaneous order will take care of it.
Well-maintained roads are a necessity for modern society which
means that there is money to be made in providing them. When there
is money to be made in something, entrepreneurs figure out a way to
make it a reality.

Introduced on a national scale, this could even have the effect
of reinvigorating passenger train service and induce railway
expansion in the US. It could even push inventors and entrepreneurs
to create a whole new mode of transport–maybe something like flying
cars or “It” from South Park (let’s hope that whatever it is is
just a bit better ergonomically designed).

If we eliminate paradoxes and contradictions like public or
government “ownership,” then we will allow people to fix problems
associated with those things. Let the market and economics reign
supreme and let entrepreneurs solve the issues that present
themselves. Freedom will always win.

Ryan Miller is a contributor to  target="_blank" href="/r2/?url="
, freelance proofreader and web
developer,  target="_blank">Praxis participant in the September 2016
cohort and write regularly at his own  target="_blank" href="/r2/?url=" target="_blank">blog.


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