Friday, July 3, 2009

On the Road Again

In a special session that started Wednesday, the Texas Legislature is considering a public/ private partnership for building toll roads in Texas. The proposal is meeting great resistance, and appears that it won't pass.

Proponents argue that such partnerships are necessary as tax and bond money is inadequate to meet the state's infrastructure needs. Opponents argue that, according to the Chronicle,
the state — and drivers — get the short end of the stick when private companies get decades-long deals to collect tolls.

Not surprisingly, both sides are wrong, but not for the reasons currently being cited. Public/ private "partnerships" are nothing of the sort. When government is involved, government is in control. As Ayn Rand wrote:
"Partnership" is an indecent euphemism for "government control." There can be no partnership between armed bureaucrats and defenseless private citizens who have no choice but to obey.

Of course, there will be businessmen who love these types of "partnerships". The businessman gets a monopoly and is shielded from competition. He is virtually guaranteed a profit because drivers will have few options--the state will simply avoid building any alternative routes. In this sense, drivers don't get the short end of the stick, they get beat with it.

The solution is a completely free market in roads--no government involvement of any sort. Allow private businesses to build roads with their own money. If they succeed, they benefit. If they fail, they suffer the consequences. And taxpayers won't have to spend a dime.

Some may argue that private roads are impractical, that private businesses could not acquire the land necessary to build toll roads across Texas. The state must promote the "public welfare" and use eminent domain powers to seize the necessary land. (The "public welfare" argument can be, and has been, used to justify anything, including lynching blacks, gassing Jews, and filling gulags. In principle, if it is acceptable to violate rights to promote the "public welfare", the nature of those violations is a mere detail.)

Certainly, acquiring the necessary land would be a challenge. So? Simply because some goal is a challenge does not justify violating property rights and seizing private land. If a business determines that building private roads makes sense financially, they will do so. And the cost of acquiring land will be a large part of that consideration. If building roads makes no sense financially, then government certainly shouldn't be using a gun to force taxpayers to support such projects.

Our roadways are a crude example of "the tragedy of the commons". When a resource is "publicly owned" it is over used because the cost is socialized. Absent property rights, an individual user has no incentive to maximize efficient use of the resource. In the case of roadways, the result is congestion. Further, roads and other infrastructure are continual political battles as competing groups fight over where roads should be built.

Rather than seeking public/ private "partnerships", the state government should begin privatizing all state roads, as well as legalizing the construction and operation of private toll roads. If sufficient demand exists for new roads, businessmen and entrepreneurs will seek ways to meet that demand, no matter what the challenges. When motorists see a direct connection between their use of the roadways and their cost, they will be more efficient in their use of the roadways. And then the government will not need to force rail systems down our throats.

Legalizing the construction and operation of private toll roads costs the state and taxpayers absolutely nothing. Businesses can and do provide us with both the essentials and luxuries of life. They can provide our roadways as well. But only if the government gets out of their way.

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