Walter Block’s The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Some initial impressions

It’s 4:15am, and I just finished reading Walter Block’s book on the privatization of roads and highways.  This seems like one of those books that has the potential to grow on the reader in the weeks following completion.  All in all, I find the conclusions of Professor Block to be solid, certain detours down rabbit holes to satisfy the demands of academic debate notwithstanding.

One problem area that might be mitigated is the repetition that occurs throughout the book.  This is a function of its being a collection of (mostly) previously published essays and is perhaps to some extent inevitable.  Nevertheless, toward the end of the book the reader gets the sense that he can finish Block’s sentences for him.  Maybe some of the essays simply could have been eliminated.

Another misgiving I have about this book is that I think Block might well over-state the government’s responsibility for the 40,000 annual deaths on our highways.  Surely some of these deaths can be attributed to mismanagement or poor maintenance, or even inefficiency in ensuring safe driving practices.  But there would seem to be a limit to how far one can take this.  We need not go hog-wild with this idea to justify the privatization of the roads, and we certainly don’t need to stretch it too far in order to be on solid ground in advocating the anarcho-capitalist system.

Traditionalists who are skeptical of Block’s work might take some comfort in the fact that roads throughout history have been privately owned.  Pragmatists might find interest in the axiom that the private sector can accomplish the same task the public sector undertakes for only half the cost.  And enthusiasts of natural right and the work of philosophers such as John Locke will be attracted to the privatization of roads given the possibility it presents for the elimination of coercive taxes to pay for transportation, as well as eminent domain.

Oh, an extra thing about eminent domain.  The constitution says that those whose property is seized by the government are to be paid a fair market price for their loss.  The problem with this is that a fair market price cannot exist without mutual agreement, and eminent domain is coercion.

All in all, this book is worth a read.  It will, of course, be beneficial to have some basic Austrian economics reading under one’s belt before starting it.  I recommend Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson and Mises’ book on Socialism.


2 Responses

  1. My guess is that a free market land transport system would not look like our current system. Road systems for motor vehicles are very extravagant in their use of land. Although road users often pay high petrol and other taxes which may cover much of the cost of building and operating the government provided road system – these ‘prices’ don’t go anywhere near the opportunity cost of using land in that way.

    I suspect a free market would put a premium on fast, compact transit systems for high population density areas and only use conventional road transport in lower population density – low land cost areas. Road space pricing would also prevail, at least in urban areas.

    In effect free market mass transit would emerge to provide a more pluralistic system than at present. Currently you either get government provided roads to allow private cars or government provided / franchised one size fits all ‘public transport’.

    Space above and below roads would more likely be developed for other uses, and merchants would have an incentive to provide more pedestrian friendly shopping districts, something that mall operators have developed – with street stores left behind.

    In Japan the government rail service provider acts as a shopping mall operator and integrates the malls and the rail stations in a mutually profitable arrangement. Expect to see many similar cross over deals under a free market transport system.

    • What you say makes sense. I hadn’t thought of this. Alas, you have to figure that someone is making money from the present arrangement, so I don’t suppose it will change any time soon. Rumor has it that when the auto manufacturers were just getting their start, they teamed up with city governments to shut down trolley systems. Here in Philadelphia the trolley tracks still exist, but they are not used. For someone who wants to go intermediate distances, he is left to try to fight his way through traffic, or to take a very, very ugly ride on the subway.

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