But who will build the roads?

This is probably the most common question libertarians get when discussing the concept of a state-less society. Even among my friends and acquaintances who dislike government will make this point.

I don’t quite get it. Apple can make the iPad. Microsoft can invent Cloud. Silicon Valley can produce state-of-the-art technology. But for some reason government is necessary to create a paved surface.

Never mind that in the early days of the Republic privatized roads and highways were frequent and common. Never mind that most public roads are built by private companies contracted by municipalities and other jurisdictions. Apparently the entity of the State has some mystical powers not granted to private individuals that enable them to build paved surfaces and maintain them (sort of).

What they really mean by this remark, of course, is how would private ownership play out in terms of access to and from property. For example, if the road in front of my house is private, then I have to pay just to get from my house to the grocery store?

At the same time, this assumes you don’t own that piece of the road. The other assumption is that you don’t pay already. The road was built with the use of tax dollars.

The question infers that one person will own all the roads and use extortion to force people to pay high prices to use it.

I’m sorry. Maybe I missed something. Isn’t that what already goes on now?

Ironically, these same people who protest “Who will build the roads?” go on to complain about how horrible traffic is in their area or during “rush hour.”

A concept people have to understand before they can grasp libertarianism is that the State, or government, is a legal monopoly. Thus, when people argue for public roads, they are essentially arguing in favor of the very monopoly they claim libertarianism promotes.

Eric Peters at Eric Peters Auto explains how this rhetorical question simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny when compared to other privatized industries.

He writes:

Most of the roads in my area (a rural part of SW Virginia) pre-date the government’s involvement. They were built without coercion or taxes. By rural folks – farmers – on a cooperative and mutually agreeable basis. These old farm roads have since been paved over – co-opted by the government – but the fact remains the were originally laid down without government involvement.

Are they “better” now?  Wider, straighter – and paved? Certainly. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been made wider, straighter – and nicely paved over – withoutcoercion. Somehow, people improve private homes, private buildings – and so on – without shoving guns under other people’s chins. Is it preposterous to imagine that roads might be built and maintained without shoving guns under people’s chins?

It has been done.

Consider toll roads – and private roads through private communities.  This is not abstract, conjecture, “what if.” Such privately built, privately funded and administered and maintained roads exist. They are paved (typically, better paved than government roads) and “modern.”

We have working prototypes of how it might be done – without violence. Scratch that. How it has been done – without violence.

And, it scales.

Just as other voluntary, peaceful exchanges – such as the selling and buying of hamburgers or of gym memberships – scale. McDonald’s began as a single burger joint in California. Gold’s Gym was oncesingular, too. Both are now nationwide. Neither relies on extortion to fund operations. They exist – and expand – based on the free give-and-take of millions of people.

There is no reason roads could not be built and operated on the same principle.

In this video Walter Block explains the problem with public highways and roads and how privatization could solve these issues. It’s really long, but worth a listen.

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5 Responses to But who will build the roads?

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  4. Hey can you answer this for me?

    How would private roads be paid for? People often like to mock the idea of private roads by talking about how you’d have to stop every 10 feet to pay a toll, but I’ve always assumed that they’re just being absurd and that there would be some other way that we would pay to use the roads. However, I don’t know how we actually WOULD pay to use them!

    This is one of the (very few) reasons that public roads actually make more sense than private roads to me, since you just pay for them to the a single entity who owns all the roads (the government) via taxes as opposed to having to pay tens or hundreds of private entities who own all the roads. How the heck would that work without the absurd scenario I mentioned above?

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    • The Question says:

      How would private roads be paid for? People often like to mock the idea of private roads by talking about how you’d have to stop every 10 feet to pay a toll, but I’ve always assumed that they’re just being absurd and that there would be some other way that we would pay to use the roads. However, I don’t know how we actually WOULD pay to use them!

      Walter Block wrote an entire book on privatizing highways and roads and how that would function.

      We have to remember that the customer is not always evident, so it can be difficult to determine who should pay. For example, people are able to use the services of social media for free, because they are the product. Someone else is paying for it. It does not cost money to enter a private shopping center.

      Some road owners might charge users, while others might offer road service for free because those who actually pay for the road benefit from drivers accessing it.

      This is one of the (very few) reasons that public roads actually make more sense than private roads to me, since you just pay for them to the a single entity who owns all the roads (the government) via taxes as opposed to having to pay tens or hundreds of private entities who own all the roads. How the heck would that work without the absurd scenario I mentioned above?

      The problem with public roads really comes down to the use of coercion to pay for them. I don’t mean this in an ethical sense, however. Coercion makes it impossible to know where people would actually pay for roads. It distorts the market, therefore we get transportation systems based on what public officials believe should be the best transportation system model rather than what people want.

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