TAMPA, March 22, 2013 — Libertarians have to deal with a lot of nonsense when making their case. Invariably, if a libertarian suggests any reduction in the power of the state, he is regaled with this supposedly devastating rejoinder:
“So, I suppose I won’t see you driving on any of those government roads.”
There are many reasons to stomp on the stupid button. Here are just a few.
First, there is the implication that the libertarian is disingenuous or even ungrateful. He seeks to reduce the power and influence of the state, perhaps even (gasp!) lower taxes, yet still has the audacity to drive on the roads that the government provides.
This argument holds no water. After being forced to purchase a road whether he wishes to or not and being virtually prohibited from building his own, exactly why should the libertarian not use the road he has paid for? Where is the contradiction in pointing out that the government road he was forced to buy would have been cheaper and of higher quality if it were produced by the market? Exactly why is he disingenuous or ungrateful by suggesting that the next road be financed the same way as houses and factories?
Of course, if the government didn’t build the roads, they wouldn’t exist, right? The proponents of this farcical idea should read some American history. For much our first century, the chief domestic policy debate was over whether the government should be allowed to subsidize roads, and the government side lost. As Tom Dilorenzo writes in How Capitalism Saved America,
“But the fact is, most roads and canals were privately financed in the nineteenth century. Moreover, in virtually every instance in which state, local or federal government got involved in building roads and canals, the result was a financial debacle in which little or nothing was actually built and huge sums of taxpayer dollars were squandered or simply stolen.”
All of the heroes of that century were on the private road side. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson argued against government-subsidized roads. Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and finally Abraham Lincoln – the proponents of state capitalism and privileges for the wealthy – argued for them.
Regarding the sainted Mr. Lincoln, it is all but forgotten that the chief planks of his political platform were high protectionist tariffs, a national bank and “internal improvements,” which meant subsidies to private corporations for building roads and railroads. Lincoln was able to win the presidency because he was viewed as relatively moderate on abolishing slavery, which he repeatedly denied as his reason for waging the Civil War.
When the southern states seceded, they consistently cited this form of corporate welfare as chief among their grievances, along with their assertion that Lincoln would not enforce the fugitive slave provisions of the Constitution. As Georgia stated,
“The material prosperity of the North was greatly dependent on the Federal Government; that of the the South not at all. In the first years of the Republic the navigating, commercial, and manufacturing interests of the North began to seek profit and aggrandizement at the expense of the agricultural interests. Even the owners of fishing smacks sought and obtained bounties for pursuing their own business (which yet continue), and $500,000 is now paid them annually out of the Treasury.”
The only material difference between the U.S. Constitution and the Confederate constitution was the latter’s prohibition of “Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce.” Unfortunately, both constitutions recognized the legitimacy of slavery at the time.
Yet, it is assumed that because the seceding states were so wrong on slavery that they must have been wrong about everything, including government roads. In fact, the libertarian who suggests that they may have been absolutely right on the latter issue is called a racist – or even a proponent of slavery!
The government hasn’t gotten any better at building roads since then. We’ve just grown accustomed to the higher cost and egregiously lower quality. I moved to the Tampa, FL area in 2004. The next year, an approximately 10-mile stretch of Route 301 went under construction for the purpose of widening the road. It was completed in 2011 – six years later.
Does anyone really believe that if a private owner was losing money for every day that the road was not operating at full capacity, that it would have taken that long or cost as much as it did?
That brings us to the last and most preposterous argument against privately financed roads, that they would no longer be “free.” Instead, evil capitalists would soak us for profit and make us pay for our “right” to travel on the roads.
Hopefully, the idea that government roads are “free” doesn’t require too much refutation. If you believe that all of those people in orange reflective vests are volunteers, I have some partially-hydrated Florida real estate to speak with you about. We pay a much higher price for government roads than we would if they were privately owned.
In fact, it’s the crony capitalists that benefit the most from government subsidized roads. Just ask yourself who benefits more from a new road being built – the everyday commuter or the corporate manufacturer of goods who can ship his products more cheaply? The road increases his profits and he gets the rube taxpayer to underwrite his capital investment in the name of “the public good.”
Tragically, it’s now the liberals who are the strongest proponents of government roads, forgetting that throughout the 19th century, it was the Democrats who opposed them and the Whigs/Republicans who supported them. Why? Because they were recognized for what they are – corporate welfare.
Government roads cost more than privately-built roads and enrich the few at the expense of the many. Today, we suffer in traffic jams due to perpetual road construction and pay through the nose for substandard products while big corporations and unions laugh all the way to the bank.
And in the comments below, someone will have read half of this article and conclude that I am a racist for writing it. That’s what substitutes for political debate in 21st century America.
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.