Stuck in traffic again? Here’s the solution!

One of the most common objections to getting rid of government is that this would lead to transportation chaos.

Traffic jam
Image by Paul Townsend.

The objection is usually phrased in terms of the following questions:

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  1. Without government, who would build the roads?
  2. Without government, what is to stop someone from blocking access to people’s home or work?
  3. Without government, what if a landowner refuses to let someone build a crucial road on his land?

As always with people’s objections to freedom, their foundation is the erroneous assumption that coercion – government – has a good solution to almost everything. This must then mean that it is difficult or even impossible to find a solution without coercion.

To “de-program” people that have been thus indoctrinated through many years of public education and mainstream media programming, it is not enough to demonstrate that coercion is morally bad – we have to also demonstrate specific solutions to specific problems where a non-coercive solution can at least be expected to outperform the coercive alternative.

So, who would build the roads?

Imagine a suburbia where a bunch of people live. These people work at another place, let’s say ten miles away. Over there, you have your office buildings, shops, and so on. In between is a piece of unused land. Now, what in the world are we going to do for these poor people who have to walk all these miles to work across this rugged grassland? Throw up our hands in despair, saying: “Sorry folks, we have racked our brains for days but we simply cannot come up with a solution. We just wish we still had government around to solve this unbelievably complex problem.” Well no of course – someone would simply buy the land, build a road, and charge people to use it. Because the land was unused, it would not be very expensive and the ability to reduce transportation time by a factor of 100 would be highly valuable to both the employees and their employers.

In fact, it is easily seen how this is an improvement on government road-building. Government sometimes builds roads where they aren’t needed and sometimes does not build roads where they are needed. All of it financed through theft (taxation). The market builds roads where they are needed and nowhere else.

What if someone blocked access to my home?

Ok but what if someone came along and purchased the land that this road had been built on, destroyed the road and decided to use it to farm potatoes?

No tresspassing - image by David Lofink
No tresspassing – image by David Lofink

And not only that, this entity also purchased all of the land around all of this little suburbia and now everyone is surrounded by potato-fields and is unable to get to work (imagine the no-tresspassing signs all along the borders of the potato fields). What then?
First off, no one in their right mind would buy a house anywhere without a contract guaranteeing access to whichever place one would need access to – say the center of the nearest urban area. It would thus be in the interest of the landlord or original owner of the land to ensure that such access was maintained. This would then increase the price that any new owner of the land with the road on it could sell that land for.
Second, a potato farmer could find cheaper land to grow potatoes on than land that already had value as an avenue of transportation for a lot of people. He would thus have to be malicious and/or crazy to even venture into this. In the free market, malicious and crazy people tend not to have a lot of extra capital for that sort of thing.
Finally, the potential loss of the road would encourage the suburbanites and their employers to outbid this malicious potato-farmer so that he would not succeed in his bid to turn a profitable road into a potato farm. Unlike the government that could simply steal the land – what they call ‘expropriation’ – the potato farmer would actually have to compete with others who were interested in the land. And so on.

What if a landowner refuses to sell his land and we can’t build a key road?

This question is closely related to the last one, but the answer is simpler. First, only crazy people would settle or build commercial or office buildings without securing access beforehand. Second, only a crazy person would refuse to sell otherwise useless land when offered a premium representing the value of the transportation use of the land – making it unlikely that such a person would be in possession of the land to begin with. But no matter what, any transaction or lack thereof would be completely voluntary for all parties and would thus represent a subjective win for each.

Again, if government decides they should build a road through some piece of land, they simply steal it – a win for government, but a loss for the owner of the land.

One of the key functions of government is supposed to be protecting private property. But as the case of expropriation shows in reality government is an expropriating protector of property, to put this paradox in the words of Hans Hermann Hoppe.

Having answered the objections, lets list a couple of problems with so-called “public transportation” and how a free market might solve them:

  1. Why do we still waste enormous amounts of time stuck in traffic?
  2. Why are there so many holes in the roads?

Stuck in traffic

David Friedman’s excellent “The Machinery of Freedom” covers this question in some detail. In short, the true cost of adding one car on the road during ‘rush hour’ (which reminds me of Robin Williams asking: ‘why do they call it rush hour when nobody goes anywhere?’) is high, whereas the cost of adding one car at night is almost zero. If roads were owned and operated by private companies, they would likely work to distribute traffic more in line with the true cost. Today they might do that by automatically charging more during high-cost periods and less for driving in the middle of the night, and so on. This would lead to some people and companies adjusting their working hours, and people would be less inclined to live very far from their place of work. This has the added benefit of reducing pollution and protecting the environment (in some countries, governments even subsidize long transportation through tax cuts – it’s a crazy world out there in coercion-land!)

Further, traffic jams don’t bother government officials – they still collect their paychecks. But for a private company operating a road, a traffic jam is a customer-service disaster. Motivation to alleviate the problem is therefore orders of magnitude higher.

There goes the suspension again

Pothole - image by Mike Mozart
Pothole – by Mike Mozart

To a private company operating a road it is a bad thing if a customer blows a suspension because he drove into a pothole. They must therefore seek to keep their roads in good repair. Not so with state-operated roads – nobody really cares. Not a single government employee is going to lose his job because your car’s suspension was destroyed. In fact, you might wonder if anything at all would happen even if a pothole caused a fatal accident. Judging from experience, probably not.

In a free market, you would be able to sue the operator of the road for causing your suspension to give out. In fatal cases, the awarded restitution could be ruinous to the road company. So again, they would be extremely highly motivated to make sure this did not happen.

We may conclude that these reflex-like objections to solving our transportation challenges without the use of coercion have no foothold in reality – in fact, it is clear that coercion as always makes tings worse.

One day, when there is no more government, no more coercion, people will no longer understand what is meant by the phrase “stuck in traffic.”


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