Privatize the Highways

…and all roads, for that matter.

I recently wrote an extensive letter to the editor of my local newspaper making the case for highway privatization. The failure of the current state-sponsored system is nowhere more evident in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, where the expressway form of US Route 219 (Also known as the John P. Murtha highway and the Flight 93 Memorial Highway) comes to a screeching halt.219 End

It is not uncommon for me to read several letters or articles per month in my paper devoted solely to the topic of finishing US Route 219; however, no matter how angry people sound or how serious politicians speak of finishing 219, it remains a monument to the failures and inadequacies of government-monopolized transportation. If we truly wish to have 219 — or any other highway or road — finished, then we ought to be advocating not for swift and decisive action from Representative Shuster and other politicians in Washington, but for complete privatization of the highways. Privatization would ensure that the project would be finished in a timely matter to those who payed for it, would remove the moral hazard of building a possibly unnecessary highway with public funds, and would not force every individual to fund the project, whether they wish to use it or not.

First, let us begin with why the market would be a more efficacious tool for completing the highway. The free-market has proven throughout history to be a better judge of the market than any government, American or other. By opening up the opportunity to finish Route 219 to private enterprise, these ventures would be able to test the market to see whether or not an actual freeway is necessary for the completion of Route 219.

Should a company decide that 219 is a viable venture for their ownership and/or stockholders, then it would be on that company to build a product that consumers would wish to use. If several companies wished to complete the highway, then whichever company offers the best product (i.e., the best-maintained, cheapest, fastest highway) would be chosen by consumers to deliver that product via the price system. When government has a monopoly on any market, competition is stifled and the ultimate losers are both the companies who could have provided capital (i.e., start-up costs, labor and jobs, products) to a designated area, such as the Somerset County area, and the consumers, who are forced to settle for a non-competitive, usually sub-par product.

Yet the guise of competition continues as centralized planners auction off the rights to build their central plans. Furthermore, the signals sent via the price mechanism in a free market system allow the market to adjust to any changes much more quickly and efficiently than the current centrally-planned model under which we operate.

Knowledge is not something that can be aggregated and centrally-planned for a Department of Transportation bureaucrat to determine. Knowledge is something that must be acquired in small bits throughout the market, risks must be taken to acquire knowledge and no one man, or group of men for that matter, will posses the knowledge necessary to perfectly plan any specific endeavor. Why leave this, what Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist andHayekNobel laureate, called the “knowledge problem”, to a group of individuals who are insulated from any signs and information translated to them via price signals? Major investments, especially those that require a large amount of information to property operate, such as highways, should be left to the system which best responds to market signals and the price mechanism: the free market.

Finally, there is a major moral issue at play when building any public works project, but especially highways: who pays for the highway and with what money? Under the current system, public works projects are paid for by the public. Who is “the public” and what gives moral authority to central planners to determine that all taxpayers in a given population should be forced to pay for the planners’ project? While it could be argued that public highways benefit an entire area, should those who decide against using the highway and its related infrastructure be forced to pay for it? This is perhaps the largest flaw with any argument favoring the public completion of Route 219. Using public funds to finish a highway that the entire public has not directly consented to is coercion.

The state is not some kind of benevolent deity that reaches out from Harrisburg or Washington and grants the public its own highways; the state must fund its creations, and because the state cannot create wealth, it must forcibly take this wealth from the populace. The French political economist Frederic Bastiat expands on this concept of destroyed wealth in his essay “What is Seen and What is Not Seen,” but he can be proficiently summed up in a simple quote: “everyone wants to live at the expense of the state. They forget that the state wants to live at the expense of everyone.”

A toll-based private system would remove this moral dilemma by only requiring payments and funding by those who wish to use the system. Consumers who use the product, which in this case would be the highways, would pay more than those who forgo the costs of consuming.

BlockThe call for highway privatization may seem radical, but it is not. Several major highways across the United States are privately owned and maintained, including the Chicago Skyway and the Dulles Greenway. Economist Walter Block wrote in his book “The Privatization of Roads and Highways” that, “[w]e must realize that just because the government has always built and managed the roadway network, this is not necessarily inevitable, the most efficient procedure, nor even justifiable.”

We should not look to the government to save us from their own failed devices, instead we should look to the private sector. As Young Americans for Liberty, we ought to advocate for privatization, for choice, and for freedom.

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