Public roads are used by most of us almost every day. At first glance, it may seem problematic or even impossible to conceive of a functional modern society without public roads – but rest assured, it is not only possible, but preferable!

There are a number of issues with public roads, some common and some not. We start with the “tragedy of the commons“. Simply put, public roads are a resource which is depleted by use (or “wear and tear”). This resource is “socialized”, or funded by each according to his means, but used by each according to his needs (or, more accurately, desires). That is to say, an individual generally feels no responsibility or accountability towards his use of the roads, whether or not he helps pay for them, because all (generally) are given carte blanche access (or free reign). Since public roads are public property, there is a greatly decreased incentive for any one party (including the state, which has a monopoly on the roads) to maintain the roads in a manner that is both beneficial and efficient in the long term.

Not only does this drastically increase wear and tear of the roads, but it increases the environmental impact, the fiscal cost, and other resource costs – that is to say, it increases waste and inefficiency. Because one is free to use the roads to any extent, without (at least immediate) foreseeable detriment to himself, he is typically liberal and unscrupulous in doing so. This generally leads to neglectful attitudes and actions such as rejection of the use of reasonable forms of mass transportation or carpooling, pointless joy rides/pleasure rides/Sunday drives or trips to wander aimlessly around the mall, or retailers shipping multiple items to the same address on multiple different days because of inconsequential cost differences  – all examples of misuse or overuse. These actions harm the environment and drive up the cost of resources like gasoline, roads, vehicles, and related materials, as well as lessen the supply of said resources.

Last but not least, public roads are funded by taxation – which, as we have established previously, is simply a euphemism for violent theft – immoral and anachronistic to a civilized society.

Some alternatives to road management and ownership

community/shared ownership

Under this arrangement, maintenance of a road would function similar to that of HOAs and local roads today. Funding could be contract-based (included in HOA fees) or voluntary/donation-based (people of a community contribute what they can).

private not-for-profit ownership

One example of private not-for-profit roads, which almost all homeowners today own, is driveways. It is in the homeowner’s best interest to maintain that driveway not only for their own sake, but for that of their visitors and of commercial vehicles (mail, delivery, services). As an extension of that principle, an individual, or business, or conglomerate of either, may find it in their best interests to maintain certain roads in exchange for the benefits (increased trade, for example) they would receive as a result.

private for-profit ownership

This too is a very common form of private roads today, and would probably be the dominant form of road system in a voluntary society. Namely, we are talking about tolls. In an effort to satisfy their customers (drivers), toll owners would be encouraged to work together and find a common toll system to make driving enjoyable.

But if a road is the only way to get from point A to point B, couldn’t its owner charge some exorbitant fee (say, a million dollars) to use it?

Of course! This would be called a monopoly on the road. In such a scenario, one can only imagine that all traffic on that road would come to a stop. But the first question you must answer is: why doesn’t this happen already? Why don’t toll roads charge these exorbitant fees? The answer, of course, is because nobody would (or could) afford to pay them. The only profitable way to run a road (just like any other business) is to charge the market price – that is, where supply (availability of roads) meets demand (number of road users willing to pay said price).

There are, of course, alternatives to monopolies (and we will delve into this further in the near future). For example, if a road owner were to attempt to charge some unreasonable rate and stubbornly hold to it at the cost of losing the majority of his target market, there would be a very high demand for a new, alternate route. In the timeless virtues of capitalism, some “greedy” (read: wise) investor would rise to meet that demand.

Wouldn’t it be extremely inefficient and obnoxious to have to stop and pay a toll every time the road switches?

Absolutely! Which is exactly why it wouldn’t happen. Travel, just like most any other daily activity, is a form of commerce. And in commerce, the proprietor is well advised to make the client experience the best it can be. Road owners would be incentivized to make travel as comfortable and efficient as possible, and that incentive would probably include working together to devise or use a common system of payment. In fact, we already see such systems in use today, in the form of automatic, electronic toll collection systems such as EZ-pass, which is commonly used throughout different states in the northeast.

But travel would become so much more expensive! A toll every time I drive somewhere?!

Not so fast. Consider all of the implications. There would be no gas tax. There would be no road tax. There would be no other taxes. With gas prices significantly lower, taxes eliminated, and the maintenance and efficiency incentives/cost savings of private ownership, not to mention the elimination of the monopoly on the road system and the tragedy of the commons, travel costs would probably be much more likely to plummet than to rise!

Many already pay a toll every time they drive to and from work, for example. This in itself is evidence that such a system is feasible.

I don’t buy it yet. I think privatization of the roads would be more hassle than reward.

Whether you are sold on the inner workings of such a system yet or not, remember this: whatever the cost, privatization of the roads is consistent with the principle of non-aggression and opposition to violent taxation. Just as with any other issues of statism, when you oppose private ownership and enforce taxation, you are making a violent claim to someone else’s property whether they like it or not. You must always weigh the moral cost of an action against its perceived systematic benefits.

For Christians

First let us consider roads from a practical, basic, Christian point of view. Roads are vital to the spreading of God’s word. You do have an inherent right to travel, but you do not necessarily have an inherent right to roads. As a moral person, you must be opposed to the coercion of taxation, and as a result, must be willing to pay the appropriate cost to utilize any resource that does not belong to you, including roads.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

Genesis 1:26

“‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

Leviticus 25:23-24

As Christians we are called to be good stewards not only of ourselves and others, but also of the earth and our property and possessions, all that God has put under our dominion. We are called to be frugal instead of wasteful, and as demonstrated above, privatization of roads is one way to do so.

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Luke 6:38

Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.

1 Timothy 6:18

And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Hebrews 13:16

We are also called to be charitable and giving of a gracious disposition when we are able. Willingness to share and benefit others with joy in our hearts is a virtue. Practically, that extends to voluntarily funding services that the less fortunate might also use, even when they might not be able to share in the cost – and yes, that includes the roads!

  1. Scott Salsman says:

    Excellent! I totally agree.

    I recently took a walk on a long suburban road during a visit with family in Alabama. I thought a lot about this issue as I walked. The road bordered a farm, and I kept wondering what would happen if the farm owner owned the road, as well. Would he let me walk or drive on it? If he caught me walking on it, would he treat my trespass as if I had walked into his house? Obviously society wouldn’t allow him to physically harm me for walking on his road without permission, but would there be some kind of fine or other retribution for my trespass?

    Probably a more likely scenario is that the McDonald’s I was walking to would buy the road (along with neighboring businesses) from the farmer so that potential customers wouldn’t need to worry about such issues. They might even install a sidewalk so I don’t have to walk on the farmer’s land to avoid being hit by a car. But that’s doubtful, since most customers would drive there, and a sidewalk wouldn’t be valuable enough for them. So in such a situation, there may simply not be a way to walk to McDonald’s except on the actual road, which would be far too dangerous.

    When it comes right down to it, I was walking on the farmer’s land half the time anyway, to avoid being hit by a car. I’m just wondering if there would be any difference if the farmer owned the road, too, since I would be absolutely required to pass through his property to get to McDonald’s in a reasonable amount of time. Just some thoughts.

    • Scott, interesting thoughts. I would imagine that in most cases, the farmer would not mind you walking on his road. As you said, you were walking on his land and it didn’t cause a stir. On the other hand, if the farmer did mind, you would have to respect his property rights and go around another way. However, I would agree that it is more likely that those with a commercial interest in the area (the McDonald’s and/or neighboring businesses) would want to buy that road and provide free access to it as it would lead to increased sales. One can only imagine all the different possibilities in a truly free market!

  2. The Crank says:

    I live in a rural area and we “own” our road. 5 neighbors and us maintain the road and regulate its usage. My driveway is another 1k ft which is totally my responsibility. I couldnt agree more about God’s placing (granting or gracing) the charge of our environment and I believe that extends to our brother as well.