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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/9882/the-road-to-freedom-an-interview-with-walter-block/

The Road to Freedom: An Interview with Walter Block

May 1, 2009 by

Some road owners would have more strict rules, others less strict, some slightly lenient, and others very lenient. Then, the market would sort things out. That is, possibly, consumer desires would impel road entrepreneurs into either a more or less strict stance — I don’t know which. Or, possibly, such diversity would endure. FULL ARTICLE

{ 21 comments }

Rob May 1, 2009 at 9:11 am

Great article. Thanks.

Matt Houseward May 1, 2009 at 9:36 am

Regarding public transportation and private roads:

I would be interested to see what happens when sunk costs (property and income taxes) are converted to marginal costs (tolls). I think the total cost of road maintenance would decrease, but the way the costs are incurred could shift dramatically towards the margin. If public transportation were privatized as well, I think we would see some interesting consumer behavior as they avoid increased marginal costs and decide to live where they work (or vice-a-versa), or take public transportation.

Of course, I’m not sure to what extent our roads are already funded on the margin, through tolls and gas taxes, as opposed to being a fixed (and sunk) cost embedded in income and property taxes.

I do think, however, that if the marginal cost of road transportation increased, we would see more people ditching their cars (or their second car) in favor of public transportation.

Regardless, it will be a lot better than the bloated and inefficient system we have today.

Magnus May 1, 2009 at 9:58 am

The question of the ownership of the roads presents a whole host of interesting economic questions. Beyond the issues related to usage and maintenance of the roads themselves, the state’s control over roads has a tremendous impact on the phenomenon they call “urban planning.”

Without statist roads, we would have a wide proliferation of some form of the old medieval-type urban layout — small, pedestrian-friendly streets, housing above shops, etc.

In other words, instead of the hideous freeway-based strip-mall monstrosities that the state’s roads created (e.g., LA, Denver, Dallas, Atlanta), we could live in places like this:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/slcook52/3333666228/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/10334294@N00/936720463/

JJ May 1, 2009 at 10:06 am

I finished this book the other night, it was very very very good. And I like that it ended with this interview.

What I really want to say is- that’s a pretty nifty picture.

Michael A. Clem May 1, 2009 at 10:22 am

Good interview, but I want to comment on eminent domain and holdouts. Technically, Walter is right about building above or below holdouts. But as a practical solution, that’s not inexpensive. In some cases, the value of a road might be worth going to such trouble. The alternative is simpler, though, when you realize that there is a market for land and that land values are affected by roads and accessibility issues.
Greater access is generally a plus for landowners, especially for commercial enterprises and businesses. But even homeowners want to have accessibility. Most likely, not all of the landowner’s property would be needed for a road, but only part of it. So, unless he really wants to prevent access to his land, he may be willing to sacrifice part of his land (for a price) so that the remaining land has greater value.
In cases where all of the landowner’s property would be needed for the road, they would have to be stubborn indeed to not have a price they find acceptable. But for similar reasons as above, it might be worth it to neighboring landowners to help buy out the landowner and facilitate the making of the road.
Last, but not least, a road builder would need to consider alternate routes that might entail less costly land purchases, and thus make it cheaper to build the road, even if it’s not the most direct route. Furthermore, the roadbuilder might want to work hand-in-hand with affected businesses and industry from the very beginning in developing a road, if it’s going to benefit them. Landowners that want the road aren’t going to be holdouts.
The railroads had to deal with similar issues in the 19th century, so some history on the subject might prove enlightening.

Michael A. Clem May 1, 2009 at 10:37 am

Good points, Magnus. Yes, with the costs of transportation internalized by privatization, not only would alternative transportation get a boost, but the very structure and nature of our cities, and the relationship between our homes, our retail shops and services, and our workplaces, would undergo a transformation, especially if we can get rid of the zoning laws and other restrictions that many cities have.
However, if government has made transportation more expensive than it really needs to be, as Block suggests, and if government has impeded the efficient development of transportation, the transformation might go entirely the other way. Instead of a re-urbanization of society, we might see the broader suburbanization of currently rural, little-used areas. Even then, however, people might freely choose to live in a more densely urbanized area precisely to minimize the need for transportation, but at least it would be a personal choice, not an economic necessity as the original urbanization was. With the freedom that more efficient transportation would provide, people would have more options in choosing how to live their lives. The mind boggles at the possibilities.

EnEm May 1, 2009 at 12:36 pm

“In hockey, for example, they allow and even encourage the players to fight; this is strictly banned in basketball. Some road owners might go one way on this, others, the other way, and the market (the blessed market, the “magic of the marketplace”) would confer greater profits on those who supply consumers with a better product (rules of the road in this case) at a lower price”.

What if I do not like the rules of a road owner for a particular road that goes from point A to point B? I cannot conceive of other roads going from that same Point A to Point B, or will they build overpasses to circumvent that?.

What am I supposed to do under those circumstances? I do not want to use the road offered by an owner because I do not like their rules and on the other hand I have no other choice. How can a monopoly situation be avoided under these circumstances?

David Spellman May 1, 2009 at 2:32 pm

The key is letting people decide through free commerce what they want. I have faith in people to solve their problems. Socialists start from an a priori assumption that people cannot and should not be free.

ML May 1, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Great article, Mr. Block.

Your comments on the illegitimacy of mineral rights makes me hungry for a milkshake…

I would love to read a future article on the topic of American Indian reservations. As a native (white) of rural South Dakota, and since I discovered free market theory a few years ago, I have constantly pondered about possible solutions to the problems that many (most) native cultures of our country face. I have come to the conclusion that many (most) are, at their core, directly connected to economics and the complete lack of resources on reservations. However, of course, no simple solutions exist in regards to these incredibly complex issues – as it is with the ideas of road ownership.

The results of forced removal of tribal peoples from their previously inhabited lands are grotesque, and I think your speculations/hypotheses on how to best proceed at this point would create a great read.

But that’s a bit off topic.

I hate potholes.

JJ May 1, 2009 at 3:13 pm

EnEm, the book works out the questions you have put forth, after all it is a very big book.

In short, I believe your asking about a road owned by multiple companies (or persons) and what happens if you disagree with the rules set forth by one section (company) of this road. Is this correct? A road such as this would be subject to some rigorous competition from another road owner (or set of them) that provides a more fluid road for travel without abrupt changes in rules for sections of the road.

If your question is about just not liking one whole road going from point A to point B, then the answer is yes there would be other roads able to compete and lead to those same points A or B, or at least close enough to them to satisfy the patron. More simply put, the rules of the roads, as well as the roads themselves, are subject to the same conditions of competition.

I hope I have helped but I may have misinterpreted your question.

P.M.Lawrence May 1, 2009 at 7:41 pm

It can sometimes happen that it would pay to put in a new road that would actually make road users worse off, Braess’s Paradox. How would Block deal with this, if at all?

Gil May 1, 2009 at 10:40 pm

One question that hadn’t seem touched upon, except by Magnus, is whether the road network would have been as prolific if it weren’t for the government’s presumption that “cars were the future”. The problem of “but if roads were privatised some might get a monopolistic control over the transport rights of others” was caused by government created monopolistic roads. Certainly since Walter Block argues that people could sue polluters easier if the roads were private then this would have killed off the petrol car in its early stages leaving only the steam and electric cars. However considering the problem of the layout of roads and highways and so forth, the private market probably would have given on cars and moved on to the ‘flying car’ in the form of the autgyro and everyone would have their own helipad in their backyard (and pedestrian-friendly towns). After all, how many people get worked up over the privatisation of railroads?

newson May 2, 2009 at 3:59 am

braess’ paradox relies on game theory. human behaviour isn’t quite that mechanistic.

Curt Howland May 2, 2009 at 7:56 am

Magnus writes, “Without statist roads, we would have a wide proliferation of some form of the old medieval-type urban layout — small, pedestrian-friendly streets, housing above shops, etc.

My sister is a professional “city planner”. I know this sounds insane, but, multi-use buildings, smaller streets, pedestrian friendly and less cars is exactly what her goals are.

What she cannot grasp is that the Socialist Calculation Problem not only prevents her from achieving her goals, every step she takes in trying to control people through things like zoning causes them to drive MORE to reach the services they actually want.

newson May 2, 2009 at 9:01 pm

curt howland is right. a case in point is singapore, which started demolishing chinatown in the ‘eighties (too untidy). they stopped only after tourist feedback that singapore was boring. town planners seem baffled that they couldn’t synthesize fun, interesting quarters.

DS May 3, 2009 at 9:08 am

One of the problems here is that with government monopolization of infrastructure people can’t even imagine that the world could work any other way. For instance, the question by one poster that assumes there can only be one road between point A and point B. This is an artifact of government planned roads and the artificial efficiency imposed by the limited viewpoint of government planners not bothered by competition.

Two parallel competing highways, or even 3 or more, could be the most efficient way for the transportation system to evolve – one of the basic assumptions of government planning is that redundancy is inefficient (and with no competitive market to test this assumption it has persisted). But there is no physical or economic rule that would stipulate that. In nature, and engineering and a whole host of other endeavors redundancy is often the best solution to a given problem.

Whenever we start talking about “privatization” of things that have been monopolized by government for generations it is natural for people not to be able to envision any other possible solution. This is what I call “Zoo syndrome” – imagine a Lion that has lived in a zoo it’s entire life being fed cut up meat 3 times a day by a zoo keeper, living within a small caged area, only interacting with other Lions and probably never even seeing any kind of prey in it’s whole life. If that lion was dropped in the middle of Africa tomorrow it would probably have a very difficult time surving, at least at first.

We are lions living in a zoo – we cannot even imagine what a world where the government doesn’t tell us what to do… and provide roads for us to drive on… would be like. But people used to live without government monopolized roads and there was flourishing system of turnpikes, canals and railroads built and operated in the 19th century with little or no interference from government.

The other falacy that people fall into is that they compare the “free market” solution to a standard of perfection that the current system is not compared against. The current system is obiously fatally flawed, yet minor issues that have been dealt with successfully in the past (like the “free rider” and “holdout” problems) are thrown up as major roadblocks. There is no “perfect” solution to anything, but measured against a standard of perfection the current system fails all tests.

nick gray May 3, 2009 at 7:45 pm

I have often thought of calling my version of minarchy a Demodocracy, a public road state. I would not do away with local councils, but would limit them to public spaces, like roads. People might choose to be guests, and not join as citizens, but all users should obey the rules, like having and using seatbelts. Citizens could get together and vote, and change the rules of their common property.
I have mentioned before, that another way to limit the power of the state, is for all citizens to have an equal share in all the functions of a state- do away with fulltime politicians! The only exception I might allow would be for the coaches or marshalls of the various Community service groups to get together to co-ordinate efforts in the event of emergencies. Perhaps those posts should be a semi-bureaucracy, only obtainable after you’d been an active citizen for years. Competent seniority, not glib sloganneering.

P.M.Lawrence May 4, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Newson, that’s not an answer. Remember, Braess was led to his discovery by observing an actual case where putting in a new road made traffic flow worse, and then closing it improved things.

DS, the Braess issue comes up with a multiplicity of routes.

newson May 5, 2009 at 1:33 am

to pm lawrence:
this is no “discovery”. so what if one such case were observed? that doesn’t make it into a truism or something that can be generalized.

newson May 5, 2009 at 1:43 am

to pm lawrence:
this is no “discovery”. so what if one such case were observed? that doesn’t make it into a truism or something that can be generalized.

George October 7, 2009 at 9:01 am

Instead of talking about building new private roads how about talking about how to take existing roads and make them privately own, controlled and maintained.

You could easily put forth a model to make the streets in front of houses in subivisions private, since most of them start out as privateroads built to a minimum “government” standard for traffic circulation, maintainence and safety.

The real question is how to make the “main” streets privately owned and maintained. these streets have all the traffic on them an are in need of maintainence more often. It could not be up to the abutters to provide funds for the roads since these roads would be open to everyone to use. (You couldn’t change the rules of the road in middle of the game could you?)

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