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Private drive?

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted November 20, 2006

Road privatization: one of the unfinished legacies of Ontario's Mike Harris government. This thought jolted into my brain as I was driving along Ontario's highway 655, a road that was beautifully set up, but had largely fallen to semi-ruin. The government had acknowledged this, as there was a major repair effort going on as I was gliding/bumping along it. I drove through miles of construction cones, with smooth new asphalt interspaced with jolty old track.

There is a case that I should be grateful for the repair effort. Had the responsible authority not done so, the ride I had would have been much bumpier. I remember highway 407, though; that memory filled me with somewhat of a sense of loss. I should relate that I saw no other vehicle at all while on 655, a drive which spanned about a half an hour. It was approx. 1:15 AM when I got on it and approx. 1:45 AM when I finally got off.

Okay, this wasn't the best time to assess road usage. In Northern Ontario, the sidewalks still seem to roll up at 10 PM in rural, and even in small urban, areas. On an earlier leg of my journey, from Sudbury to Timmins up highway 55, which started at about 10 PM and ended a little earlier than 1 AM, I counted fewer than ten cars on that highway, including mine. Two of those cars were going my way; I encountered them through passing them. There were, however, lots of Mack-sized trucks - lots of them. Interestingly enough, they were going at the speed limit, most probably to save fuel. Myself, I had to save time, as I only had a day rental – one with unlimited kilometers, thankfully for me.

The journey I took down various Queen's and provincial Highways, from 6 PM, Nov. 8, 2006 to 3 PM, Nov. 9, 2006, was approximately 1600 km in length. In the space of 21-or-so hours, I put a thousand miles on that car. Hardly a record, but for someone whose long-distance driving previously encompassed two 200 km journeys with a substantial break in between, it was a step up.

Given most of the traffic I saw through most of my journey, an economist would have little difficulty identifying what the spate of road-building, back in the 1950s and ‘60s, was: an attempt at mercantilistic domestic policy, one that has sadly failed at its goal. Rural Ontario has remained staunchly put and the growth is found in urban Ontario. Despite the wide open roads, and the implantation of (I am sure) lush provincial parks as an attractant to use the roads that had been built, Ontarians have largely remained stubbornly urbanized. The great road-building exercise, ‘way back when, has amounted to little more than a subsidy for the trucking industry…initially, that is. Thanks to high fuel taxes, the truckers have discovered that the magnificent subsidy to them, in the form of the Queen's Highways, has turned into the King's Shilling. It is also a focal point with respect to the battle between today's statists and yesterday's.

Statists of the "'50s" persuasion, a period of time which really stretched to about 1967 or so, were mercantilists, dreaming dreams of government projects igniting "takeoffs" that would bring growth and prosperity to parts devoid of. This kind of statist is easy for a conservative to get along with, because he or she tends to be pragmatic, and more often than not easygoing. No wonder so many conservatives have made common cause with the pre-"'60s" (pre-'68 or so) liberals: there is a commonality of temperament. The pragmatist aversion to "prigs" also dovetails nicely with the conservative disinclination towards busybody-ism. The transformation of the name "C.D. Howe," from a liberals' Liberal to the namesake of a largely conservative Institute, is a useful encapsulation of this overlap. The ‘50s liberal actually gave a damn about the sources of economic growth. Given what liberals have turned into now, what used to be a battle against economic ignorance now seems a mere squabble over means.

Today's liberal finds it perplexing, and not a little distressing, that the speeding laws are treated so casually up in Ontario's outback. In the back roads, the reason why is the speed limits are largely self-enforcing. If you're bolting down a two-lane highway (one for each direction,) with frequent curves, hills and valleys, you do find yourself driving at, or below, the speed limit without even checking your speedometer. The risks of speeding are self-evident, especially when it's raining, and are more so during snow season. The same thing goes for passing restrictions: when there's a double line forbidding a duck into the oncoming lane to pass the slowpoke ahead of you, it's self-evident as to why.

On the major highways, though, the speed limits are anything but self-enforcing. Know why? Because yesterday's statists insisted upon "prestige" highways for the 400 series, and that's what they got: well-designed, prestige highways. If you check the speed that constitutes "fast-normal" on any 400 series, and look up the original design specs, you'll find that Friedman's pool-player rule-of-thumb does indeed work. The typical "speed demon" speed is right at, or a little below, the speed at which the original road engineers designed the highway for. According to word-of-mouth, the 401 is designed for 85 MPH, or 130 km/h, except for obvious bends and turns.

So, with regard to any speeding ‘crisis', what we have are today's statists growing frustrated over the successful (at the engineering level) implementation of the grand plans of yesterday's statists. Much like the nuclear power ‘crisis', this one amounts to kick-yer-forebear. Unfortunately, the amusement value of this internecine conflict is dampened by the fact that, as usual, we have to put up with the collateral damage from it.

It's an open secret that the speeding laws are lightly enforced; the police do pick their spots. It's also an open secret that spot checks are basically all that's needed. I was surprised by a police car parked on the top of a hill on the Trans-Canada (hwy 11,) pre-sunrise, while I was going 10 km/h over the 90 km/h limit. Even though speeders at my speed are hardly pulled over, that consideration was far from my mind. Down went the speedometer, to almost exactly 90 km/h for the next 10 km or so, most of which featured that same police car traveling behind me at precisely that speed. I had hopes that I would be overtaken, but that was not to be. Instead, the police car kept trailing and, later, pulled off. It is common-sensical to let the nice police car pass; I did so early on in the journey (while on hwy 400/69) when overtaken by another one. The same common-sensical rule applies to the hell-for-leather driver: this kind of fellow makes for a useful cop-spotter.

From a libertarian standpoint, it is helpful to think of the highways as government-owned with a conditional right-of-way granted to all. The conditions attached to it are codified by the driving laws. Even though this structuring of the terms of government-owned highways isn't exactly accurate, it does provide a useful indicator of what life would be like had the roads been completely privatized. Any fear, or hope, that the "rules of the road" would disappear along with government ownership is easily staunched, once it is realized that an unsafe road could very well lead to a sued-into-bankruptcy road owner. Such lawsuits would occur even if the owner passively let the road fall into the state that some of the government-owned roads are in now, unless special liability-release forms are part of the sign-up package.

What can be hoped for, or admittedly feared, is diversity with respect to road rules, as well as more driver-centric crafting and modification of them. There's no hope for that as long as the government owns the roads.

Why? Because, to paraphrase Isabel Paterson, government is gridlock. The role of the government is to prohibit certain forms of conduct, and to force certain other forms of conduct. The apparent exceptions of government ‘activity' all turn out to be forced activity, which inevitably gets hackles, and "public-interest" complaint groups, up. Thus, the mercantile welfare State turns into the red-tape, or green-tape, welfare State. In addition, activity beyond costs leads to costs without activity, later: this is the King's Shilling element of domestic mercantilist policy. Sad to say, Grampaw Liberal, but the current stranglehold of multi-colored tape is the long-run consequence of your own policies, come back to bite you. (The indirect consequences don't look very pragmatic to your grandkids.) As an old conservative, well used to Hazlittesque ratiocination, I'm somewhat relieved to report that this transition process, of the C.D. Howe model of governance turning into government à là Ralph Nader, is so obvious, I can point it out with my finger. There's no need even to invoke the unseen.

Yes indeed, environmental policy being an add-on to domestic mercantilism is an old trick, one as old as Theodore Roosevelt's Administration. Unfortunately for pragmatists, it's so old that the greenies have had lots of gestation time to bring forth an independent faction, unto themselves. They're no longer the water carriers for National Development; they've started a nice little team of their own. Given policy directions over the last fifteen years, Team Green has had quite the enviable winning streak since 1990. It's gotten to the point that a pragmatically sensible adjustment in tax policy – allowing 407 toll fees to be partially tax-deductible as a recoup for government-road-fund gas taxes – is a complete no-sale.

Given government inertia, it should be of little surprise that the old Harris government would have pursued the 407 option, rather than the more economic course of ridding itself of the "surplus" roads. Big inertia requires big shake-ups; direction changes have to be gotten through somehow.

The precedent set, though, is an interesting and potentially useful one. The 407 was not privatized out of libertarian eloquence; it was a thoroughly pragmatic decision. A private company would refurbish and upgrade it more quickly than the Ontario government could: such was the rationale. The rationale, in this case, did prove to be followed through upon. The main complaints about the 407 revolve around insufficient safeguards; some of the billing practices; and, the entrepreneurial success of the 407 ("poor sale terms.") It's true that there is little chance of another major highway being privatized in the foreseeable future, but the overall rationale for the 407's privatization does apply just as well to the minor highways in "Isolation County." Any embarrassment over the sale prices of those highwaylets can easily be accounted for by getting rid of the unrepaired dogs, the ones that have been written down to nada on the government books thanks to depreciation. And, as a bonus, privatizing a few of the minor ones in the isolated Northland will certainly give a major incentive to the new owner to get drivers up to the hinterland, to go down their way. Much more of an incentive than wind farms do.

We really don't know what'll be unlocked, through marketers' flair, by such privatizations. That highway I mentioned, the 655, made for quite a straightaway indeed….

"Welcome to DEATH ROW HIGHWAY. [Formerly highway 707.] No speed limits! Driver beware!" (The skull-and-crossbones logo, I add, is in the public domain.)  ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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