Here’s a joke I heard a while back:
How many libertarians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
None. The free market will handle it.
Seriously, though, we libertarians often get a bum rap for our alleged insistence that the free market can immediately solve all of life’s problems. This is a mischaracterization. Libertarians don’t believe the free market is a god-like panacea, only that it is by far the best and most humane economic system possible in the real world, and that central planning always leads to disaster and human suffering.
Nevertheless, many of our critics like to accuse us of not living in the real world. They say, "You crazy libertarians! You guys probably want to privatize the roads!"
Indeed, we do. Or at least I do. Privatizing the roads is one very important and under-appreciated step we can take toward liberty.
Living in Berkeley, I have racked up no less than $500 in parking tickets, probably more. I hate parking tickets almost as much as I hate mosquitoes.
In Berkeley, the parking Gestapo draggle around and mark the tires of parked cars with chalk to keep track of how long they’ve been in one spot. Who gave them permission to put chalk on my tires? I didn’t. Must be part of the social contract I never signed.
Sometimes, if you rub the chalk off after seeing it, or even if you don’t see any chalk at all, they still ticket you because they have alternate means of keeping track of which cars are parked where when. They have computers and record the license plate numbers, I’m guessing.
Tyrants! Resourceful tyrants! If they were this efficient at stopping violent crime, I might still be a minarchist.
Worse still, if you rub the chalk off your tires it can earn you an inflated fine. It’s kind of like obstructing the justice, or something. (Next they’ll make it a crime to lie to a police officer about the color of your car, just so they can give Martha-Stewart treatment to everyone.)
Other than rubbing chalk off their tires, another way people try to outsmart the system is by sticking junk in parking meter coin slots. Now I never do this, because I think it’s kind of wrong. One friend of mine argues that interfering with government resource collection isn’t wrong; it’s a public service. Regardless of whether or not it is moral to disable parking meters — or even take out a whole bunch of them with a pipe cutter, la Cool Hand Luke — I must admit I do not shed tears when I park near a meter and discover, alas, that it is unfit to take my quarters.
Obviously, this only works where there are meters. In residential neighborhoods there are no meters and the parking enforcers patrol constantly, always ready to pounce.
My friend, Jeff Riggenbach, and I share in common a radical libertarian perspective on the world. One of the few things that stir disagreement between us is the question of roads and parking tickets. Don’t get him wrong: he believes roads should be privatized. But until then, he sees complaining motorists in the congested traffic of the Bay Area as rabble-rousers who falsely believe they have some "right" to park their cars in public space, no matter how much they inconvenience others. I tend to sympathize with the drivers (most of the time), and save my animosity for the parking enforcement regime.
The thing is, as Jeff points out, without price mechanisms, we can’t know exactly how much parking is worth, and since the state monopolizes the city streets, which are a limited resource, we need some way of keeping people from leaving their SUVs on the street until the end of time, or at least until we privatize the roads (which is, of course, the ideal solution, and the only way to settle this problem once and for all).
But the other thing is, as I point out, the city of Berkeley doesn’t predominately enforce parking to mimic a market function — as poor as such emulation would be — but mostly to collect revenue. It’s just another tax. The city government makes millions this way annually, and is always trying to find more efficient ways to loot more. I’m sure this is true for many other towns, as well.
And yet another thing, as I additionally point out, it is a major pain in the behind getting a parking sticker, which allows you to leave your own car next to your own home for more than two hours without being leeched out of thirty-six bucks by the Berkeley bureaucracy. You need some "evidence" that you live where you live, preferably a utilities bill. Well, when I tried to get a sticker from the parking regime, my roommate at the time had his name on all the utilities bills. All I had addressed to me were mailings from the Independent Institute and some NRA literature. I also had a photocopy of my roommate’s driver’s license, and a signed affidavit from him that testified that I in fact lived where I lived. That wouldn’t suffice.
I asked for a temporary sticker, and the parking bureaucrat peered at me angrily — I imagine she didn’t like her job — and said, "The City of Berkeley will give you the privilege this time, but only because it is giving you a privilege."
Not yet put in my place, I said, "I know people with parking permits without any of the evidence of their residence that you demand."
"Impossible," she asserted.
"I’ve seen it," I insisted.
"Well, the City of Berkeley is going to catch up to them one day," she retorted, triumphant sadistic glee emanating from her eyes, "And they’re going to be in big trouble. You just wait."
Ooooh! I was shaking in my Converse shoes. In truth, she was probably right. In a town with profligate laptop theft and the occasional mugging — I knew a homeless guy in a wheelchair who was almost beaten to death — the Berkeley cops spend much time going after parking violators, pot-smokers (an official "high priority" in my town, despite the stereotypes), and small businesses who don’t conform to city standards in their toilets’ flushing capacity (Berkeley toilet standards are more "progressive" than the federal mandates).
Now, if they privatized the roads and allowed more private parking garages, none of this would be a problem. Rent might be a tad higher, but there would be places to park, and we’d all save money in the long run that we now spend to maintain the parking-enforcement brigade.
Privatizing the roads would also be great for freeways. Many skeptics of libertarianism like to say, "Ahah! I got you! Without government, who would build interstate roads?"
Oh, you did get us! We didn’t think of that. Actually, thousands of private and community roads were built without government in 19th century America. It turns out that people want to get from here to there, and the same market incentives and voluntary human effort that brought us computers, televisions, radios and brain surgery can also manage to build one of the oldest technologies in human history: a strip of land adequately cleared of debris so we can travel on it.
Many of the privately built roads were stolen by the state, but they can be given back.
The way I see it, it is very eerie that the state controls the means of transportation. How scary and repressive that the government can control our movement, put up roadblocks whenever and wherever it pleases, and treat our cars like its property while we’re on its highways.
Government roads are shoddy, anyway. It amazes me that some people think they are a triumph of good government. Have these people ever driven on the same freeways I have? Do they really believe that these potholed abominations, constructed via unionized bureaucratic pork-filled government spending, are the reason we put up with confiscatory taxes, perpetual war, and arrogant government officials? Socialism is the price we pay for mobility, dang it! Without surrendering our liberty we could never be able to get from one place to the other!
No, no, no. I say: Privatize the roads! Liberate the streets! All we have to lose are our parking tickets!
One of these days a light will go off in the heads of the street statists. We should help screw in that light, because I’m not sure that the market will do so on its own.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent Institute and has written for Rational Review, Strike the Root, the Libertarian Enterprise, and Antiwar.com. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.