Whenever libertarian Voluntaryists talk about exiting a tax-based model for government, one of the first questions that springs to mind is, “But who will build the roads?” It’s likely one of the most common knee-jerk reaction responses because roads are everywhere. Roads connect us to work, leisure, friends, and family. Roads are instrumental in helping facilitate global trade.
So naturally, people are going to wonder if their convenient means of travel are going to suffer because roads are no longer sponsored through forcible takings.
The good news about roads is that the very act of people commonly asking who will build the roads is the act of demonstrating how strong of a demand there is for roads. That people would immediately jump to thinking about roads is the perfect sign that people already do care about road creation, maintenance, and improvement.
To fully wrap our minds around this topic, we need to both look at the modern history of road creation and the economic incentives going forward as we’re not starting from ground zero. We already have roads. Abundantly! The question is simply a matter of how roads and travel are managed and improved going forward.
In America, private road development was a staple feature alongside government-orchestrated roads in the post-constitutional era. Turnpikes, toll bridges, and other private toll roads began to pop up alongside existing township roads. By the year 1800, some 69 turnpike companies had been founded.[i] One of the greatest incentives for toll road funding came from business investment of those who directly benefitted from the traffic.[ii] Merchants, farmers, and landowners became interested in funding the roads even with meager returns because the roads allowed for more opportunities to come their way.[iii]
Even ordinary people who did not have a specific business they were trying to drive traffic to became interested in investing in turnpikes and toll roads because of the opportunity to travel that opened. In the state of Pennsylvania, some 24,000 individuals purchased toll road stocks between 1800 and 1821.[iv]
The private toll road norm was upended through state policy over time. Localities began acquiring toll roads and the Federal Highway Act of 1916 specifically banned tolls on highways which received federal funding.[v]
But that private toll roads started to become taken over did not mean an end to tolls.
Rather, governments began to collect tolls on roads built at the direction of state departments.[vi]
Today, there are over 5,000 miles of state toll roads with thousands of workers managing those systems.[vii]
Among the specialty lanes and highways, there are 39 out of 502 still privately operated.[viii]
Knowing this helps frame the roads issue rather clearly when we start to really dive into the question of, “Who will build the roads?”
As you can see, roads can be built and maintained privately or through government contractors. The roads built by those in the government are still not ALL free to use. They have a direct cost in taxes, and many have additional fees.[ix]
But thinking about who will build and maintain the roads in the future is just a matter of thinking through the economic calculations of all interested parties.
In a freed market, it’s PEOPLE. People will build the roads.
Their incentive for travel builds the framework that incentivizes natural cooperation for road construction.[x]
Whether it’s done through shared stock in road companies, toll roads, or 10,000 farmers coming together to build a 380-mile road in a single day as was done by Iowan farmers creating Highway 6 on June 25th, 1910, roads will be made.[xi]
And, if you’d like to learn more about how maintenance of existing state roads can be funded in the absence of taxation, read: Funding Government Without Taxation.
IF YOU’D LIKE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT VOLUNTARYIST PHILOSOPHY, PICK UP THE BOOK:
If you’d like to explore the topic of private roads and highways even deeper, read Loyola University Professor Walter Block’s book, The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human And Economic Factors –
[i] Klein, Daniel B., et al. “Private Toll Roads in America – the First Time Around.” ACCESS Magazine, 9 Feb. 2018, https://www.accessmagazine.org/spring-1993/private-toll-roads-in-america-the-first-time-around/.
[ii] Klein, Daniel B. “Turnpikes and Toll Roads in Nineteenth-Century America.” EHnet, https://eh.net/encyclopedia/turnpikes-and-toll-roads-in-nineteenth-century-america/.
[vi] U.S Department of Transportation. “The 2021 National Inventory of Specialty Lanes and Highways EXECUTIVE SUMMARY .” U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, 2021, https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/fhwahop21016/fhwahop21016.pdf.
[vii] “Toll Roads in the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Dec. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toll_roads_in_the_United_States.
[ix] Carlier, Mathilde. “U.S. Toll Road Mileage – by Type 2019.” Statista, 5 Sept. 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/298864/toll-road-facilities-in-the-united-states-by-type/.
[x] McCaffrey, Matthew. “Guess Who Built the Roads?: Matthew McCaffrey.” Mises Institute, 4 Aug. 2014, https://mises.org/wire/guess-who-built-roads.
[xi] Iowa General Assembly. “Pieces of Iowa’s Past: The Long Trail: Iowa’s River-to-River Road.” The Iowa Legislature, Iowa Legislative Services Agency, 18 Mar. 2018, https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/TB/960889.pdf.