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Arthur Thomas's picture

The Road Not Taken

on Thu, 04/19/2012 - 16:34

Just because something did not happen does not mean it could not have happened, and just because someone cannot imagine something does not mean it is impossible.

As a Libertarian I am used to getting extreme arguments all the time. No other party has to deal with edge cases of political philosophy as much as the Libertarian Party. This is understandable given that a lot of the arguments for freedom are from positions this country has steered away from long ago. It is easy to be labeled as extreme when you are saying the status quo is not acceptable. We have gotten so used to creating rules and giving up freedoms that the idea of restoring freedom has become foreign. I wish to take up one of the common arguments we encounter and give insight into the possibilities of freedom. I want to show the path we have chosen and accepted as ‘inevitable’ and how that may lead to missed opportunities.

The argument: We need to tax people to build a public road system. Without a public transportation system people would not be able to travel and businesses would not be able to transport their goods. Only the government could provide our road system. It has been implied that “without government we would not have roads”.

Let us do the extreme first. Imagine that all the current roads disappeared. No highways, no neighborhood roads, and no city streets. Now of course, since this is the common reaction, everyone would yell out for government to solve the problem. It is a knee jerk reaction because we have been taught that government is an organizing force in our lives. Let us propose for a moment though that the government is not an option available to us. So we have our grassy areas with no roads in our example. This is not too convenient for those cars we have. Businesses still need to carry goods. People still need to get to work. Life must go on. What would you do? Just give up and stay home? Let your life dwindle away in hopelessness because your car is stuck in a garage? Certainly you may be upset at the disappearance at roads all of a sudden but would you let it stop you?  Would it stop your life?

At first it would be hard. You may walk more or people rely on friends with 4 wheel drive vehicles or use all terrain buses that can travel on rough ground.  As time passed though the interests that care about roads would get together. They would start planning to solve the problem. Large corporations that pushed goods would get together to solve their common problem. Construction companies would quickly adapt to seek out a private road market for these companies. Local neighborhoods would band together to look into paving options for their mutual benefit. People would start solving their problems. Maybe paving to each driveway is too expensive so a neighborhood creates a communal garage and everyone creates more green space in the neighborhood. Some communities may create more bike and scooter paths and take more buses. Certainly there would be roads that become toll roads to pay for their ongoing operations as well. The needs of the area come in to solve problem. The solutions would reflect the culture of the area as well. No longer would a single solution path be there to tell everyone how to ‘pave their way’ but people come together to fix their transportation problems. Over time the roads would be built. Goods would still get to where they need to go and people would be able to travel. Even taking away all the current roads would not stop life. So just posing the question that implies roads would not exist without government is a straw man argument. Just because some may lack the imagination to see another path does not mean another path does not exist.

Now that was a wild what if, but let us go back and imagine that government was not the sole provider of roads. Let us look into a possible avenue of what would happen if the state was not expected to build public roads. What if roads were left more to those who use them instead of forcing them upon all?

One argument is that the poorest people would not have roads and be able to travel while the richest have nice roads. This is of course how the economy usually sorts things out. Rich people will always have the nicest things, but does that mean poor people are ‘trapped’? I would argue that they are trapped now. What are their choices? They have to rely on a subsidized system that runs whenever others determine it will run. The other choice is to sink lots of money into a car, fuel, and all the fees associated with it. They have very limited choices that are extremes in cost and freedom. How is that free or better for the poorest of us? An unmolested economy solves problems like these. It balances out necessity of travel for work with cost and freedom. It means light transport can develop with low cost long distance transport and serve everyone alike.

Another of the hidden costs that I want to show is probably a surprising one.