American Highway System is Broken, and Only the Free Market Can Save It


Opponents to libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism sometimes state that roads could not possibly be built without government, as if that settles the argument. This claim is faulty, though. Humans have been traveling great distances long before governments ever existed. Methods for getting from one place to another evolved as humans spread throughout the world. Tracks and paths eventually gave way to dirt roads and then paved ones. Roads eventually became a common part of daily existence. Governments gradually gained more control over building, maintaining, and managing roads as their role in daily living increased. Few people realize that this has been a terrible failure, especially since the automobile was invented. Even less believe there could be some alternative. 

Government roads are plagued by traffic congestion, poor maintenance, corruption, logistical issues, and poor safety--the greatest failure of all. Over 30,000 people die in accidents occurring on government roads in the United States. Ten years ago the fatalities numbered just over 43,000. This is hardly a metric for success. Public outcry would be deafening if a private institution had a safety record like this. Pundits would clamor for nationalization while politicians waxed eloquent about the perils of an unfettered free market. Virtually no one demands that our current system be changed despite massive failure to protect life and limb while traveling. Silence about government roads in the U.S. is, in fact, deafening.

Free market roads are not only a viable alternative, but also much more preferable to the current system. They simply would not have the problems endemic to centrally managed roadways. Profit and loss would motivate any entrepreneurs building a road to offer motorists a safe and quick journey with few obstacles. Competition motivates businesses to offer quality products and services at a fair price or someone else undoubtedly will. Roads would be no different.

Market demands would drive road development in a system without government control. Firms developing roads would actually be able to plan networks more efficiently than urban planners. Private companies depend on up-to-date price indexes to efficiently allocate resources. Government institutions are ill-suited for long term projects because they do no base resource distribution on this information. Road companies would also base their roads on where markets drive development rather than arbitrary government preferences.

Firms endeavoring to build roads could fund them in a variety of ways. Real estate developers would likely contract a company to build roads in new construction areas and then pass to cost on to buyers by including it a building's price. Business could then build this cost into their products or services. Maintenance could done on a case-by-case or subscription basis. Major thoroughfares such as highways and freeways would probably adopt a toll model. Modern RFID technology would streamline this process to the point where a motorist would not even have to slow down. Some states even use this sort of technology now.

Owners would determine the rules governing transit on their particular road. They can base their rules on industry best practices, similar to how programming and security standards evolve in the software field. Prospective developers will likely use an existing model for their roads and then adjust accordingly. No one would want to travel on a road using an unfamiliar system. Road owners would therefore ensure their system does not deviate too strongly from existing standards. They would risk driving customers away because the learning curve would be too steep. This is an even greater risk if owners deal with infractions through punitive fines. This principle incidentally applies to selecting payment methods as well, since motorists would obviously be adverse to a road with toll booths planted every hundred feet.

Imaginative entrepreneurs can effectively transform the current system into a free market one. Land ownership and property rights would be the most difficult transition problem, but would not be insurmountable. The interstates could be divided up by states. Roads can then be transitioned to private owners. Auctions, property deed records, and other methods will ensure transition is not rife with corruption. Market forces will take over once the transition is complete and transform motor transit in the U.S. Transitioning roads to a market-based system has not been discussed in great detail because government control is so ubiquitous most people regard it as a pipe dream.

Market-based solutions present a much more attractive alternative to central planning. Profit motive ensures optimum functionality. A truly competitive system is less prone to corruption and political manipulation. Resources will be effectively distributed throughout the system. Government run roads pale in comparison to these advantages offered by the free market. Private roads will not only be better run, more efficient, but will also bring increased prosperity to the U.S. Any possible drawbacks cannot detract from the massive advantages privatization offers. Free market roads are the best solution for transportation. It is time the U.S. adopts them.