The Definitive Guide To Who Will Build The Roads

27

July 12, 2013 by Liberty

roadbuilderMessage to all libertarians, voluntaryists, and anarho-capitalists:

It’s the question that has tortured libertarians with a sweet melody repeating itself over and over and over again for as long as statists have roamed. It’s the simple question, “Who will build the roads?” It’s not really the hardest question to answer but no matter what answer is provided, people will look with skepticism at you, as if you’re the one advocating absurd things. Well, the next time you get the question, you don’t need to start twitching compulsively or laughing hysterically. Just link them to this article. It will go over all the major points about roads. It will also introduce the basic philosophy behind reducing the size of government.

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If you’ve been linked to this article then you’ve probably asked the question, “who will build the roads without a government?” or a similar question.

This is actually a very common question that people into reducing the size of the government hear. If the person you were asking this to broke into laughter or started acting like it was a silly question, please forgive them. They may or may not have meant to offend you but if you’re reading this, then it means you’re genuinely curious and deserve a thorough answer. People into reducing the size of the state view this as a bit of a silly question but they often forget what it’s like to not have been introduced to the idea. The vast majority of people cannot answer this question. If I do my job right, you’ll be one of those people after reading this article.

The Real Question

This is a very quick but important point.

Who will build the roads? Probably the same people that build them now. Government doesn’t build the roads. Governments hire contracting companies to build the roads for them.

That should lead to the question, “Who will pay the contracting companies?” This is the question that I’m going to be assuming whenever we ask the question, who will build the roads, in this article.

Moral Answer

This is going to be the harshest part of the article. This is also one of the most powerful points.

Asking, who will build the roads without government, is like asking, who will pick the cotton when we free the slaves. Don’t just take my word for it.

People believed that slavery couldn’t be abolished in America. Without the slaves picking the cotton, they thought there would be no way for cotton to get picked. If cotton didn’t get picked, clothing wouldn’t get made, businesses would go under, children would freeze to death, slaves couldn’t take care of themselves (racism at its worst,) and many other ridiculous things.

Today, we understand how ridiculous all that is. Since we eliminated slavery we’ve developed some of the greatest technology innovations in history to pick the cotton. That technology development would have been impossible to predict before we freed the slaves. When the slaves were freed, the incentives were in place for someone to invent it.

Morally speaking, when asked who will pick the cotton when we free the slaves, my answer is:

It doesn’t matter. If something is unethical then we shouldn’t be doing it. The ends do not justify the means. I don’t care if some people will have to walk around naked if the alternative is creating a subclass of human beings that we can exploit. Slavery is not justifiable.

You might be asking, what does this have to do with government?

It really has everything to do with government but I’m going to be simplifying this quite a bit because it’s a point that could take books worth of information to make.

Government is non-voluntary. I can’t choose not to be a citizen of America. I need permission to leave. I was born here. I did not agree to that. I’m stuck here, following the rules until government approves of my departure (I even have to pay to eliminate my citizenship. That’s not voluntary.). The rules I have to follow include non-voluntary taxes, social rules (smoking, etc), and business regulations. If I choose not to follow their rules, they lock me in a cage. If an individual were to do this to me it would be extortion, or theft, or kidnapping or any of a million crimes. A government does all these things without labeling them crimes. That makes makes it immoral.

It doesn’t matter who builds the roads. If the requirement to have roads is extorting 300 million people then I personally would rather everyone walk. Fortunately, people don’t have to walk. There are plenty of incentives in the free market for people to build roads.

Would We Need The Roads?

Everything discussed up to now missed an important point that needs to be considered. Why are roads the worlds go to source of transportation? Why aren’t we carrying things on planes or trains? Why haven’t we invented hovercrafts yet? (a personal favorite)

There is no way to know the answer to those questions. We can only take some educated guesses at them and hope we’re somewhere in the ballpark.

One potential reason roads are the go to source of transportation is because they’re efficient. A car can travel from one location to another a lot easier than a train can. It requires significantly fewer resources. They could be the go to source of transportation because they’re the most efficient but…

we can’t completely ignore the negatives. Cars don’t necessarily require roads but cars, as build today, cars really need them to be efficient. The government has build these roads for cars for over a century. If the government didn’t build the roads for cars, would people still be driving cars.

They could be driving off road vehicles that don’t need roads to be build. If no one ever built the roads then car companies might have developed the technology to hover above the ground instead of needing roads. Naturally, this is all silly speculation but there is one untouchable point.

We cannot predict whether we would need roads if government didn’t build them.

Government can effect the creation of a market. Markets that can’t compete with government services (which use unethical activity instead of competing) can’t be developed. That means, the more government interferes with the market, the less we can predict from looking at the world we’re living in.

Business Answers

Okay, so maybe the answers given so far don’t really click with the way you think. I understand that. I was the same way when I started looking into these ideas. Sometimes the more obscure ways of looking at a problem don’t mean a thing.

What I’m going to be going over here could change your life. If anarchy ever takes over the world then knowing this information could make you a highly successful business person building the roads.

To answer the question, who will build the roads, you need to look at the people with an incentive to build the roads.

Car companies

Cars aren’t all that useful without roads. If government disappeared today then car companies would be freaking out. The roads are essential to the existence of the cars we have today. They rely on the roads for great gas mileage and a smooth ride.

If there were no roads then car companies would have two choices. There first option is build better off road cars. There other option is to build the roads.

If car companies were looking to keep growing, they’d need the number of roads in this country to keep growing. This is a great incentive for car companies to pay for the building of the roads. At the very least, they’re going to be one of the top investors in private road building companies.

Private Road Building Companies

Roads would be an unbelievable opportunity for people to profit without government. That would almost inevitably lead to people going into the road building business. Roads can get millions of people on them every single day.

You might be wondering how they could profit off building roads. That’s a fair question. How does government profit off roads? Tolls are one option. (No, if people had to make a profit off every road they wouldn’t have toll booths. They could easily get car companies to put chips in cars that count road usage.) The people that use the roads would pay for the roads instead of the 300+ million people the United States government currently charges

The funny thing is, private road building companies could profit without even charging people that drive on the road.

Roads are not only useful for car companies and individuals using the road. They’re also profitable for the people that own the land they’re build on. Property owners may actually pay the road builders themselves. That leads to the next road building contender.

Land Owners

Road front property is more valuable than non-road front property. Many landowners would be begging for roads to be built on their property. That’s because their property value would increase exponentially with a road built through it.

What used to be a backwoods property is now prime business property. Roads would only be built when they’re profitable and busy. Busy roads mean more traffic for businesses along its sides. Landowners could easily double their property value in a day by building a road along it.

A question that you may have had by now should probably be addressed:

What if one landowner REFUSES to have a road build through his or her land? Don’t you need eminent domain to deal with that? If you buy up one hundred peoples property and then one guy refuses to sell the road builder could go broke.

No road builder would buy land without an option contract (unless they have some logical reason.) They would use contracts that are contingent on all the land needed being contracted. If one landowner refuses to sell then the road company could just bounce their route over to the property owner next to them and work on a few more options contracts to make it work.

Quite frankly, based on the value increase in property with roads, 99% of landowners are going to want the roads being built.

Private Non-Road Businesses

What if you were lucky enough to get a road built on your business’s property but the road was 500ft away from where your business was located. You talked to the road building company that you contracted with and they told you that’s the only spot they could build the road and have it go where they need it. Does that mean your business will never get the traffic from the road into the business?

Of course not. Just like any business in the world today, people build driveways. Those are nothing more than short roads to get people from one area to the next. You just hire someone to build the road yourself. You could probably even take some of the payment the road company gave you to buy it.

If you have any doubt about the ability of the free market to build the roads then think about the railroads. Railroads were not originally built by a government. They were built in the free market to provide value to customers. (See comment below for more on this)

Funny Thing

The funny thing about all these problems is their lack of complexity. Anyone can figure out the solution to these problems. You just have to find solutions where everyone gets what they want. They’re more common than most people think. You don’t need non-voluntary taxation to build roads. People have plenty of business and profit incentives to make it happen without government involvement.

Throughout this section, did you think of a voluntary way to build the roads that I didn’t mention? Comment and say it below. There are millions of potential answers and I’d love to hear some of yours.

The Real Answer!

Okay, all of the answers provided were real but this is the most realistic of them all.

Who will build the roads?

No one knows.

Helpful one, isn’t it?

The truth is that no one can predict what would happen if something happened differently in the world. Predicting what the world would be like without government building the roads is about as accurate as predicting what the world would be like if Germany won WW2 or if grass suddenly all turned bright purple. It’s an abstract question that holds millions of potential outcomes.

This article is not intended to predict what the world would be like. It’s meant to introduce ideas. We don’t always need non-voluntary transactions to get what’s best for everyone. In fact, many people think that all non-voluntary transactions are unethical.

The question you need to be asking yourself is whether the non-voluntary methods you support to solve the problems aren’t creating more problems themselves. A voluntary solution doesn’t always have to be right because everyone involved is taking the risk without threats being used against them. When threats are used, the solution that you’re using better be the right one or, in my opinion, you’re being a very unethical person.

No one knows how much different the world would be if government didn’t build the roads. Anyone that claims otherwise is lying. The points you need to consider are probably not logistics. If you’ve read this whole article then you’ve probably already seen most of the answers to those problems. The points you need to be consider more are the ethical implications.

Do you support extortion, kidnapping, theft, and every other non-voluntary transaction used to build the roads*? That’s the real question.

*Pay your taxes or we will (extortion) take you to jail (kidnapping). We will use eminent domain(theft) to use your land if you don’t want to sell it to us (extortion again). The other non-voluntary transactions involved are a much deeper topic that you might want to look into yourself.

Phewwww…

Thank you for taking the time to consider who will build the roads. If you actually read this whole article then I am truly thankful. Not many people have the courage to read through a view like this and consider it thoroughly.

If you’ve read it and it’s got you thinking more about this subject then please subscribe to this blog. It’s a free way to keep gaining an understanding of a more voluntary perspective. At the very least, act on your curiosity and start looking for some new sources of information to learn more from. Please comment as well so I can work to improve this article.

If, at the end of this, I have failed to convince you then I want to apologize. I hope you learned at least one new idea. I’ve dedicated quite a bit of time to trying to make this hit every major point because I want the world to be a more voluntary place. I’m writing this article because I care and I hope that someday I can convince you better or learn something better from you. Please comment below. You’ve taken a lot of time to read this. Tell me what I have right or wrong. What important questions did I not address?

Thank you for taking the time to consider this.

Next time someone asks, who will build the roads, keep all these factors in mind when explaining or better yet, just link them here.

Be sure to subscribe as well. It’s a free way to learn a little more on liberty every day.

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27 thoughts on “The Definitive Guide To Who Will Build The Roads

  1. Back in the days of trains, the government did not build the track for the trains. Railway companies did. They built thousands of miles of track without involuntary taxes taken from people who did not necessarily even use it (or want it). They made their profit from consumers, effectively cutting out the middle man (government).

    • Liberty says:

      I’ve never thought of that before.
      Thank you!

      I’m going to see if I can figure out where to add that in.

    • Fucklibertarians says:

      And before regulations existed to build railroad tracks and regulate trains, the size and makeup of tracks differed from company to company making them highly inefficient because one company didn’t use the tracks of another. Once the government DID get involved the transcontinental railroad was made because such a project was too massive and expensive for railroad companies to undertake on their own and such a project would be useless before it was entirely completed.

      • doglash says:

        You fail to mention that the project was so massive and expensive because the contractors who were building the railroad for the government went our of their way to make the track longer and windier than it needed to be in order to obtain the maximum amount of subsidies they possibly could and to extract bribes from industries and officials that wanted a railroad through their town. They also used as much sub-standard building materials as they could get away with since they had no investment in the railroad once it was built. IF there was a genuine need for a transcontinental railroad the free market would have built it cheaper, more efficiently and to a better quality than it was done by government, and there are prime examples of this in comparisons of other railroads built by private companies vs. those commissioned by bureaucracies.

  2. http://mises.org/rothbard/newlibertywhole.asp

    Happened to read Rothbard who definitely covered this idea in great detail, very true that no one can predict how things would have worked out if there was no govt initiative on roads.

    Undoubtedly in its present state the society is dependent on roads, its predictability in terms of contractual rules, driving rules, continued accessibility, condition etc they are all integral for personal & business investment, difficulty in enforcing free competition makes me wonder whether the rational self interest would work here at all.

    There are some lessons to be learned from Vanderbilt’s & Tom Scott’s rail road tussle with Rockefeller, private control of a channel which largely extends into the public sphere might work but it may not also, wherever there is entry barrier there is a good scope for monopolistic practice. Private control of an apparatus which can influence the private lives of a lot of other people is way too much power to be held by one person or a small group.

    The abstract thought that private enterprise will anyway discover a solution even if its not supported by govt is true and quite well emphasized in this write up.

    • Garry Reed says:

      When you say “Private control of an apparatus which can influence the private lives of a lot of other people is way too much power to be held by one person or a small group” are you aware that:

      1. The Great Northern railroad was the only privately funded and built RR in American history (James J. Hill) and it successfully outperformed all of the government monopoly trans-continental railroads.

      2. You just described exactly what government is – too much power in the hands of a small group. The difference is the Great Northern was built with voluntary (free enterprise) “power” while government is built with coercive (imposed monopoly) “power.” There is a big difference between voluntary power and coercive power. That’s the whole point.

      • Gary Reed,

        We all can learn valuable lessons from history, but its so difficult to state specific events as an empirical evidence to a theory. When working with interpretations of history, causality is always a problem, Mises has explained much in “Human Action” about the epistemological problems related to the “lessons” from history.

        When dealing with human action its impossible to postulate all the possible outcomes of some order, we can attempt to identify some advantages related to certain social orders and follow some guiding principles to evolve that in the right direction. I did learn a lot from F.A.Hayek on ‘The Rule Of Law’ driven spontaneous order.

        My intention was to convey that its always good to exhibit some diffidence when expressing feasibility of different ideas related to social sciences because human action is inherently unpredictable.

        “it must be emphasized that “utility” is not a cardinal quantity subject to the processes of measurement, such as addition, multiplication, etc. It is a ranked number expressible only in terms of higher or lower order in the preferences of men.” – Mises

      • The quote on my comment is from Rothbard & not Mises, but “Human Action” also expresses a similar idea on how human preferences can never have cardinal numbers and how its always determined by subjective ordinal numbers.

  3. dqd says:

    Thank you for writing this awe-inspiring article. From the ethical point of view, I agree with the point you made. But my pragmatic self is not entirely convinced. What about the efficiency? Have you ever heard about the free rider problem? And Coase theorem? The resulting transaction costs can be really high. Just stating that the progress will solve all these problems is not satisfying enough.

    • Greevous says:

      He actually did address your concern when he talked about slavery, dqd. In the final analysis, your desire for “pragmatism” is part of the problem. It was “pragmatic” to keep slaves in the south, however, it was completely unethical. Once it was no longer legal to keep them, other (both ethical and efficient) methods were developed.

      • dqd says:

        Okay, thanks. In the meantime, I’ve read Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty, so I understand the point now.

  4. Joseph Larrew says:

    Wow, thank you for this comprehensive response. This will definitely be what I link people to.

  5. Garry Reed says:

    Others with a vested interest in building roads: Think of the multibillion dollar trucking industry and all of the manufacturing and wholesale and retail commercial businesses who rely on the movement of goods. Trains and planes can only reach a small percentage of them. Think of all the insurance companies who make their profits by insuring those trucks and goods from damage or loss. Think of the multibillion dollar tourist industry and the destinations who rely on visitors spending their money in those places. Think of the multibillion dollar secondary businesses such as truck and car sales, rental, repair and spare parts manufacturing. Without government coercion building roads there will likely be multiple solutions in multiple locations creating multiple means of financing roads, many of which we’ve never even thought of yet because “thinking-outside-the-government-box” effectively kills innovation and creative thinking.

    • Garry Reed says:

      Of course I meant “thinking INSIDE the government box” kills innovation and creative thinking — when all one has to do is point a government gun at someone and say “Do this now with this stolen money, or else!”

  6. Reblogged this on Voluntarydactyl.com and commented:
    An excellent summary of answers to one of the most annoying questions ever devised:

  7. doglash says:

    This was so well written and easy to follow. I would love to see you do “The Definitive Guide To Who Will Help The Poor”.

  8. Scott Swain says:

    I love this article and I want to spread it around. Please fix the many spelling and grammatical errors. For example, “Railroads were not originally build by a government.” Past tense of “build” is “built”. Thank you!

    • Liberty says:

      Thanks!

      I have a few articles that I wrote with a “speech to text” program. I definitely missed some silly mistakes like that. Now that my blog is getting major traffic I’m starting to find out how often I miss these stupid mistakes. Any help in finding them is greatly appreciated. (I’m making some time to go through all of them again myself in the future.)

  9. […] Originally Posted by Panzareta Oh…..so libertarians do like regulations and zoning laws. Not so much the personal freedom of someones private land getting condemned for the PUBLIC Good This "aha Gotcha" discussion doesn't interest me. You will find your answers here. no, they could not take private property. The Definitive Guide To Who Will Build The Roads | Libertarian Money […]

  10. Randy says:

    Roads are an inherent monopoly. (At least local roads) Monopolies are the opposites of free markets. There is only so much available land, and to get to certain places, you need to take certain roads. This creates a situation where road owners have ultimate power to set prices or otherwise act as they please. At least the people have some chance of changing government road policy through voting and activism, private road owners would be absolutely unaccountable. I understand you hate government coercion, but unregulated private roads would unleash corporate exploitation and extortion that would be worse in every way than government roads could ever be. What If your business got in an argument with a road company? What if a road company bought a business that was in direct competition with yours? The road company could re-route the road, and erect giant walls to block off the the passage to your business. Your livelihood would be at the complete mercy of this company, and they could extort you to do whatever they want.

    Private roads have a huge disincentive to serve the poor, because the poor can’t afford to pay their share of building and maintenance costs. When the poor lose access to quality transportation, they lose access to many jobs. This would create exactly the “subclass of humans” that you deride under the system of slavery.

    This problem is nowhere near as simple as you make it out to be.

    The human right of freedom of movement trumps your “one size fits all” absolute anarcho-principles.

    • doglash says:

      1. “Shops are an inherent monopoly. (At least local shops) Monopolies are the opposites of free markets. There is only so much available land, and to get certain items, you need to use certain shops. This creates a situation where shop owners have ultimate power to set prices or otherwise act as they please.”

      Roads aren’t an inherent monopoly more than anything else is. There is limited land for everything. Shops, power infrastructure, roads, housing. You are completely ignoring the effects of price and competition. You are ignoring economics. Do you think that all shops should be run by the government? Do you think all housing should be provided by the government?

      2. “Private road owners would be absolutely unaccountable”

      This simply is not true. Private road owners would be accountable to the customers who used their roads. If they began to exploit or exhort people then

      a) those customers would go elsewhere and the road company would go bankrupt.

      b) there would be a huge economic incentive for someone to build a competing road.

      For example, as far as I know there is no legislation that compels a restaurant to provide “tasty” food. Are restaurants absolutely unaccountable for the taste of their food? Of course not. If a restaurant provides horrible tasting food then the consumers go elsewhere and the restaurant goes out of business, while another restaurant opens up across the street and makes a KILLING selling tasty food.

      3. “Your livelihood would be at the complete mercy of this company, and they could extort you to do whatever they want.”

      If you start a business whose success and patronage is reliant solely on the availability of one road and only one road, and you don’t have the foresight to either not start a business in such a terrible location or to secure reasonable rates on road use for the life of your business then your business deserves to fail. You are simply too dim-witted and far too short-sighted.

      • John says:

        Roads are indeed a natural monopoly for the same reason utility companies are natural monopolies: it would be extremely inefficient to have parallel highways with the same beginning and destination and only differ by who owns them. Yes, there is limited land, so why would there be competition at all? The competition would be a redundant waste of land resources. What if one of the road owning companies goes under? Is no one allowed to drive on their roads anymore? More likely they’d just be bought by another company (probably road owning) and then we could easily see roads turn into oligarchies, even less efficient. You can’t really reclaim paved ground all that easily, either. You are comparing apples and oranges when you discuss merchants, roads, housing, and power infrastructure. Ignoring prices and economics? You wouldn’t get roads cheaper than they are now. Plus, economics has a very long list of literature on public goods and how they will be undersupplied by the market.

        How many businesses do you know of that are reliant on more than one road? Every business has an address and the only way to access that address is to get on the same street. A business can’t be serviced by road A or road B at the same time, it can only be on one or the other. Thus, the owner of the road can extort anyone whose address lies on their road if they pleased.

  11. […] responses have been offered, by more savvy political commentators than I, ranging from “nobody knows, but it’s worth finding out because we’d probably find a better solution than the […]

  12. Reblogged this on LIBERTY MINDS and commented:
    The quintessential response to the statist fall back question

  13. […] helping the poor, building structures, trading goods, creating businesses, or dare I say it, build roads. Of course, there are endless opportunities for individual cooperation, but you get my […]

  14. Zach Dean says:

    I just came across your post when doing a little research for my latest posting…I linked this post in it! I hope you don’t mind! Keep up the good work.

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