Friday, January 6, 2012

Abolishing Government Improves the Roads

Look on the back of your ATM or debit card. Check your credit card, too. Whoever your bank is, on the back of the card you’ll see the logos of other outfits – Cirrus, Plus, Star, maybe others. Cirrus is an ATM network management system owned by MasterCard; Plus is owned by Visa; and so on. There is cooperation between companies, and the network managers are somewhat independent. For example, Visa debit cards often have a Cirrus logo on the back.

This means you can use your debit card, the one from your little three-branch local bank, to get instant cash from an ATM clear across the country. Yes, each bank charges you a dollar or two. They should. A single ATM costs $100,000, costs money to maintain and manage (people have to put money in it, and take money out, daily), and it costs participating banks to hire Cirrus to move the money around.

More important is what we learn about the market’s capabilities. One of the objections to privatizing roads is that we’d have to stop at a toll booth at every intersection. A 5-minute commute to the grocery store would require, for me, three toll booths, 75 cents, and become an 8-minute commute, according to this objection. But it’s not so, and here’s why:

Our time is worth a few pennies to us. Cirrus and Pulse would charge us, wild guess, $3–4 a month to provide magnetically encoded stickers for your car. Machines scattered about the roads, or sensors under the pavement, would record your comings and goings. That information would go to Cirrus and Pulse, and from them to your road providers. You might get three or four monthly bills, or just one, depending on the wherewithal of your road owners. Some road owners, out in the woods, would still have toll booths, which would work perfectly well – less traffic and slower pace of life make it no big deal. I use a toll booth occasionally in Atlanta, and the delay is only a few seconds.

Lest you think your money would be going up in exhaust fumes, remember that market firms, who must please customers to stay in business, provide everything better and less expensively than government, without that nasty moral hangover of forcing people to pay for things they may not use or want. Your gasoline price probably includes 50 cents per gallon of taxes for road building and maintenance. This means I’m paying $25–33 per month for road use now. With privatization of roads, that cost would most likely go down, most likely considerably. It happens every time anything is moved from government hands into private hands.

There are other benefits that would follow road privatization. The private roads that exist now have fewer accidents than public roads, probably in part because they’re better maintained: If private road builders let potholes remain, get reputations for high accident rates, or do repairs during rush hour, they have to deal with complaints and with people choosing other roads.

Pollution and pollution controls on automobiles would be handled by road privatization. If auto pollution gets high, people living near the offending roads would sue the biggest, most obvious target: The road owner. Road owners would therefore charge higher fees for cars without up-to-date inspection stickers. Auto manufacturers would build pollution-control equipment into cars, and advertise how clean they run, as Honda and Toyota already do. They all do this already, but with government mandating pollution levels and what kind of pollution controls manufacturers use. Without government interference, engineers would be free to compete to provide different technologies to reduce costs and improve horsepower while providing cleaner burning engines. With the inspection stickers being coded to your automobile’s age, manufacturer, and model, there might be a separate pollution rider on your monthly statement. Drivers of new Hondas might see a discount, while drivers of old belchers would pay fees that might be bigger than the road tolls themselves.

Ain’t the market grand? I’m just one person describing likely market solutions; imagine how efficient it’ll be with 280 million minds working on the issue.

Reality continues to provide apparent (but not real) obstacles in the mind of the statist: What about new roads, and eminent domain? Again, the market comes to the rescue. First, since roads are already there, getting started would involve nothing other than entrepreneurs bidding to take over. (Who would they pay when they buy the roads? US government creditors. Once the government sells all its land, the government’s vote-buying debt might be paid off.) Even so, new roads are being built all the time, by developers who buy land and convert it to new uses. They build new roads on their own property.

Land alongside interstates is cheap in some places, and expensive in others. Widening rural interstates wouldn’t be a problem. (There would be some correlation between road tolls and road quality/congestion.) Prices would be higher where road owners face little competition (Alaska), lower where people have alternatives. If prices for rural stretches of interstate get too high, people will use planes, trains, and buses, and road owners will be forced to lower prices. (If you think you’re getting the interstate for free, think again; those gas taxes mean you’re paying 1–2 cents per mile now.)

Anyone who wanted to build a new interstate would face the huge task of buying up land crossing perhaps hundreds of miles. Widening existing highways would be more likely. In Los Angeles and other large cities where traffic is consistently choked, road owners would have the incentive, and plenty of funds, to buy property along highways so they could widen them. Owners would also have incentive to improve interchanges, such as Spaghetti Junction in Atlanta. Roads would improve, overall, period. (I interviewed a road engineer years ago, and he told me they design circular entrance ramps deliberately with varying radii – experienced as odd changes in the curve, forcing you to constantly readjust the steering wheel – to "keep drivers awake." How many of us have trouble keeping focused for 15 seconds on a curving entrance ramp?)

Without having had forcible government the last 200 years, would the interstate system have come about? We don’t know; we don’t care. Without an interstate system, you can bet we’d still have plenty of commerce; probably plenty more (when railroads were built – partly through government subsidies – much land between the coasts was unclaimed, and thus open to use. Much would still be unclaimed today without government.) We have what we have. Abolishing government is the way to improve what we have.

Last question: What about Cirrus et al. knowing your whereabouts? (The road owner would want to know only mileage.) Service providers would still make privacy pledges, as they do today. They’re already looking out for you: In gas stations, where you use your credit card at the pump, years ago your entire account number was printed on the receipt. At most places, it’s not printed out any longer, because the card issuers put pressure on merchants to modify their machines. Yes, card issuers might give your whereabouts to a private police force or insurer if presented with credible evidence you’d committed a crime against someone; the market would determine whether card issuers end up doing that. They do that today. The difference would be that you could much more easily sue the card issuer, your accuser, and the investigative agency without government than you can now. As always, abolishing government is the best way to improve circumstances for yourself.
December 20, 2003
Copyright © 2003

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