It’s become something of a running joke for us libertarians. We assert that government needs to be reduced or abolished and a collectivist moron eventually pulls out the strawman: “But without government, who will build the roads?” and we all laugh at how obvious the answer is and make memes about how inept the government is at doing it presently. Memes like this one, for instance:
Now with more potholes than a hippie’s face.
Of course, we all laugh because we libertarians know that government doesn’t build the roads. They outsource that to private corporations, paid for by various tolls or gas taxes or property taxes, and they generally suck at overseeing and managing the process as they do with almost everything else. Just look at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The reason they suck so bad is because they’re just government bureaucrats without free market incentives to produce quality at a low price, since they can just print money or raise taxes to fund their operations. They aren’t beholden to customers that could negatively affect their bottom line. They’re also not subject matter experts who know how to accomplish anything beyond getting elected and pushing paper. These things we all know.
For me, however, the real issue with roads isn’t so much about how they’ll be built and paid for, but what sort of rules people will be required to follow when using them. For instance, give a libertarian the following scenario:
Some individual or group raises money to buy private land and builds a road for people to use. They then charge exorbitant prices for said use, set strict terms and conditions of use, including requiring licenses and insurance, speed limits, lane rules, etc., and perform arbitrary or even discriminatory stops on said road. It so happens that they bought all the land (all of it) in this one part of the city that had any room between the buildings so there’s nowhere else to build and all the people in that region are basically forced to use that particular road if they wanna get to work.
Now, if you asked a libertarian about that scenario, they’d probably be okay with it, since it’s private, rather than communal. They would argue the private owner has every right to do that and in using their road you consent to all that stuff and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to use the roads, or you can move or build another road with better rules and compete, blah, blah, blah.
Proof that Captain Picard is a troll.
Personally, I find a couple of problems with this scenario. For one thing, it doesn’t really solve the part of the problem most people take issue with – i.e. oppressive rules that restrict personal freedom of movement. Not that our current system is by any means perfect (believe me, it’s completely indefensible), and not that taxation isn’t still a valid criticism; but what the above scenario fails to resolve is the part of government roads that people hate most, yet experience on a daily basis.
Instead of a government extortion racket, you have a private extortion racket with the only difference being it’s not coming out of your property taxes.
Quick! Call Charlie Sheen. We’re just straight winning up in here!
This oversight stems from the fact that most people fundamentally misunderstand what roads are at an existential level. To remedy this, let’s consider why we even have roads to begin with and how they got started.
Suppose for a moment that all land was privately owned. We could envision a scenario in which some nefarious individual bought up all the land surrounding your property and wouldn’t let you cross without paying some exorbitant fee to cross. Or maybe he’s just a dick and forces you to starve on your little land island.
Gandalf the Grey was exactly this kind of asshole.
Under a strict application of the law, you would not be able to cross your neighbor’s property because that would be trespassing. However, most reasonable people understand that this is cruel and unjust, so the concept of easements was created to give a conditional right for people to pass over otherwise private property.
Over time, whether by request or custom, such traffic was generally funneled into certain limited areas, tending towards the edges of the property line or some other innocuous portion that would minimize the impact to the land owner’s enjoyment and use of their property. The land would be worn down from usage to form a path or trail, which people – either the owner or the community – then later decided to improve upon with stone or pavement until we got modern roads.
It wasn’t until the government got involved that roads became entangled with eminent domain and were proactively constructed for military use or central planning projects, which is what most people think of when they think of the history of roads. But that’s not what roads are, fundamentally. They’re just a conditional public right to trespass.
Usually, the terms were that your stay was transient and you didn’t do anything to harm the property. It’s not the pavement, but the right of passage afforded to people other than the lawful owner (and often to the entire general public) that makes a road a road. This concept eventually became enshrined in our common law tradition and is now generally accepted as common sense. And yes, it is a right in that it must be guaranteed otherwise we end up with situations where your strict property rights wind up killing people by trapping them on their own property.
Stefan Molyneux famously referred to this as the You’re a Dick Principle. However, in law, this limited right actually has a formal name: usufruct.
As in, yousa fruct if you no remember dis.
The term derives from three individual rights: usus (the right to use a thing), fructus (the right to derive profit from a thing), and abusus (the right to alter, alienate, or destroy the thing itself). Together, these three rights make up a controlling interest in a thing. It’s the more technical definition of “property,” which itself is a right, though colloquially we tend to think of property as the thing itself (the so-called subject of property). The term “property rights” itself refers to the condition of having all three of these component rights, since whomever has all three can set the rules for the thing and thereby control it.
Usufruct combines the first two parts, in that you’re allowed to use the thing and derive benefit from it, so long as you leave it unharmed and intact. This can apply to just about anything, but is a general implied rule underwriting what we typically refer to as “the commons,” or “public property.” So, a park or a road or a lake operates under usufructory conditions. You can use it for business or pleasure, but you can’t impede on others’ rights to do the same.
Simple, no? And if government actually did what it was supposed to, i.e. preserve and protect our rights instead of operating an extortion racket, that’s all public roads would be and you could do whatever you want with them within reason and we wouldn’t be having philosophical discussions about “who will build the roads,” because no one would really care.
All the other traffic rules are mostly made up for the purpose of revenue generation with very little having to do with your actual safety and liberty. We know this intuitively and experientially. Case in point: you can argue that driving without a seatbelt puts you at risk, but speeding after you down the highway and forcing you to pay money at gun point for your safety is not really making you any safer. In fact, it’s doing the exact opposite. If a cop really cared about your safety, they would say, “Hey man, you know you’re putting yourself at undue risk. Maybe put a safety strap on,” and that would be that.
Just ask yourself who’s more likely to be affected by you getting into an accident and not wearing a seatbelt: you or the other guy?
We know speed limits and traffic signals are largely a joke, too. People point to the Autobahn or Montana as examples, but just go to any parking lot where there are no signs and people pretty much figure out what’s safe and comfortable for them and others on their own just through sheer common sense.
And for those that don’t, there’s another set of laws that will come into force and effect.
Do accidents still happen? Sure. But they happen even with government intervention, and in a lot of cases government creates needless problems with its meddling.
For instance, making people pay money for the victimless offense of having a busted taillight when, maybe, the only reason it’s busted is because they’re too poor to fix it; but they need their car to get to work to make the money to fix it, which now they can’t because that money’s going towards paying a bullshit citation. Such a system is not doing anyone any favors. It just creates a vicious cycle of pissed off debtors.
Or, how about taking away people’s property and liberty for not having the right paperwork, whether on hand or just in general?
Now apply that same logic to your car if you’re caught without a license, registration, and insurance.
Seriously, if you drive and have your own car, you have no idea how free you really are until you lose that freedom. Those who legally or financially can’t drive know what I’m talking about.
“But we need licenses to …”
No! Let me just stop you right there. Whatever safety argument you were about to invoke is completely irrelevant. Here’s why: The definition of “license”, as found in Black’s Law Dictionary, is as follows:
License – A permission, usually revocable, to commit some act that would otherwise be unlawful.
Put another way, it’s permission to do something without which would be a tort, breach, or trespass (all of which can be collected under the header of “crime”). What criminal act are you performing when you travel in your private car on a public road, for which you’d need special dispensation from the State? Reckless endangerment is already a crime at common law. That, combined with injunctive relief, would solve most of the concerns people have about risky motorist behavior while still being in accordance with the presumption of innocence, due process, and the right to face one’s accuser.
Licenses have nothing to do with safety, though the media-political complex would have you believe otherwise. For instance, from ABC News:
“One in every five fatal car crashes in the United States each year involves a driver who does not have a valid license or whose license status is a mystery to law enforcement, according to a study released Wednesday.”
What they casually glossed over is the fact that four out of five fatal accidents are caused by people whom the government deemed competent enough to give permission to drive. Now, before you blithely say, “Well, those people will just get their licenses revoked,” consider that we started off in a state where everyone was presumed incompetent until proven otherwise and could only get a license if they jumped through all these hoops, so that’s quite the failure. Why not do the opposite and presume everyone’s competent until proven otherwise? The common law already affords remedies for this in the form of injunctive relief, so regulation becomes an unnecessary and arbitrary limitation of rights.
Why yes, officer, I can see your point how texting while driving is dangerous.
Unlike say, a storefront or a website, it’d be very difficult to set up a competing system of roads given the nature and… I don’t wanna say complexity, since that gives a misleading impression. A flat surface is obviously not that complex. So not complexity, but rather the intricacy of the network itself.
Again, that’s not the part I have a problem with here.
Roads take up a great deal of space and they all have to be interconnected since societies are generally built up around them. And once you have everything in place, it’s very difficult to relocate them. Thus, you want to get them right the first time and have a good set of rules in place regarding their use.
Much like how you don’t see a lot of private rail lines competing alongside the government-owned ones.
So the main focus should be on getting rid of the bureaucracy and the extortion racket and just focusing on returning to a system of roads that operates strictly on usufruct and common law, which most people would find acceptable to let the government handle it, so long as it remained within that narrow scope.
It’s the NAP applied to roads: do what you want, but harm none. Do what you want, but don’t infringe upon the rights of others, and if you do cause harm, then and only then do we step in to limit your rights. The owner of the road (whether an individual or the State) should leave you alone unless and until you’ve committed an offence with an actual victim. That you’re in a metal machine while traveling doesn’t change the consistent application of these principles.
Whether it’s private or public is really a secondary issue by comparison, and I think most people wouldn’t get all up in arms over who built the roads as long as we had more freedom in our usage thereof.