The most annoying thing that seems to come from people who criticize libertarianism as being unworkable is the question of how we can build roads without enough taxes. But, rather than thinking of how the public can build roads without enough taxes, perhaps we consider circumstances where public funding of roads is very detrimental to many individuals. Instead of asking how we can fund the roads with public money, let’s ask how we can recompense businesses when we close their primary means of getting customers through road construction.
In the relatively small town where I live of Norman, Oklahoma, there are essentially five major thoroughfares that connect the east side of town to the west side. At one point, three of those roads were under construction at the same time. This diverted traffic away from these three roads while clogging the remaining two. For months, it wasn’t just the businesses along the three roads under construction that were hurting, but it was the entire town, because when people are choked in traffic, all they want to do is get directly to where they are going (home or work), and shopping isn’t on the agenda. Thankfully, most of that construction is now finished, but some remains and probably will for months to come, which is extremely unfair to businesses in those places. Some businesses are in danger of shuttering for good.
There are competing interests under these conditions. Small businesses do not own the roads that transport their customers. Uninterested third parties with different agendas own the roads (the public government). So, when the owner of that road that has no real stake – save some small amount of tax revenue – decides to perform construction, these businesses are normally just out of luck. The loss in sales tax revenue to the town isn’t enough to offset a local politician’s motive to boast about an improved road, or in more nefarious cases, to line his pockets with kickbacks from construction companies.
It may seem like such a small thing to a public that rarely gets interested in any plight for small business owners, but a few months of what may cost them half their revenues or more can destroy a family’s livelihood that may have taken many years to build, and can cost them everything they own. A handful of municipalities in the US offer some form of assistance for affected businesses, but it is usually minimal, and rarely available. There is typically no recourse, and politicians know that as long as only a fraction of the population is affected, the vast majority simply don’t care or pay attention. Destroying a few families’ livelihoods is nothing up next to being able to boast about a new road.
But, what if the businesses along the roads were the owners of the road? It would be up to them when repairs are necessitated. They have plenty of incentive to keep well maintained roads to convey their life-blood of traffic, and it behooves them to make it so that traffic runs smoothly in order to encourage as many people as possible take the road. I can virtually hear the eye rolls of non-libertarians. However, it does well to consider who has more stake in maintaining the roads – those who have ulterior motives or those who depend on them completely for survival?
The US is full of already operating examples of how this model works. There are neighborhoods of housing developments everywhere that are responsible for maintaining their own roads. Everyone pays dues to a home owner’s association that then contracts companies to maintain common areas and roads. It works. Members of the governing bodies in the associations are not paid for their services, and the power within an HOA is simply too small to be attractive to anyone who wants to profit from the power. Most board members really don’t even like being a part, but just feel an obligation. The same sort of arrangement could be easily adapted into public roads, where those who border the road buy into owning it. Dues to an owner’s association are paid that are then used for maintaining the road and any common areas.
I understand that most people consider this of little concern. People don’t pay attention to things that don’t affect them directly, but I write about this to demonstrate an often-overlooked consideration about who will build and maintain the roads without government to do it. It isn’t that difficult to imagine when there are already examples in place, and those with the most incentive to improve the roads have the most to gain from such. Why not let them buy in and save the public some tax dollars? I know most people will laugh it off, but the next time someone asks who will build the roads, point to a home owner’s association as an example, and then point out the tremendous incentive small businesses have in efficiently maintaining traffic flow while balancing road service.