“Privatize The Roads!” Says PhD Economist

Death, taxes and government ownership of roads: all inevitabilities, right? Well, not according to Dr. Walter Block, professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans and senior fellow at the free-market Mises Institute. Dr. Block, whose most famous work, Defending the Undefendable, not only made a case for drug legalization but also argued that black-market drug dealers are “heroic,” will be publishing a new book later this year dedicated entirely to the privatization of streets and roads.

Milton Friedman: “Road Socialist”

Block was converted from socialism to laissez-faire capitalism by a personal acquaintance with none other than Ayn Rand. Later, he met the “anarcho-capitalist” libertarian philosopher and Austrian economist extraordinaire Murray Rothbard, who converted Block from Rand’s preference for an ultra-limited government to “Rothbardian” hard-line individualist anarchism. But this conversion to an unpopular faith didn’t stop Block from becoming widely recognized as a great free-market economist. To the contrary, Block’s prolific work won the respect of his peers, and in fact, the forward to Defending the Undefendable was written by Nobel Laureate Friedrich von Hayek.

Roads have long been a pet issue for Block. Years ago, in a debate with the legendary Milton Friedman, Block called Friedman a “road socialist.” Friedman, who like Hayek was a Nobel prize winner in economics, resented the remark at first—and then he admitted it was true—he was a road socialist.

When even Milton Friedman, a heralded defender of the free market, considers socialization of a good or service to be wise, then that must be the case, right? Other supposed laissez-faire capitalists, such as George Mason University professor of Law and Economics Gordon Tullock and Cato Institute adjunct scholar Richard Epstein, also oppose the privatization of roads. But Block stands by his support for a free market in transportation because, in his view, it’s a matter of life and death.

1.2 Million: The Thirty-Year Government-Road Death Toll

Walter Block says that 40,000 people die each year on U.S. government roads, and that death rate has remained relatively stable since the 1970s. If roads were privately owned and operated, Block estimates that the annual death toll would be more like 10,000. Over a thirty year period, as many as 900,000 lives could be saved.

But why would privately owned roads be so much safer? There are a variety of reasons. For one, the government’s monopoly on roads leaves consumers with few alternatives. If roads were privately owned and operated by numerous road entrepreneurs, consumers would choose the safest ones. What’s more, private road owners could be held legally accountable for deaths on their watch—the government is immune from such liability.

“Pass the Socialist Salt”

The needless deaths caused by government roads are the strongest moral argument for road privatization but by no means the only one. Lew Rockwell—proprietor of the Internet’s most widely read libertarian Web site, LewRockwell.com, and founder of the Mises Institute—says that salt poured on roads to deal with ice causes millions of dollars in damages to cars. In extremely rare instances, according to Rockwell, government salt spreading has even killed people when the bottoms of their cars gave out due to corrosion caused by the “socialist salt.”

Walter Block points out that salt might in fact be the best way to deal with ice. Or maybe sand is better. A third and more costly—but not necessarily less cost-effective—method for dealing with ice is burying underground heating elements to melt it away. Block says he’s not a road entrepreneur, so he doesn’t know the best way of dealing with ice. But as an economist, Block says he does know that “competition brings about a better product.” Various private road companies competing for business would discover the best solution.

Answering the Objections

Walter Block presents answers for every possible argument against privatizing roads. Private roads would have to be built without eminent domain (government land seizure for public use), which to Block, an ardent defender of private-property rights, is not an obstacle but yet another element of their appeal. Still, he says this presents no real problem.

“What if a person or company owns ‘all’ of the land between here and Boston?”

That could never realistically happen. And even if it did, why would they not want to make money by leasing or selling some of their land to the road company, perhaps for a share of the profit?

“What if a crazy hold-out just won’t sell?”

No problem. Private roads can go around any hold outs. Or, if necessary, they could go over or under. And besides—there are plenty of roads that have already been built. There’s no sound argument against privatizing existing roads.

Walter Block knows a thing or two about government inefficiency—and he would even if he weren’t one of the foremost scholars of Austrian economics. After all, he is a resident of New Orleans, and like everyone from the Big Easy, he saw government mismanagement firsthand with Hurricane Katrina.

The proponents of “road socialism” should consider the following: the same people who run FEMA are also in charge of America’s roads. Is it a surprise that 40,000 people a year die on those roads? Would the free market really do worse? It seems unlikely.

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