We don’t need government… really?

I’ve seen this on and off for a long time. If you haven’t seen it, take a look. It is interesting.

The meme came about because the Libertarians claim “we would rather have private companies and voluntary associations build the roads instead.” This in turn is part of their overall assertion that we don’t need government, and that ‘taxation is theft.’

I want to look at this article from two angles. First, the specifics of the piece itself, and then more generally about the proposed Libertarian approach.

First, the article itself. It states at the beginning “This Office Space meme does a good job of explaining why we don’t need the government to build roads.” Actually, it does the opposite, i.e it explains why we DO need government to build roads. The last panel says “taxpayers are not good at dealing with companies.” That is the crux of the problem, which we’ll come back to.

Later the author states “Private companies are perfectly capable of building roads. They’ve been building toll roads for hundreds of years in this country. In fact, the first paved road in this country was built by a private company in Pennsylvania in 1795. If it could be done then it can certainly be done again now.”

Well, yep, that’s true. Private companies build the vast majority of roads, as stated in the second panel of their Office Space Meme. They are implying it could be done without government, but that is never proven, they merely assert we don’t need government to build roads.

In fact, in the case of the one anecdotal example they offer up as ‘proof’ (the toll road of 1795) it turns out that government was very much involved!

According to http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-28D

“With the French and Indian War and the American Revolution occupying Pennsylvanians for much of the next forty years, the Conestoga Road fell into disrepair. In 1786, residents of Lancaster petitioned the state legislature for an improved road to the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia.

“The Assembly, still coping with post-war economic hardship and distracted by the latter stages of the ‘internal revolution’ between factions over the radical constitution of 1776, was in no position to address the request. But in 1791, after the conservatives had triumphed and adopted a new constitution, support for the project increased. Governor Thomas Mifflin recommended the idea to the new bicameral legislature, which decided that the cost of a graded gravel road was beyond the means of the state. But it did suggest that if a private company could be chartered and incorporated, and allowed to charge tolls, road construction could be funded in part by tolls collected after its completion.

“The legislature passed a bill for this purpose in 1792. That June, the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Company’s commissioners opened a subscription for stock shares.”

As you can see, the people didn’t just band together and build a road via a private company without government. It was the government that authorized the funds collection thru shares in the project and thru tolls. The people so enthusiastically supported it that there were not enough shares to meet the demand. They had to use a lottery to determine who got to buy shares. The government chartered the company and worked with them to determine the route. The company carried out the details of surveying, obtaining materials, and building the road.

So, now that some examination of the article itself reveals they did not prove roads can be built without the government, let’s get back to the concept in general.

Remember that the last panel of their meme was “taxpayers are not good at dealing with companies.” Exactly! In the case of the Turnpike used by the Libertarians as an example of road building without government, the people didn’t gather together into an association and pay the company. The citizens petitioned the government and let the government take care of the details. In this case, the government concluded they couldn’t afford to build the road, so they chartered a company to build it along the route the government specified. Back then, that was easy — build the road in the most direct, practical route from point A to point B. The country wasn’t as densely populated then, so there was less existing housing and industry to deal with. In fact, the majority of the people wanting a new road were probably farmers who were perfectly happy to have the road cross their land because it would give them better access to the market.

In today’s world I cannot see any way that a group of people could gather together, obtain the funds for a road, and contract with a company to build the road without encountering a host of issues. Here is a real example from The Colony, TX. Suppose you lived on Northpointe in the northeast part of town, and wanted to get to Addax Trail in Frisco. As the yellow highlight shows in Figure 1, it’s a long way around. But what if a road were built as shown in Figure 2? There would now be a much shorter road. But, the residents on Taylor St. and Kettle Creek Dr. would suddenly see increased traffic as people cut through their neighborhood to take the shortcut. Those residents should have a voice in whether the road should be built or not. Who deals with that?

Figure 1
Figure 2

Then there is the issue of the land for the road — who determines the appropriate or best route? Who owns that land, and who negotiates with the land owner?

Who pays for the road? All residents of The Colony? Only residents within a certain distance from the shortcut road? Some of the Frisco residents who also benefit? Who decides that? And how is the money collected? Who ensures the money isn’t embezzled before the road is built? Who ensures the road is built according to appropriate standards? Who does the builder go after if they can’t collect the funds? Who is responsible for maintenance of the road after it’s built?

Now imagine a situation like this, except the road is longer, crosses multiple jurisdictions, and would need to cross existing roads, railroads, and land where there are residences, farms, and industry. How would an association of people manage all the issues associated with such a road?

The government acts as the facilitator between the body of people who want/need the road, and the private company that builds the road. If someone has a rational, detailed description of how all these type issues could be addressed without the need for government, I’d love to hear it. But so far, all I ever hear the Libertarians do is assert that government is not needed. I’ve never seen a detailed, practical plan proposed for doing it any other way.

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