Is there nothing new in the world of libertarian ideas? There is plenty with Walter Block’s remarkable new treatise on private roads, a 494-page book that will cause you to rethink the whole of the way modern transportation networks operate. It is bold, innovative, radical, compelling, and shows how free-market economic theory is the clarifying lens through which to see the failures of the state and to see the alternative that is consistent with human liberty.
But let me first set the context.
Stuck in traffic with a friend in the passenger seat, those of us with libertarian views try the following from time to time. We observe the massive bog of cars and trucks before us, and the time being sucked away. It strikes us and so we blurt it out: if this road were private, we wouldn’t be suffering like this. We don’t wait in endless lines at the private grocery store or the private car rental. Why do we put up with state ownership and management of the roads? The roads should be privately built, owned, and managed.
Our passenger is shocked and alarmed. You libertarians are really nuts. Roads are too expensive to be built privately. We’d be bumping into tollbooths every few feet. And don’t you realize what would happen? Some mogul would raise prices and restrict access. We would all be dependent on the rich guy with the road title and our freedom to move around would come to an end. Why depend on the willy-nilly whims of some capitalist exploiter when the state is there to provide this wonderful service for free?
And so we sit there, stuck at a standstill, because there are too many cars attempting to crawl around too few roads. Americans spend two billion hours per year tied up in congested roads. And then there’s road construction, which the government decides to undertake whenever and wherever it so desires, reducing a three-lane road to a one-lane road in the name of expanding it to a five-lane road but taking as long as a full year to do it and generating hazards along the way.
And then there are accidents, which tie up traffic for miles and hours, especially on interstate highways. The whole system is oddly unprepared for anything to go wrong even though something goes wrong every day. The pileup happens, with a truck stretching across the entire highway, and everyone just sits there waiting for the government to send its police, its ambulances, its cranes and devices, so that traffic can continue.