OK, Really, What About The Roads?

Ask someone who still believes in the benevolence and legitimacy of government their take on living in a state of anarchy, or, put simply, a world where all adults are free to interact with one another voluntarily. Now start the clock. At first they may roll their eyes, deride your notions with a nihilistic sneer, or simply shrug it all off as a pipe dream, but once you offer some initial defenses of such a philosophy (e.g. the immorality of fraud and coercion or the benefits of free association) it is only a matter of time before the most prevailing of questions will be asked, “well, what about the roads?” At this point in the conversation you’re supposed to admit defeat and concede that yes, a free society must surely be an illusion. In reality, this is the last bastion of hope for someone defending the state.

At this juncture, you could launch into a bevy of reasons why this is a silly point, which we will here, but perhaps more fruitfully you could simply return the question and ask, “well, what would you do?” Give it a few minutes but you might both be surprised at how many solutions to this problem are offered. Don’t think that this tactic is limited to discussions about the highways and byways. Whether it’s taxation, the courts, the state surveillance apparatus, or any number of wonderful state-sponsored gifts we’re given this is a way to at least keep people thinking about the possibilities of a world without government and that they can actually play a role in that world.

So OK, really, what about the roads? It would be hard to make the case that this is either the highest priority or the most fundamental shift to a stateless society but nonetheless it is a valid question that would impact most people’s lives daily. Let’s envisage a couple ways this could, and already is playing out and what some of the benefits are.

Perhaps the most obvious answer is to privatize the roads. This isn’t the panacea to the world’s transportation problems but it is already commonplace around the globe. In the United States private roads area a particularly common feature of common-interest developments (e.g. condos, planned communities, etc) which are overseen by the development’s homeowner’s association as part of a private road maintenance agreement funded by the homeowners themselves. The majority of Italy and France’s highways have been privatized for decades and massively ambitious private roads are being conceived of in Asia as well.

Some may jump to the conclusion that by their very nature a private road will become a monopoly and as such, what would stop the owners from charging an exorbitant amount to access it? This is possible sure, but merchants on Main Street have no incentive to chase away customers with high tolls (or any tolls), businesses want their employees to show up for work at the office, and residential streets aren’t generally traveled enough to warrant such a thing. For the homeowners themselves Walter Block, who has written on this topic extensively, argues succinctly that market forces would nullify the concern that they wouldn’t be able to access their own streets:

In an era of private roads, you would also buy access insurance. You wouldn’t want to be trapped on your own property. No one would buy any real estate at all unless he were sure that this sort of entrapment couldn’t happen to him. Indeed, it is in the financial interest of the owner not to do this, since he wants to attract, not repel, people from living adjacent to his road, so that he can make more profit from them.

Let’s not forget that cars and the roads they’re driven on aren’t our only form of transportation. Cars and roads themselves face competition from planes, trains, bikes, and just about anything else with wheels. In the future, we may even find ourselves looking back at how arcane the whole system was as we begin taking to the skies in ‘flying cars‘ and other vehicles not yet conceived.

While we’re at it why not get rid of some of the traffic controls that make driving such a tedious and frustrating task? Counter-intuitively this doesn’t create the carnage one might expect. In fact, when the town of Portishead, England turned off traffic lights at several major junctions in 2009 the results actually astounding and took many residents by surprise. A trial run lasting several weeks turned into a years long norm which resulted in drastically shorter commute time with no loss of safety. This is a scalable solution as well and has proved remarkably successful in a city as large and tightly packed as Amsterdam.

We’re arriving at the point where the question about the roads actually illuminates a much larger idea. This question isn’t simple a punchline to an anarchist joke, it is about the true power of decentralization and reshaping how we view each other. We are all guilty of viewing that person who caused us to miss that green light or cut us off not as a human being simply getting from point A to B like ourselves, but as an obstacle getting in our way. As illustrated in the above examples, when we have rules and regulations lifted we find that spontaneous order takes over and we view each other more equally as was discovered in the findings from the experiment in Amsterdam:

We showed that people became more aware of other people, adapting decision-making processes in sophisticated ways. It shows that a human-centred design of intersections can be a tool to increase interaction, cohesion, and in turn even social capital.

If this can result from just the removal of a few traffic lights then imagine the successes yet to be discovered, the reimagining that awaits. If we extrapolate and expand this concept into more and more facets of human existence we may well continue to shock ourselves and find that the roads are actually the least of our concerns.

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