The issue of private roads stymies those who might otherwise be diehard libertarians. They can see how abolishing public education makes for better citizens and respects parental rights. They understand that Medicare, Social Security, and other government transfer programs are immoral abominations. They might even be so enlightened as to think that people should be able to travel where they wish as long as they don’t violate the rights of others in the process. But when it comes to privatizing roads, these same people just can’t see how it will work. Well, there is proof that it can and does.
The concept of private roads is a simple one — the government will not be responsible for owning, building, or maintaining roads. It would be up to the free market to provide roads. Any number of ways of allowing access to private property could be granted, such as tolls, subscriptions, easements, sales, and neighborly permission.
In practice — well, there isn’t much of a practice because governments own most of the roads around the world. In the United States, most state budgets are dominated by education outlays, but monies for road construction and maintenance are usually one of the biggest slices of the pie left on the table. Recently there has been a trend in local governments’ selling long-term leases to private companies who then operate roads as a for-profit enterprise; but by and large, almost all roads that Americans travel on are financed by taxes.
There are good reasons for wanting to privatize roads. Most important, private roads don’t violate individual rights but public roads do so in two ways. First, governments use eminent domain to take private property for road construction. We institute governments to protect our property and our rights, but the practice of eminent domain is anathema to both. Despite the fact that compensation is paid, eminent domain is still pure theft accomplished by pure force.
Second, public roads use tax money for construction and maintenance. The same force used to wrest people’s property away through eminent domain is used again to wrest away their money. If one citizen decides that he doesn’t want to finance a bridge in Alaska, he faces fines or imprisonment if he refuses to comply. Private roads do not have these immoral attributes.
Moreover, public roads distort the economy in several ways. By using taxes for construction and maintenance, people have less money that they may have used to purchase other things. Thus, the burden of public roads falls especially hard on people who don’t use them very much.
Public roads also distort the market for transportation by subsidizing the auto industry. If interstates did not crisscross the nation, it is unlikely that automobiles would be used as much as they are now. It is impossible to predict what forms of transportation would have been chosen had the market for transportation been left unmolested by the government. More people might be using bus, plane, or some other form of private transportation. Even more tantalizing is to think of the forms of transportation that were never introduced because the government gave automobiles an incredible advantage. Government subsidies in any market put existing substitutes at a competitive disadvantage and quell the innovation of new substitutes.
Private roads in America
Though they are few and far between, there are some examples in the United States of functioning private roads.
Probably the most common are in private neighborhoods. Many homeowner associations maintain their own road systems, one of which I described in my article “The Lake of the Woods”.
The Dulles Greenway is a private road built in the western suburbs of Washington, D.C., in 1995. Though constructed with some restrictions set by the state, it was built with private money and is run as a for-profit business. The first year it opened, 6.1 million trips were made on the road. In 2006, 21 million trips were made. This type of private toll road has the ability to move large numbers of people without the aforementioned problems associated with the federal interstates that we are told are indispensable. It has shown its viability, and we might well be seeing many more of these private toll roads in the future.
One interesting example of private roads is in the city of North Oaks, Minnesota. Not only does the city not own the roads, it doesn’t own any property. As it states on its website, “Because residents’ properties extend to halfway across the road, all residential roads in the City are private and for the use of North Oaks residents and their invited guests only.” Perhaps one of these days cities such as North Oaks will be the norm.
Everyone, particularly libertarians, should favor private roads. They have much going for them — they rely on mutual consent for their construction and use, and the market decides what is the appropriate level of their use. People who don’t want to use them are free to spend their dollars on other things that they consider more worthy. And as far-fetched as they seem to some, we have examples of working private roads. I cannot think of a better way for cash-strapped state governments to reduce their budgets than to stop paving the roads.