By Greg Morin
It is curious that “the roads” falls among the top justifications for the existence of government. Setting aside the laughably false choice implicit in this sentiment (i.e. that roads could not exist absent government) we are left to ponder how one of the most poorly run government services is supposed to bolster, rather than weaken, the case for government. Poorly run? How so? Allow me to elaborate. Crumbling infrastructure. Traffic congestion. Traffic delays. Roads littered daily with accidents, injuries and deaths that on an annual scale reach into the millions of accidents and tens of thousands of deaths. (http://goo.gl/ganMLb) What’s that? Unfair assessment you say? It’s the drivers causing the accidents and greedy selfish taxpayers not wanting to pay more in taxes to build more roads. Perhaps. But consider this: Imagine that a big evil corporation owned all the roads. Would there not be an outcry over these statistics? Would there not be an outcry over high prices for a poor product? Would people not say the company is more interested in profit than in making roadways safer? However, and here is the key difference in this counterfactual scenario, were a private company the owner of the roads the public would have at least one remedy not available today. The lawsuit. Private road owners, in contrast to “public” owners, are liable for events occurring on their private property. The injured could sue the road owners for providing an unsafe product. However, such suits would be few and far between. Road owners would see that problem a mile away. They would proactively invest in safety measures to ensure no one dies on their roads. There is a reason after all that air travel is statistically safer than road travel: an airline that had the same fatality rate per mile would have been sued out of existence long ago (or simply gone bankrupt as everyone stopped flying them in droves).
But such a recourse does not exist today. Those in government are immune from liability for their actions. When poor decisions are made, nobody is held accountable. Due to the revolving door structure of political office, decisions are made that maximize short-term benefits at the expense of long-term goals. This mode of operation tends to get one reelected. People naturally prefer those who promise stuff now vs later. The system can’t be “fixed” because the inherent feedback in the system drives it to always select for short-term minded stewards.
Would private roads operate any better? Given any particular owner there is no way to predict. Whether private or public, those in charge are just people. People are imperfect. However, in a private system there is a feedback mechanism that keeps the good and removes the bad. That mechanism is driven by competition and liability. An owner that keeps his roads safe, fast, and efficient is providing what the consumer wants. He stays in business. The owner that does the opposite goes out of business. Competition is the linchpin of free market regulation. It drives us to do better than the other guy. It drives us to provide a better and safer product in order to avoid the losses of liability. In short, competition is how we keep each other “in line” – no Big Brother needed.
Now armed with that knowledge, ask yourself, where is the competition in government? Voting? Please – that’s tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. If AT&T were providing poor service, would you rather (a) vote concerning changing whatever policy displeases you but not be allowed to stop buying AT&T’s product if the vote does not go your way or (b) switch providers. Voting with your wallet is far more democratic than voting in the ballot box.
One might argue that roads are a natural monopoly, that there would be no competitor to switch to. This is superficially plausible, however it falls into the trap of assuming a private system must be exactly like the public system, just with a different owner. That would not be the case, the result of which would be opportunities for competition heretofore not yet envisioned (who knows, maybe we’d have our flying cars by now if the road system were private!). So, when you hear “but who will build the roads?” remember: a question is not an argument. One’s lack of imagination is not proof of anything.
Greg Morin is a member of the Libertarian party and CEO of Seachem Laboratories located in Madison. Constructive comments are welcomed to this paper or at gregmorin.com