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The necessity of road privatization

By G. Stolyarov II
web posted August 16, 2004

I live on the North Shore of Chicago, one of the most affluent areas in the entire United States… with some of the poorest roads I had seen anywhere in the country. Several times a week I must follow a convoluted labyrinth, bordered by orange cones and wooden signs that constantly jut out into my path, as if asking to be bumped into. I am distressed to remind myself that it had once been a single, straight traffic lane…with kilometer-long cracks and potholes. It is said that there are only two seasons in Chicago, winter and construction, and, each winter, the roads are battered so extensively that the same stretches must be incessantly repaired every consecutive year.

What should spark even more indignation, though it is elevated by Chicagoans to the status of natural law, is the fact that the North Shore and other American neighborhoods like it are experiencing road deterioration unheard of even in the ancient times! Roman engineers, for example, were remarkable at building sturdy roads to transport the imperial legions throughout Europe and the Middle East. The roads were built with primitive materials, such as stone and gravel, but their foundations were dug deep into the ground, and multiple layers of mutually reinforcing materials gave the roads immense endurance and longevity. Parts of the Via Appia in Italy are still capable of bearing the load of automobiles today, and certain Roman bridges in Spain are routinely used to channel car traffic! The ancients, with far less technology than is available in our age, had created roads with two thousand times the life expectancy of the average street on the North Shore of Chicago.

A 2000 year old road that still supports vehicular traffic
A 2 000 year old road that still supports vehicular traffic

It may seem paradoxical that technological improvements correlate with deteriorating road quality and lifespan. However, technology is not to blame. Though the typical layman in Chicago will overlook it, his "public" roads are meant to require constant maintenance! A brief glimpse at the depth that a typical road stretches as it is being excavated during construction will show that it extends no further than a quarter-meter from its surface, and contains no more than two layers of asphalt or concrete. Pressure from thousands of multi-ton vehicles traversing it for 365 days is almost certain to strain the surface beyond its capacity to endure, and, once the surface gives way, the entire road must crack or collapse due to its infinitesimal thinness. The Romans' elementary solution to this fenomenon was to make the road deeper and thicker! Surely, two thousand years of engineering progress could not have nullified this commonsense observation!

Yet, while engineering has progressed, government has not. This is crucial to note, since it is the government of the City of Chicago that wields absolute control over its roads. The government creates them and has the responsibility for maintaining them, but it also has a few construction companies in its constituency. In a welfare state, where the parties supporting a politician's campaign can expect a slice of the economic "pie" in return, maintaining the ability to distribute the taxpayers' wealth to any favored special interest lobby, and retaining a veneer of legitimacy while doing so, is critical for any politician who seeks to remain in office. Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, a hereditary political dynast, surely knows this all too well. Hiring a contractor to build roads once and for all, roads that are deliberately designed to be firm to the point of virtual invincibility, which is more than possible with modern technology, only allows the mayor to favor his friends (I repeat, cronies) in the construction business with a redistribution of wealth once. But intentionally designing roads to fail each year and require repair furnishes unceasing work opportunities for the contractors, to be paid from the taxpayers' wallets!

"But that is fiscally irresponsible!" any intelligent man would exclaim. And so it is. The mayor would likely not purchase a chair for his office/throne room that breaks down and must be repaired each year, for it would be his wealth that would be diverted to the rebuilding effort. Yet, like the typical statist, he can afford to be generous with other people's, i.e. everyone else's, money, and employ a potentially infinite pool of it to guarantee himself support from his pet construction companies each and every time. Vesting such power in the hands of government is tantamount to legalizing theft, on the condition that the thieves win public favor each year by handing out "free" clothing to the populace. The next year, the clothing would become torn apart at its shoddy seams, and the populace would need to tolerate the thieves for another year, for only they would be allowed to give the people clothing!

A gulf of contrast exists between this veiled theft of a status quo and the conditions of a private market in roads. Consider this: if you were a road entrepreneur, whose foremost concern is not "public service" (I repeat, re-election), but profit, would you seek to magnify your expenses by hiring costly road maintenance crews every year? Or would you use the modern technology at your disposal and incur only marginally higher initial costs to build a road that can serve you over twenty lifetimes without requiring repair? Moreover, if you, as a private entrepreneur, were to charge tolls for each vehicle that used your road, it would be in your interest to attract as many vehicles as possible. Every day and every stretch of space which construction occupies during the road's lifetime inherently cuts your profits by the amount that the cars passing through that space during that time would have generated in tolls! If you were at all intellectually endowed (and to become a road entrepreneur you would need to be), you would realize that authorizing major repairs on a private road, after it had already been opened, is financially ruinous!

Thus, it is evident that, if roads were privatized, and the unlimited private construction of new roads were authorized, major road maintenance would cease to exist altogether; there would be no need for it! As for those minor tasks of road cleaning, such as removing pebbles and roadkill, incentives will develop for private companies to invent means of doing so without interrupting the traffic flow, since such innovations will maximize the profit that these companies receive from an increased and steady volume of traffic.

The question still remains as to why the Roman roads have a life expectancy two thousand times greater than that of American roads. Were these roads privately built? Such a contention is not as far from the truth as may seem at first glance. Unlike modern armies, Rome's was not exclusively controlled by bureaucrats or raised on public funds. Often, generals themselves would devote vast private fortunes to the gathering, equipping, and rewarding of troops, who would swear loyalty oaths to their commander, not to the Roman state.

Commanders such as Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar, both possessors of immense personal wealth, did precisely that. They needed to concern themselves with the logistical aspects of war as well, for these were what distinguished Roman armies from the barbarians they had to fight. Roman troops would often personally labor on the roads they would later use as avenues between their outposts on the empire's borders and channels of communication with the capital. Many a Roman general's pockets may have been deep, but they were not infinitely deep. And to prevent their depletion, the generals had every incentive to render the roads they commissioned as deep as possible! One may, using Rome's history as an example, question the wisdom of privatizing the military, but the private roads that such a private military built were the most impeccable ever seen in history. Were I given a choice of the route to travel on, I would favor a Roman road over any one of the modern American monstrosities, hands down.

It is time that we renounce hours of painstaking frustration and needless confusion, which we owe to rampant statism and cronyism. We need to cease being governed by barbarians outside the borders of reason, and rediscover elementary insights that have been waiting to be put to use for over two thousand years.

Mr. Stolyarov is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and contributor to the Autonomist, Sense of Life Objectivists, and Objective Medicine. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the Western principles of reason, rights, and progress. You can learn about Mr. Stolyarov's newest science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/eac.html. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

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