The present article is a follow up to, or a companion piece of, my very good friend Thomas DiLorenzo’s column "Death by Government: The Missing Chapter." There, Tom eloquently demonstrated that the figures compiled by R.J. Rummel, author of Power Kills and Death by Government, and by the authors of The Black Book of Communism, do not tell the full, whole and entire story of this murderous "curious institution" (government, that is). In order to tell a more complete story, he quite properly focused on deaths during the American war of Northern Aggression in 1861 (sometimes called the "Civil War" by people in the thrall of politically correct but astoundingly imprecise language), something totally ignored in the official accounts of death by government on the part of these authors.
Today, I would like to tell the relatively unknown sad tale of yet another source of deaths provided to us by our friendly neighborhood government: highway fatalities. As you can see from the table below, Americans are dying like flies on our nation’s roadways, some 40,000 plus each and every year for as far back as I have been able to garner statistics. While this is not as "splashy" as the tolls wreaked by past masters of mass murder such as Stalin, Mao and Hitler, you can at least say one thing for American style mass murder: it is far more reliable. Slow and steady is our motto. However, at some 40,000 annual deaths, this amounts to quite "respectable" numbers over the years. Every 25 years, for example, we manage to bump off roughly one million poor souls. I know, I know, this pales into insignificance compared to the statistics racked up by our justly famous "world class" mass murderers. It is even put in the shade by the relatively paltry 650,000 Iraqis slaughtered by U.S. imperialism in Iraq in just a few years. (For shame! It takes 25 years to kill one million people? Pikers!) But still, these are only U.S. figures. Governments around the world own and manage these charnel houses. Were these numbers all added up, my claim is that highway deaths need take second spot to only a few mass murderers in world history.
Note from the table below matters are "improving" over the years if not much in terms of gross deaths, then at least on the basis of deaths per vehicle mile traveled. I am not at all interested in letting the monstrous state off the hook in this regard. As far as I am concerned, this is taking place in spite of, not so much because of, the actions of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, despite their tendency to take credit for anything positive that happens on their watch, as do all statist agencies.
Another possible objection to my thesis that government is responsible for all the carnage is the view that the real causes are, instead, things like speeding, reckless driving, driver error, weather conditions, driving while under the influence of various substances (booze, drugs), driver inattention due to cell phones, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are only proximate causes of the fatalities. The ultimate or final cause is the fact that the government cannot manage its way out of the proverbial paper bag when it comes to eliminating such phenomena, or radically reducing their harmful effects. That is, the state authorities are the self-styled whiz kid managers of the roadways. As such, it is their duty and obligation to deal with these proximate causes of accidents. If there is too much speeding or driving while under the influence, then it is the fault of the road managers who have not prevented such behavior.
Let me argue by analogy. Suppose a bookstore goes broke. Putting on our managerial spectacles, do we say this is due to poor choice of books to sell, poor choice of location, location, location, poor pricing policy, poor advertising? We most certainly do not hold responsible these proximate causes for the failure of the enterprise. Rather, if we have our wits about us, we blame the manager-owner for not choosing better books to sell, locating in a better place, engaging in a better pricing policy, picking a better advertising agency, etc. In like manner, so is it with highways. The government owns and manages our thoroughfares. If there are problems with them, and there are, there are, the blame rests squarely on their shoulders.
Let us entertain one final objection to our modest proposal that the highway authorities are mass murderers. Even if we fully privatized every street, road, tunnel, bridge, avenue, highway, still, there would be some deaths. Thus, government is not responsible for the present rate of some 40,000 fatalities that occur each year, but only for the difference between this amount and the number that would occur under full and complete highway privatization. Say, only 10,000 people would die under these free market alternative institutional arrangements. Then, the government shoulders the blame for only 30,000 deaths, the difference between these two figures, not the full 40,000 I lay at their door.
Nonsense, nonsense on stilts say I. When we calculate the numbers racked up by mass murderers, we never subtract from them the statistics indicating those who would have died from alternative causes in any case. For example, we say that Stalin murdered 20 million people. But, some of them, undoubtedly, would have died from natural causes had he not gone on his murderous rampages. We never offer a net figure for his murders. These calculations are always given in gross terms. Why should it be any different for U.S. highway murderers?
Suppose I rape a woman. Later, it is proven (don’t ask how) that had I not raped her, she would have been instead run over by a bus. Does that mean I am no longer guilty of rape? It does not. I am still a rapist. Similarly, even if it is proven that 10,000 people would have died on private highways, it does not mean that our present crew gets off the hook for these deaths. They are still "rapists."
The Mises Institute will soon publish a book of mine on this subject: Block, Walter. 2007. Privatize Roads and Highways! Now! Auburn, AL: The Mises Institute. I go into issues of this sort in far greater detail there. You can look upon this present column as an introduction to that book.
Annual US Street & Highway Fatalities from 1957
Rate/100M Vehicle Miles
Data from Federal Highway Administration
Source: see here.
Postscript to the above. Here is a correspondence I had with Professor DiLorenzo just prior to the publication of the column that now appears above. (Notice, in his last letter to me, what an early riser he is; no wonder he is so productive.)
—–Original Message—– From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: email@example.com Sent: Fri, 24 Nov 2006 5:38 PM Subject: FW: another column
From: Walter Block Sent: Fri 11/24/2006 4:35 PM To: firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: another column
Please consider this as a column for LRC
I am copying you on this since this column of mine so closely follows and parallels yours. I thought I’d give you a sneak preview, because I wouldn’t have thought of writing mine had I not first seen yours.
From: email@example.com [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org] Sent: Fri 11/24/2006 8:48 PM To: Walter Block Subject: Re: another column
Good article. I wrote an article on airbag murders on the Mises daily articles several years ago. We probably don’t even have statistics on how many children have been killed by these things.
—–Original Message—– From: email@example.com To: firstname.lastname@example.org Cc: email@example.com Sent: Fri, 24 Nov 2006 10:16 PM Subject: RE: another column
Thanks. Here’s a good research proposal: find other sources of government promoted deaths not contemplated by Rummel, etc. Air bags are good, if data is available. Certainly the FDA; maybe data can be accessed showing how many people died due to FDA hold ups in approving new drugs, and making this process more expensive. Then there’s socialized medicine. Also, reduction of GDP due to regulations (assuming that wealthier is healthier). Perhaps the worst policy in terms of needless deaths is the prohibition of addictive drugs. It would be difficult, though, to trace down all the deaths involved here, since many of them are indirect (e.g., increased crime). This could be made into a series of articles, maybe.
Don’t leave out banning DDT. There are articles on the web claiming that millions have died in Africa because the bugs that used to be killed by DDT kill the crops and people starve. Foreign aid also kills, by making it uneconomical to be a farmer in countries where we are drowning their markets with free food, thereby causing starvation.