The Hidden Costs of Road Socialism

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The first step toward understanding how to make America’s roads and highways safer and cleaner (and just plain tolerable to navigate without losing one’s mind), is to recognize that the type of road provision that we currently have in this country is a pure form of socialism. That is to say, since America’s roads and highways are funded purely through tax money (and "fees," if you prefer Mit Romney’s double-speak), they are therefore managed wholly by faceless government bureaucrats and politicians in precisely the same manner that tractors and rubber boots were managed and produced in the former Soviet Union. The provision of roads in this country thus has absolutely no link to the preferences of the consumers of the "service," all of whom are forced to pay for it whether they want to or not. (And, if any of us poor saps should sensibly try to opt out of paying the taxes that fund these horribly mismanaged assets, we will very quickly find ourselves rotting in Federal prison.) Hence, the first step toward understanding how to remedy the gravely disordered road system in this country is simply to recognize that the current system of road provision in the U.S. blatantly satisfies Arthur Balfour’s famous definition of socialism: “Socialism means the public ownership of the means of production and distribution; that is Socialism and nothing else is Socialism.” (See Garret Garret’s powerful essay The March for this definition).

As an aside, it would be ridiculous to object that the purported consumers of road "services" in the U.S. do indeed have a say in how the roads in this country are produced through voting, because: 1) a gigantic chunk of the populace in the U.S simply does not vote, 2) even when they do vote, they almost never have any idea whatsoever about what their representative will do about roads, and finally 3) the vast majority of decisions regarding roads in this country are made by unelected bureaucrats, none of whom the voting public will ever even know, let alone vote for.

The second step toward remedying the gravely flawed road system in this country is to recognize that road socialism, just like every form of socialism, imposes severe and unavoidable costs on the consumer of the socialized good. Foremost among these costs of road socialism is the enormous loss of human life that occurs on socialized roads; a staggering 40,000+ Americans lose their lives on government roads every year. (On this statistic, see especially the excellent article by Walter Block, "Deaths by Government: Another Missing Chapter.") As Dr. Block has tirelessly striven to point out to an American population that isn’t even aware it has a socialized road system, these 40,000+ deaths every year on America’s roads are ultimately attributable to the fact that the roads are socialized (see his website for an extensive list of publications on this topic). In this article, I focus on several other areas of socialized road provision that illustrate the dangerousness and mind-boggling inefficiency of road socialism. The areas I have chosen to focus on here offer, I think, a remarkably stark illustration of some of the hidden costs of this form of socialism in the United States that are often (and lamentably) overlooked.

The Use of Unmanned Traffic Lights

One of the most costly features of the American form of road socialism is the use of totally automated traffic lights that operate on a rigidly pre-programmed schedule. I’m of course talking about the standard traffic control device employed in the United States consisting of a pair of towering steel poles supporting a set of kaleidoscopic blinking lights. There are numerous and grave problems with these devices that serve to make America’s urban and suburban roads nightmarishly inefficient and dangerous. In the first place, because these traffic control devices have no actual living people monitoring them during the day, they are totally incapable of adjusting to changing traffic and weather conditions. On the contrary, the bureaucrats responsible for the operation of these devices simply make an initial assessment of the intersection, come up with what can only be described as an arbitrary schedule by which the lights will change during the day, and then essentially abandon the intersection for good (or until the next arbitrarily-scheduled bureaucratic assessment). When traffic conditions inevitably change day-by-day or month-by-month, or weather conditions happen to change, there is, of course, no bureaucrat physically present at any intersection who is able to adapt the timing of the lights to the new circumstances.

The overall impact of these traffic lights is dreadful. Without actual people present to react to changing weather conditions, the lights are frightfully dangerous during inclement weather — particularly snow. Since drivers on snowy roads have absolutely no way to know exactly when the lights will change, they are often caught off-guard in the nether-region approaching the intersection where they have to make a decision to stop or speed through, and, as a predictable result, drivers very frequently lose control and slide wildly into the intersection. With a real person present to monitor the timing of the lights as the conditions require, these sorts of deadly accidents could be significantly reduced. Another common occurrence under snowy conditions is for a traffic light on a hill to turn red (at the most inopportune time, of course) forcing the uphill drivers to stop. And since governments almost always manage to brilliantly botch plowing their socialized roads (as I’ve written about before), drivers often get stuck on the uphill side of the road — to the great and uncritical amusement of the idiots populating the local news stations. It is hardly amusing to the poor drivers who get caught in this dangerous situation, however, and who have to try to extract themselves from this deadly game of bumper-cars.

These lights are equally dreadful when analyzed with an eye toward their efficiency. Under inclement weather conditions, for example (which often significantly alter traffic flows), these unattended traffic lights just keep changing according to the pre-programmed bureaucratic schedule — no matter how bad this timing backs up traffic. It is exasperatingly common to find oneself caught in a horrendous snarl of traffic on a rainy day only to find that the cause of the delay is a moronic traffic light that keeps on turning red every two minutes — stopping hundreds of cars — only so that one or two others can cross the intersection. Without actual people present to monitor traffic conditions and react to them this sort of idiotic inefficiency is laughably predictable.

These lights are even more inefficient as a result of the sheer number of them erected by city and state governments in the U.S. There are numberless four-lane roads in America that would be used more frequently during rush-hour (thus alleviating some of the dangerous and maddening traffic on the highway system), except for the fact the city bureaucrats have erected traffic lights on literally every single block of the roads. To top things off, in what can be only described as either the acme of idiocy or sadism, city bureaucrats often have no interest whatsoever in timing these lights so that traffic flows quickly and safely down the road. On the contrary, from day to day drivers will have absolutely no idea which of the lights will turn red, or when they will turn red — indeed, on some lucky days drivers will start their day by stopping at every single light on their way to work! The aggregate number of minutes, days and years lost to this senseless socialized inefficiency boggles the mind.

The bureaucrats working for the city and state governments, however, who are responsible for this profound waste of time and life couldn’t care less whether they are providing safe and efficient traffic lights. Since their annual operating budgets are arbitrarily set by the city and state governments, they will suffer no adverse collective consequences (financial, legal or otherwise) as a result of their incompetence and inefficiency (except that, fittingly, some of them no doubt make up a portion of the 40,000+ people killed on the roads every year). On the contrary, these sorts of inefficiencies are used by bureaucrats in their pleas to legislators for more and more and more funding. They are, in fact, rewarded with bigger budgets according to how wasteful, inefficient and negligent they are.

A Symbol of Socialized Inefficiency: The Four-Way-Stop Sign

One of the best ways to evaluate the extreme inefficiency of road socialism in the United States is to use what is known in economics as the "Pareto criterion." As Hans-Hermann Hoppe has summarized, the Pareto criterion states that:

"it is scientifically legitimate to speak of an improvement of u2018social welfare’ only if a particular change increases the individual welfare of at least one person and leaves no one else worse off."

The Pareto criterion is helpful for evaluating road socialism because there are numerous and obvious changes that could be made to the current socialized road system that would satisfy this criterion. Perhaps the most obvious example of a change that would satisfy the Pareto criterion would be to totally do away with four-way-stop intersections on socialized roads in America. The four-way-stop sign is another common traffic control device utilized on socialized roads in the U.S. consisting of two intersecting roads with four stop signs installed; one for each of the four branches of road approaching the intersection. All cars that approach the four-way-stop intersection are required to come to a complete stop before proceeding through the intersection. The obvious change to these common traffic control devices that would satisfy the Pareto criterion and instantly increase the efficiency of these intersections, however, is to simply get rid of two of the opposing stop signs! By removing two of the opposing stop signs (and it doesn’t matter which pair of opposing sings your remove), the drivers who no longer have to stop at the intersection are made better off, while the drivers who still have to stop remain in exactly the same position as before. This simple and obvious change in the management of traffic is a textbook example of a change that satisfies the Pareto criterion (not to mention the fact that it would dramatically reduce the number of stop signs cities would have to purchase), and yet our socialized road managers continue to set up these intersections. The reason for their persistent inefficiency is that it makes absolutely no difference to the bureaucrats and politicians designing and constructing these intersections whether you make it to work in 10 minutes or 4 hours — they get paid either way! Indeed, should you try to stop paying for this dangerous and inefficient madness, you will find yourself rotting in Federal prison!

Similar idiotic inefficiency can be found in many other places on America’s socialized road system. Take, as another example, the presence of "No Turn on Red Arrow" signs at intersections all across America. It’s hard to even conceive of how many minutes, hours and years are lost to these signs every year, as Americans sheepishly wait to turn at empty intersections simply because the socialized managers of our roads don’t trust their judgment about when to turn a car. (To the Mexican immigrants with whom I work these signs in particular have provoked many of them to remark to me, with a smug grin on their faces, "Los gringos estan locos, Marcos!").


The third and final step toward remedying the gravely flawed road system in this country is simply to recognize that we don’t have to have socialism in the provision of roads any more than we need socialism in the provision of hamburgers. It is an oft-overlooked fact that America thrived with a private turnpike system for a very long time without resorting to the type of road socialism we have all come to know and tolerate (see, for example, Thomas Dilorenzo’s excellent article on the topic of 19th century private turnpikes). If you are still not convinced that roads, like everything else that people produce, can be better provided by the free and unhampered market than by faceless government bureaucrats sealed off from responsibility and competition, ask yourself the following questions and see if your answers do not incline you toward road capitalism and away from road socialism:

  1. Do you know what people are responsible for the creation and oversight of the traffic rules on the socialized roads in your area?
  2. Do you know whether these people are actually the best people for the job; that is, are they the best and most competent people to create the most safe and efficient roads?
  3. In the absence of competition, how can we find out if they are the best people for the job, and how can we remove them if they are doing a poor job?
  4. In the absence of competition and market prices, how can managers of socialized roads themselves tell if they are doing a good job?
  5. Is it either prudent or safe to entrust the entire transportation infrastructure in this country to people who operate according to the same bureaucratic principles as the Department of Motor Vehicles?
  6. Wouldn’t you like to have the freedom to choose what road provider to patronize, instead of being given the choice we are now given; namely, "Pay or go to jail"?

Mark R. Crovelli [send him mail] writes from Denver, Colorado.

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