end all federal transportation subsidies
and entrust states and municipalities with maintaining infrastructure
such as highways, roads, bridges, and subways (for now);
repeal the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964;
Congress could start by:
eliminating federal highway, transit, and other surface
transportation programs; and
devolving to the states and local areas full responsibility for
highways and transit.
Failing that, Congress should
fund state highways in block grants based on each state’s land
area, population, and road mileage;
fund regional transit in block grants based on each metropolitan
area’s population and transit fare revenues;
eliminate any conditions on the use of those funds, such as air
pollution mandates or requirements for long-range planning;
eliminate “flexible funds,” that is, funds that can be spent on
either highways or transit;
encourage states and local areas to rely more heavily on user fees
to fund all forms of transportation; and
ensure that any efforts to save energy or reduce greenhouse gas
emissions are cost-effective, that is, that state and local
governments only invest in projects that can be shown to reduce energy
consumption or greenhouse gas emissions at a lower cost than
Is there nothing new in the world of
libertarian ideas? There is plenty with Walter
Block's remarkable new treatise on private
roads, a 494-page book that will cause you to
rethink the whole of the way modern
transportation networks operate. It is bold,
innovative, radical, compelling, and shows how
free-market economic theory is the clarifying
lens through which to see the failures of the
state and to see the alternative that is
consistent with human liberty.
But let me
first set the context.
traffic with a friend in the passenger seat,
those of us with libertarian views try the
following from time to time. We observe the
massive bog of cars and trucks before us, and
the time being sucked away. It strikes us and
so we blurt it out: if this road were private,
we wouldn't be suffering like this. We don't
wait in endless lines at the private grocery
store or the private car rental. Why do we put
up with state ownership and management of the
roads? The roads should be privately built,
owned, and managed.
is shocked and alarmed. You libertarians are
really nuts. Roads are too expensive to be
built privately. We'd be bumping into
tollbooths every few feet. And don't you
realize what would happen? Some mogul would
raise prices and restrict access. We would all
be dependent on the rich guy with the road
title and our freedom to move around would
come to an end. Why depend on the willy-nilly
whims of some capitalist exploiter when the
state is there to provide this wonderful
service for free?
And so we sit
there, stuck at a standstill, because there
are too many cars attempting to crawl around
too few roads. Americans spend two billion
hours per year tied up in congested roads. And
then there's road construction, which the
government decides to undertake whenever and
wherever it so desires, reducing a three-lane
road to a one-lane road in the name of
expanding it to a five-lane road but taking as
long as a full year to do it and generating
hazards along the way.
And then there
are accidents, which tie up traffic for miles
and hours, especially on interstate highways.
The whole system is oddly unprepared for
anything to go wrong even though something
goes wrong every day. The pileup happens, with
a truck stretching across the entire highway,
and everyone just sits there waiting for the
government to send its police, its ambulances,
its cranes and devices, so that traffic can
Just last week,
I sat on an interstate for two hours and
missed a flight, and thereby had to eat my
$300 ticket, and also had to buy another one
on a different airline for another $350.
Normally, in private markets, if some service
is responsible for making you lose $750 —
say, if the CD in the software package is
blank — you would have some recourse. But
who am I going to charge for my losses due to
shoddy road management? The DMV? Forget it.
There are other
costs. We pay through the nose for gasoline in
order to fund road construction and
maintenance. Some 40,000 people die on
government roads every year. We are constantly
harassed by policeman on the make who hand out
tickets for doing things that hurt no one,
like not buckling up or driving fast or
changing lanes without signaling or rolling
slowly through stop signs. Do these really
endanger others? Sometimes, perhaps, but that
is not why we get tickets. We get tickets
because they provide a revenue stream for
state and local governments.
define massive swaths of our lives. They
influence where we live and where we choose to
work. They eat away at our household budgets.
They introduce horrible tragedies in our
lives, when friends and children are maimed or
die on the killing fields of public roads.
Anyway, for the
person who wants a full catalog of the
inconvenience, the outrage, the incompetence,
the coercion, the massive social costs of
government-owned and government-run roads,
there is more than enough of that in Walter
Block's astounding new book The
Privatization of Roads and Highways
(Mises Institute, 2009). He shows that even
the worst, off-the-cuff scenario of life under
private ownership of roads would be fantastic
by comparison to the existing reality of
government ownership of roads.
But that is
only the beginning of what Professor Block has
done. He has made a lengthy, detailed, and
positive case that the privatization of roads
would be socially optimal in every way. It
would save lives, curtail pollution, save us
(as individuals!) money, save us massive time,
introduce accountability, and make
transportation a pleasure instead of a huge
pain in the neck.
Because this is
the first-ever complete book on this topic,
the length and detail are absolutely
necessary. He shows that this is not some
libertarian pipe dream but the most practical
application of free-market logic. Block is
dealing with something that confronts us
everyday. And in so doing, he illustrates the
power of economic theory to take an existing
set of facts and help you see them in a
completely different way.
nice is that the prose has great passion about
it, despite the great scholarly detail. He
loves answering the objections (Aren't roads
public goods? Aren't roads too expensive to
build privately?) and making the case, fully
aware that he has to overcome a deep and
persistent bias in favor of public ownership.
The writer burns with a moral passion on the
subjects of highway deaths and pollution
issues. His "Open
Letter to Mothers Against Drunk Driving"
is a thrill to read!
It should go
without saying that roads were originally
private in the United States and were only
later taken over by government, before public
ownership had become an accepted convention.
The dramatic expansion in road building took
place after mass ownership of cars became
essential to the American way of life. So we
know it can be done, but is it practical? In
fact, quasi-private roads are being built
every day and run well, in California,
Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Governments are
increasingly turning to private solutions out
interesting too is how Block explores the role
of modern technology in making private roads
more viable than ever, with digital readers
that can scan cars as they go by and send
monthly bills or debit your bank account. He
explores how competitive solutions can
overcome the limits of geography, and allocate
road space optimally according to the highest
priority of consumers. We have many options in
groceries, movies, computers, and household
services. Why should it be any different for
There is a
bracing realism about Block's treatment.
Again, this is not a utopian scenario. He is
dealing with realities that affect your
hometown and presents a scenario for managing
the transition to private ownership in
accordance with principles of justice and
workability. In short, this man is very
serious about this topic. His footnotes are
gargantuan and the bibliography covers the
entire field and back again.
particularly tough on those who have advocated
public-private partnership in the name of
privatization or toll-based solutions for
congestion that do nothing about the core
problem of who owns the roads in the first
place. Just so that we are clear, this book is
an uncompromising call for the authentic and
full application of the principles of free
enterprise: no government taxes, construction,
management, or ownership of roads at all.
known that Block was working on this book for
many years, and some chapters have been seen
in journals here and there. But there is
something thrilling about seeing it all put
together in one place. It comes together as a
battle plan against government roads and a
complete roadmap for a future of private
anything new in the world of Austrian and
libertarian ideas? This book answers the
question with a resounding yes. It offers a
way out of one of the most persistent problems
of modern life. The problem with the roads is
government. The answer is free enterprise. If
you doubt it now, this book will make a
believer out of you.
As a first step in
reforming government, we support elimination of the Departments of
Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Education, and Energy, and the
elimination, defunding or privatization of agencies which are obsolete,
redundant, of limited value, or too regional in focus. Examples of
agencies we seek to defund or to privatize are the National Endowment
for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting, and the Legal Services Corporation.
Libertarians would pursue this course of action with relentless
consistency. "The State" is not the best way to ensure
efficient commerce, plentiful housing, quality education, cheap energy,
or tasteful arts and humanities.
"The State" is also not the best way to provide
But right now, the government builds nearly all our roads, so when we
propose cutting government, we inevitably get asked, "What about
roads?" "How can we have roads if the government doesn't build
them?" "What about roads?"
Sometimes a question is just an argument, or a rationalization.
Sometimes a question is meant simply to ridicule. This is called
"a rhetorical question."
Some people feel that if the government is needed for roads, and
if the Free Market cannot do a good job with roads, maybe the Free
Market isn't the best way to provide groceries, clothes, houses, and
Maybe we shouldn't even start going down that "road" of
eliminating government programs and creating smaller government.
On the other hand, if government is the best way to provide roads,
it's certainly the best way to provide everything else.
If you're asking the question, "What about roads," because
you want to know for sure that the Free Market system is better than
socialism, and you really want an answer, here goes:
Should "the State" provide our clothes, our food, our
computers, and our cars? Most Americans say No. But some people believe some
socialism is always necessary; that some things
just can't be dependably provided by the Free Market, and require
compulsion and threats of violence from "the State." Roads,
they say, are one of these things.
Historically, this is not true. In early America, roads were built by
"turnpike companies," that realized a profit could be made by
providing safer, easier, more efficient ways to get from one place to
another, to consumers who wanted to travel.
Many of America's Founding Fathers were distrustful
of government. Men like Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Calhoun did
not want the government to get involved in the business of
"internal improvements" like roads and canals. They reasoned
that if politicians were able to take money from taxpayers and build
roads, they would build roads that served political
purposes rather than the needs of consumers. Politicians would build
roads that benefited campaign contributors or special interests.
Example: suppose an
amusement park on the outskirts of town realizes that they would
have more customers if tourists could be diverted from the main drag
through town onto a road that goes directly to the amusement park. If
the wealthy amusement park owner had gone door-to-door through the town
in a democratic way asking for donations to build a by-pass to his place
of business, doubtless few would have contributed. But in a "democratic
republic," the "elected representatives" can levy a
tax on everyone to build
a road for the benefit of the amusement park and its wealthy owner.
Private businesses will only build roads if they conclude that it
will serve consumers. Politicians don't have to worry about making a
profit by serving consumers. They just pass a law to increase taxes, or
they print up the money they want and steal purchasing power from
consumers through "the inflation
tax," and then build whatever benefits the politicians or rewards
The idea of Free Market Roads confuses many people because many
people are confused about capitalism. Should "the State"
provide our clothes, our food, our computers, and our cars? Most
Americans say No. But they don't know why. Economic
theory and economic history both proclaim
that capitalism is better than socialism.
But most Americans don't know why capitalism is better,
and how it works to provide the things that give us a
higher standard of living than socialist nations.
In a sense nobody knows why or how capitalism works so well. Adam
Smith, writing the first treatise on capitalism in 1776, attributed
capitalism's success to "the
Invisible Hand." Our Declaration of Independence, signed in
that same year, spoke of this "Invisible Hand" as "the
Protection of Divine Providence."
Nobody knows exactly how it works, but we do know that
Nobody knows how to make a pencil, but we know that the Free Market
gets pencils manufactured and sold. That statement may confuse you:
"What do you mean, 'Nobody knows how to make a pencil?'" It
takes the knowledge and decisions of millions -- no, billions -- of
people to make a pencil. We don't have a government Department of
Pencils. The manufacture and distribution of pencils is overseen by
"the Invisible Hand" of the Free Market. You may want to take
a few minutes to read about Providence
and the Pencil.
But unfettered Capitalism has been given "a bad rap" by the
mainstream media, university professors and politicians. They think
capitalism is based on "greed" and "cut-throat
competition," while the government is based on compassion and
fairness. Businessmen like Dick Cheney are part of "Big
Business," which is bad, but when "we the People" elect
businessmen to become politicians, all of the sudden they are no longer
greedy and ignorant, they are wise and philanthropic.
Some people think "profit" is bad. Profit is good if
it's voluntary. Profit is proof
of service to consumers. Consumers don't give
businesses their money unless businesses give consumers something of greater
value. In a Free Market, if the Smith Corporation doesn't serve
consumers, it doesn't make a profit. (In the world of politics, on the
other hand, the Smith Corporation can make a profit by making
contributions to the Senator So-and-So campaign, even if it doesn't
Some people think "competition" is mean and nasty.
Competition is good if it's unregulated and
Competition is the ability to serve consumers better. If the Smith
corporation isn't serving consumers, or is wasting natural resources
trying to do so (and therefore is charging a higher price than they
would if they had to consumer fewer resources), competition means the
Jones Corporation can enter the market and compete for consumer profit
by doing a better job of serving consumers than the Smith Corporation.
Competition means freedom.
Competition means choice.
Competition means improvement. (In the world of politics, on the other
hand, the Smith Corporation can make a campaign contribution to Senator
So-and-So in exchange for regulations and laws which prohibit anyone
from competing with the Smith Corporation. Without competition, the
Smith Corporation wins; the politicians win; consumers lose.)
So if the Jones Road Corporation builds a road that goes nowhere
consumers want to go, the Smith Highway Corporation can enter the market
and make a profit by building roads that go where more consumers want to
Or if the "Ma and Pa Road Company" has a road which is
always jammed with traffic, the Wal-Mart Highway Corporation can build a
road that doesn't have traffic jams. This might put the "Ma and
Pa" company out of business, but consumers get what they want.
Typical of how government works is "The
Bridge to Nowhere." Government action is summed up in the word
A private corporation, held accountable to consumers by the laws of
profit and loss, doesn't build a superhighway just so it can be called
"The Senator So-and-So Memorial Highway" even if no consumers
are benefited by the road. Free Market corporations only profit if they serve
the consumers and use good stewardship of their resources.
The same economic system that has given Americans the highest
standard of living in all of human history -- capitalism -- can be
trusted to provide efficient transportation. We trust the Free Market to
give us groceries, clothing, computers, cars, and cell phones -- why
How do we get from expensive government roads which are jammed with
traffic and kill tens of thousands of people a year, to libertarian
roads which are cheap, safe, and quick? How do we wean transportation
from the government teat? This is a tough question. The reason it's
tough is because so few people are busy brainstorming the answers. Those
answers will come when more people are convinced that capitalism is
better than socialism, that socialism, in fact, is
immoral, and bridges that serve the needs of consumers are better
than Bridges to Nowhere.
Existing roads should be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Regulations which interfere with a competitive Free Market (such
as those listed at the top of this page) should be abolished.
There needs to be a national conversation about this issue, so
that more people think like capitalists rather than like socialists.
"Necessity is the mother of invention."
Suppose we lived under a completely socialist government. All of our
shoes are made by the government and distributed to the people by the
government "Ministry of Shoes." Suppose someone proposed
turning over the business of making shoes to a competitive, profit-based
system. We might hear something like this:
How could you? You are opposed to the
public—and to poor people—wearing shoes! And who would
supply shoes to the public if the government got out of the business?
Tell us that! Be constructive! It's easy to be negative and
smart-alecky about government; but tell us who would supply
shoes? Which people? How many shoe stores would be available in
each city and town? How would the shoe firms be capitalized? How many
brands would there be? What material would they use? What material
lasts? What would be the pricing arrangements for shoes? Wouldn't
regulation of the shoe industry be needed to see to it that the
product is sound? And who would supply the poor with shoes? Suppose a
poor person didn't have the money to buy a pair?
questions, ridiculous as they seem to be (and are) with regard to the
shoe business, are just as absurd when applied to the libertarian who
advocates a free market in fire, police, postal service, or any other
government operation. The point is that the advocate of a free market
in anything cannot provide a "constructive" blueprint
of such a market in advance. The essence and the glory of the free
market is that individual firms and businesses, competing on the
market, provide an ever-changing orchestration of efficient and
progressive goods and services: continually improving products and
markets, advancing technology, cutting costs, and meeting changing
consumer demands as swiftly and as efficiently as possible. The
libertarian economist can try to offer a few guidelines on how markets
might develop where they are now prevented or restricted from
developing; but he can do little more than point the way toward
freedom, to call for government to get out of the way of the
productive and ever-inventive energies of the public as expressed in
voluntary market activity. No one can predict the number of firms, the
size of each firm, the pricing policies, etc., of any future market in
any service or commodity. We just know—by economic theory
and by historical insight—that such a free
market will do the job infinitely better than the compulsory monopoly
of bureaucratic government.
How will the
poor pay for defense, fire protection, postal service, etc., can
basically be answered by the counter-question: how do the poor pay for
anything they now obtain on the market? The difference is
that we know that the free private market will supply these goods and
services far more cheaply, in greater abundance, and of far higher
quality than monopoly government does today. Everyone in society would
benefit, and especially the poor. And we also know that the
mammoth tax burden to finance these and other activities would be
lifted from the shoulders of everyone in society, including the poor.
The Public Sector, III: Police, Law, and the Courts 215
particular circumstances of a given age or nation, there is scarcely
anything really important to the general interest, which it may not be
desirable, or even necessary, that the government should take upon
itself, not because private individuals cannot effectually perform it,
but because they will not. At some times and places, there will be no
roads, docks, harbours, canals, works of irrigation, hospitals,
schools, colleges, printing-presses, unless the government
establishes them; the public being either too poor to command the
necessary resources, or too little advanced in intelligence to
appreciate the ends, or not sufficiently practised in joint action to
be capable of the means.
John Stuart Mill, "The Principles Of Political
Economy", Book 5, Chapter 11.
The political process is not the best way to allocate scarce
resources and meet human needs. Businesses in a Free Market are held
accountable to meet consumer needs or go bankrupt. Businesses will build
roads and bridges where people like you and me want to go, and get us
there safely and quickly. Political incentives are altogether different,
and result in things like "The Bridge to Nowhere":
An excerpt from the 1958 "Disneyland" TV
Show episode entitled "Magic Highway USA."