In the Ayn Rand world, some say, no one would plow, repair, or otherwise keep up public roads. Bridges might fall unless someone, acting out of public spirit or rational self-interest, keeps them up. But neither thing would happen. Instead, in the set-up of the Ayn Rand world, people would buy the streets, roads, highways, bridges, and so on, and run them like businesses. And most people forget that America, and England too, once had private roads.
The Ayn Rand theory of public property
Ayn Rand told Alvin (Future Shock) Toffler that private persons and private companies should own and keep up all streets and roads. The government, she said, should worry only about using force when it had to, against those who wrongfully use force against others. That’s what police, armies, and law courts are for.
Obviously she never said that people would neglect to plow the streets in the winter, or keep bridges up. So why would anyone think that they would? Because they forget that public streets, roads, and bridges do not spring into being out of nothing. Someone builds them.
History of road building
For most of human history, governments built roads. Kings and emperors built the most famous and longest-lasting roads. Ancient Rome’s roads are the most famous.
All roads lead to Rome.
Those roads did not come out of nothing. Roman magistrates built the first of Rome’s roads. For much of their history, local townsfolk kept up the roads that passed through their towns. At other times, an ambitious Roman Senator (e.g., a young Julius Caesar) would volunteer to keep up a road. Keeping a long road in good repair earned him votes. That system hasn’t changed much since then. Details have changed, but fundamentals have not.
But people have almost completely forgotten that private enterprise and private initiative once played prominent roles in road-building. The Industrial Revolution in England might never have been, except that several Turnpike Trusts formed to build long-haul roads in England. In America, the first good long-haul roads were also private turnpikes. The first of these was the Lancaster Turnpike in southeastern Pennsylvania.
More recently, Murray Rothbard (no friend of Ayn Rand), in For a New Liberty (1973), wrote the most comprehensive treatment yet of how to build, run, and price roads privately.
Who would own the roads?
First, the phrase private road here means only a road that someone other than a government owns. Today a “private road” is usually a road that someone not only owns, but closes to the public. But in the Ayn Rand world, all roads would be private, but most would be open to the public.
As Rothbard suggested, two kinds of people might own a road. Homeowners (or apartment owners, condo declarants, etc.) might build (or buy) and run the streets that their properties open onto. Business owners might do the same. The road would be their way of getting in and out, and bringing in customers, trash collectors, plumbers, electricians, and anyone else who might need to drive in. So all the owners would form an association and put it in charge of keeping up the street or road (or segment of it), plowing it when it needs it, and so on. They would even guard it against street crime. (Office buildings usually have their own security forces; so would these roads.)
To connect villages, towns, and cities over long distances, or to help farmers get their goods to market, needs a longer road, or a highway. Separate companies could build those. (The English Turnpike Trusts and American turnpike companies played this role.) Those companies would also build bridges, either separately or as part of a larger highway system.
Rules of the road
Few people seriously suggest that driving would become a right, instead of the privilege it is today. The private companies (or associations) who owned the streets and roads would likely set the same rules that governments do today. That includes licensing drivers, setting traffic signals and signs, and posting speed and load limits. All those rules exist today, and no one would have much incentive to set radically different rules. Speed and load limits depend on how safe a given road is to drive, or how heavy a load a bridge can hold up. But rules like what side of the road to drive on, and what color signal means “stop” or “slow down” or “go,” would likely stay the same for all.
Even if roads had begun as private roads, those who owned and kept them would still set the same rules. The railroads did, after all. And Rothbard also points out that the railroads first set up the time zones that Americans use today.
How to pay for roads
As Ayn Rand said to Alvin Toffler in that famous interview, private companies would run roads far better than the government does. Rothbard agreed. And governments (at all levels) still have the same problems with keeping up roads, and paying for that upkeep, that they always have had.
Someone always pays for using a road. On some long highways, drivers pay tolls. But drivers also pay federal and State taxes on motor fuel (gasoline or No. 2 Diesel). The next time you see a sign that reads
Your Highway Taxes At Work
remember that the sign is talking about motor-fuel taxes.
Rothbard noticed two problems:
- Most tolls are exactly the same at all hours of the day, and all days of the week. No matter how crowded, or lonely, the road is, the toll is the same.
- Drivers pay motor-fuel taxes by how much fuel they use, no matter what streets or roads they drive on.
So how do the authorities decide where to spend those taxes? Usually they wait until enough people complain about potholes and other problems. And when the Big Names With Pull start complaining, the authorities will repair their favorite roads first. Everybody knows that, and everybody complains about that. The Ayn Rand world wouldn’t have that problem.
Toll road authorities would at least have a source of funds that comes from those who use their roads. But when they charge the same amount at all hours and days, they give people no incentive (or at least, no financial incentive) to drive some other time, or take a bus. (Rothbard didn’t think that commuter trains could pay for themselves, but he thought that buses might.) So streets and highways turn into parking lots!
In the Ayn Rand world, those who owned the roads and highways that got the most traffic, would charge extra during times of high demand. Very quickly, travelers would solve the problem of how to get from Point A to Point B at the lowest cost. Buses could turn a profit easily, and more people would use them. “Congestion tolls” would help strike a balance that would keep traffic moving. Or if that balance did not strike soon, someone would build more roads. (Or in the extreme case, they might lay rail.)
Homeowners’ and landlords’ associations would be a special case, of course. Residential streets mostly need cleaning and plowing. But one memorable case should convince even the most insistent “public” advocate that something is wrong with public streets today. In the winter of 2010, snow fell so thick in New York City that many residents could not get to the roads, because no one bothered to plow their streets. In the Ayn Rand world, the homeowner’s association would make sure that people could get out, if they had to organize all the residents into a shovel brigade. Instead of one central authority, typically catering to the Big Names With Pull, every street would have someone speaking for it and for those who own property that fronts it.
The subsidy problem
Oddly enough, the same people who complain about what the Ayn Rand world would mean for public roads, also say that the government has built too many of them. And equally oddly, Murray Rothbard agreed with that. Rothbard held that workday commuters had the heaviest subsidies of any group of government stakeholders. And subsidies, of any kind, would be another thing that the Ayn Rand world would not have. In that world, no one would build any more streets or roads than the economy needed.
Better yet, no one would use eminent domain to build a road. Never again would a government seize property for that use, or any other. Private companies, in a proper world, would not have the power of eminent domain. (Can anyone defend eminent domain, after a city government used it to take someone’s home and give it to a drug company, who ended up not using the land at all?)
Ayn Rand valued private property at least as much as she did letting anyone in business take his own risk. Suddenly the Ayn Rand world looks a lot more attractive.
This article is part of the Ayn Rand world series.
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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.
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