Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Diogenes the Libertarian Travels Muh Roads

Diogenes the Libertarian Travels Muh Roads
©2019  Ross Williams

One of the most perplexing positions taken by Not Quite Libertarians is their position on roads.  I have sometimes likened their position as one awaiting a chalk outline, for if they ever got their way it would kill virtually everything else their libertarianism claims to stand for.

Not Quite Libertarians want the government out of the road-making business.  Out of the road maintaining business.  Off the roads, period.  They mock anyone suggesting differently with the not-exactly clever but totally infantile “Muh roads” goad.  Sometimes they spell roads with a ‘z’ to appear especially childish.  They want all roads to be privately owned.  It’s better this way, they say.

Oh? many wonder.  What?” they sneer back; “You don’t think private individuals can contract out for paving?  You think only government knows how to make flat things??

That’s not really the issue, but sure, let’s start there.  I have five acres and a small farm.  I need to get my animals to the slaughter house periodically.  And let’s suppose that Voldemort had expelliarmused all American roads into oblivion before he went ditto.  How do I get my livestock the 22 miles to the butcher?

A road.  But this is now also, suddenly, not simply a libertarian subject, but an anarcho-libertarian subject where government has no recognizable role.  I must build my own road.  So I do.  …to the edge of my property, for that is all I have a right to.  The next 21.87 miles comes from where?  My neighbors.

I must now contact ALL of my neighbors, and ALL of the property owners between me and the slaughterhouse 22 miles away, in order to find a contiguous path which can be graveled, paved or cemented to connect me with the outlet for my farm product.  Many neighbors are also farmers and sympathetic to my plight.  Some of them sign up for it in principle − details notwithstanding.  But most of these farmers are crop farmers, and they don’t want a road to the slaughterhouse.  They need a road to the grain silo, which is 18 miles in another direction.  I’m trying to get a road 22 miles to the southeast, most of the rest want a road 18 miles to the west-southwest.

I am willing to accept a non-direct path to the slaughterhouse simply for the sake of compromise, but some of the others are not.  It’s either straight to the silo or it’s not happening.  And that’s not to include those who are not farmers at all and have other road priorities or who, for their own personal reasons, simply don’t like farmers and are unwilling to accede to their farmer neighbors’ requests to allow me to cross their property with a truck full of smelly animals going to meet the meat counter, nor allow the grain farmers to move corn and soybeans to the succotash silo.  A surprising number of well-fed people dislike those who feed them; meat is murder and crops are fed dicamba when they aren’t watered with glyphosate.

Finally, after months of emails − because personal meetings with those whose property does not abut mine cannot be accomplished when there is no rightful manner of shaking their hand, remember − we discover no agreed upon means of connecting the livestockers to the slaughterhouse nor the tillers to the silo.  Nor the non-farmers to the grocery store where their food won’t be found because we can’t move our product to it.  Universal agreement has never, ever, ever occurred.  Even the vote for war after Pearl Harbor had dissent.

So someone comes up with an idea: get a committee together with someone to represent the interests of the livestock farmers, one the grain farmers, two the non-agricultural property owners [two, because there’s significantly more of these types], and one the merchants, to hammer out a network of roads.  These roads would all be privately owned, of course, by those whose property it crosses, and would allow me to get my animals chopped up, my neighbors to get their wheat ground into flour, others to get to work, and businesses to conduct business.  Every property in the region must be connected to the road system.  That’s the charter.

…a-a-a-and we’ve just discovered government.  We’re right back to the condition the “muh roads” simpletons set out to avoid.

This government solution, though, can take a few forms.  The basic distinction between these forms of government whose purpose is to create a libertarian road system lies in the ability − or not − to compel a landowner to allow the road to cross his property.  If the grassroots government committee has this power [and let’s just call it eminent domain just for grins] then it would be effectively no different from the government we have making a road system now. …except that the resulting roads are owned in individual chunks by the landowners and not the government itself.

But since we’re trying to create a road system with meaningful distinction from the current model, let’s propose that this ad hoc government road committee does not have the power of eminent domain.  Private property may be used for roads only to the degree the landowner agrees to allow it.  In instances where a large chunk of land is owned by Andy Smith, who operates a 10,000 acre tilled farm, and it would make sense to virtually everyone else to have a road go north to south through his land, he only agrees to a road east to west, because that points in the direction of the grain silo which is critical to his individual purposes.  This grassroots committee must comply with his demand.  It has no choice.

The resulting road system is a series of switchbacks and odd angles accommodating the myriad demands of the thousands of individual property owners in the region.  Straight lines between anywhere and anywhere else are rare to the degree of being included under the Endangered Species Act.

In order to get two miles east, one must travel twelve miles by road. …a condition still visible in many rural areas today where the road system is simply the government annexed private roads dating back to the 19th century, the exact sort of area I live in.  A number of years ago, a thoroughbred ranch exactly four-tenths of a mile to the west of me lost a horse in the middle of the night, during a bitterly cold winter storm.  Wind snapped a fencepost, the horse panicked and bolted through, and ran around the neighborhood, scaring − literally − women, children and domesticated animals.

It landed one field to the north at my neighbor who had horses, and circled his pasture getting his horses worked up.  Rick, my neighbor with the horses, caught the thoroughbred, but his horses were too excited to have company.  He called me about 1AM and asked if he could bring it to me and stick it in with my horse.  Sure, I said.  So we bundled up the kids to await the arrival of an actual thoroughbred.  We stuck it in the barn and gave it a bucket of water and a whole bale of hay for itself.  It towered over my Tennessee Walker, who took one look at his barn buddy and quickly headed outside to stand ass against the wind.

After the sun came up calls were made and we discovered that it came from the place exactly four-tenths of a mile to the west of me.  It was one of the horses we would see grazing over the intervening hay field.

The owner came with his horse trailer to pick it up, thanked me and Rick profusely, then drove it four-tenths of a mile west. … by way of a quarter mile east, almost one mile north, a half mile east, eight-tenths of a mile north, over a mile west, a half mile south, a quarter mile west, a half mile south and a quarter mile east.  Exactly as the private roads carved 180 years ago and annexed, but not improved, by the government would dictate.

Because it’s better this way.

But the issue with libertarian roads is not in the acquisition of them − building them, creating them from nothing − as frustrating and convoluted as it may be.  Nor is it really with the maintenance of them, as so many “muh roads” nincompoops wish to reduce it to, and thereupon strawman all rational objections.  The issue is with the consequences of the libertarianism of libertarian roads.  ALL the consequences, not merely the inefficient land use of spaghetti maps, nor the haphazard maintenance.  Libertarian roads jeopardize virtually every other aspect of libertarianism, and means − effectively − you can either have private roads or any other form of liberty, but not both.

Simplistically, liberty means freedom.  To the degree that liberty does not mean “freedom to do whatever the fuck I want and the hell with the rest of you”, it means freedom from inappropriate and excessive government imposition on what I want to do.  And what is “inappropriate and excessive government imposition”?  It depends greatly.  In most nations, it means whatever the government says it means.  In our nation, it means what the constitutional limitations on government power says it means.

If we are to have the actual, by-god, libertarian governance our constitution foisted upon us, then the liberty in libertarianism means something fairly specific.  Let’s just stroll through those specifics as they relate to private, libertarian roads.

For me to get my animals to the slaughterhouse 22 miles away, I now have to drive 26 miles to do it.  It is entirely likely that I’d have to drive 60 miles or more to get there on libertarian roads, and have to use a few hundred individually-owned scraps of road to do it.  Road-use creates wear and tear on that road, a fact that I am painfully aware of living on such a private road already and which I must maintain because the owner of the road − a crop farmer who uses it only to get his tractor to the field on the far side of it − doesn’t feel the need to because he doesn’t care about its condition.  He only cares that it exists.  A landowner cannot legitimately be expected to maintain his private road for general use all on his own, so the logical, practical, necessary thing to do would be to make those who use the road pay for their usage. […which I am effectively doing already, to the limits and priorities of my finances.]

This means, in its simplest form: toll booths.  There’d be a toll booth at every property line.  In densely-populated areas this would be every 40 or 50 feet. …and wouldn’t that be convenient!  They’d either be automated − at fairly significant expense, which would then be added into the toll − or manually operated, which would require the landowner have no other life apart from collecting the toll.  If automated, you’d better have exact change.  Driving ten miles to work in the morning may cost $25 [more, if you don’t have exact change] and take 45 minutes.

Forgoing the myriad technical options in the middle, let’s just skip right on to the Nth-degree solution and implant every vehicle with an RFTag and every property owner with a scanner which can then be used to automate billing.  Let’s skip over the tech giant who makes this automated billing possible − for a hefty fee − and the practical result that a great many individual private road owners cannot pay for the billing services on their private road AND acquire enough revenue to maintain the road in a usable condition.  If you think the highly variable maintenance of government roads from one township to another, one county to another, one state to another is appalling, just wait until the maintenance responsibility of roads changes multiple times per mile.

Let’s also skip over the very great likelihood that large numbers of road users will detour around the scanners to avoid being billed, thus creating greater expense for the landowner in constructing barriers, and thus greater tolls to recoup those expenses, thus increasing the likelihood that their section of road cannot remain both profitable and maintained.

Next, let’s skip over those chunks of road owned by CPAs, who understand the costs involved in maintenance, how to meaningfully calculate the rates of usage, and how to divide one into the other to determine the cost, per vehicle per ton driven, needing to be extracted from each in order to have a practically useful road.  These roads will be prohibitively expensive to most, and you can add another quarter hour to your ten mile drive to work to use an alternate route.

And let’s finally skip over the even greater likelihood that many individual road owners simply cannot or do not participate in the RFTag [or other tech] scheme [libertarianism is all about voluntary, after all], and those who participate but who use the revenues for other libertarian things … like drugs or cable TV.  Or food.  Their patches of road will be unmaintained and crossing them will be time-consuming vehicular torture.  Or it will be a five mile detour.  Either way, add another half hour to the 10 mile drive to work.

And let’s completely ignore the maps necessary to navigate this mess, containing not merely the directions and road names, but also the monetary cost for each individual section.

Shortly after this shiny, new, libertarian road system becomes operational, someone decides he’s going to move.  And because he’s devious, he decides he’s going to retain “access rights”.  He’ll sell the property, but the road access − like mineral rights before it − are retained by the previous owner.  All tolls are earned by the seller.  Whether or not the original owner also takes the maintenance duties with him will depend on how devious he is.

And shortly after this, some enterprising entrepreneur will notice that individual property owners are not really all that interested in the day to day operation of their 40-foot or quarter-mile sections of road.  It’s too much work.  And bookkeeping.  And tracking down scofflaws.  Failure to pay tolls on a government-owned toll road is a crime, and ultimately the police will come looking for you.  Failure to pay tolls on a privately-owned toll road is a “personal injury”, and without the absence of a legal system, it is enforced only through tort law.  Each individual non-payor must be sued individually.  Pursuing such would be prohibitive, even if successful, for nearly all individual private road owners; people simply have too much real life to live.  Road access rights will start being sold to private road conglomerates − individual business ventures that consolidates road access in a region.  Such a conglomerate will have the time, money and on-staff loyyering to go after the free riders in court.

Of course, this presupposes that the “muh roads” drips are not completely anarchic in their privatization sentiments and are willing to concede a court system in their mistopian visions of a libertarian future.  If not, then we’ve just entered the world of Mad Max, with vigilante gangs and yet another proof that democracy is simply a polite term for mob rule.  But I’m going remain hopeful and simply say that the court system will be instantly choked with legal claims for nonpayment of road-use fees.  And at some point, likely very soon after these cases start coming up on the docket, a loyyer for the scofflaw will put up a legal challenge to private road usage based on hardship.  …which will be discussed later.

In any event, the myriad individual- and conglomerate-owned private roads will be a hodge-podge of petty fiefdoms.  Apart from Simon Bar Sinister operating his road conglomerate on this side of town, Snidely Whiplash having the roads downtown and on the west side, Dick Dastardly with his Southside range, C. Montgomery Burns’ control of the commercial and industrial section, and the financier Gary Gamel and his Gargamel Holding Company controlling almost everything else, there’s … well, me.  I’m keeping my road.

There are many neighbors of mine whom I would not allow to cross my property for any amount of money.  I do not like them.  More formally, road-use conglomerates would undoubtedly create Terms of Service agreements implicitly agreed upon by users simply by their use … in exactly the same way Facebook, YouTube, Google, Yahoo, Netflix, Hulu, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc have done.  Legally binding, full of indecipherable verbiage that cannot be digested on the spot nor without legal counsel.  The moment you cross paths with the RF scanner you will get a text on your smartphone indicating you are implicitly agreeing to the Terms of Service required by the operator of the road you’re on.  You either click ‘yes’ to continue your drive to work, or you click ‘no’ and are remotely photographed for use as evidence against you when you have your day in court for failure to meet your contractual requirements.

Because Terms of Service are what they are, and because libertarians are what they are, not many libertarians will have an ideological leg to stand on when one decides that a road conglomerate determines a given individual to be in violation and thus has his access reduced or denied altogether.  Certain of my neighbors and anyone who runs afoul of Snidely Whiplash ... go around.  In my neck of the woods, it would make the nearly six mile trip to go four-tenths of a mile into a fifteen mile trip.  If it can be made at all.

That’s the way libertarianism is.  My property; I can say who can use it.  And you can’t, so go around.

It is the exact situation as with the bakery in Colorado.  The bakery gets to decide who it does business with, and if the bakery doesn’t like gay weddings, he doesn’t have to bake the cake for it.  No reason is necessary; that’s what property rights are all about.  Similarly, if Facebook doesn’t like what an anti-socialist troublemaker has to say about their favorite philosophies, they can interpret one of the many vague codicils in their Terms of Service to throttle or ban the troublemaker.  Just as similarly, if YouTube doesn’t like the video shorts that have been loaded onto their site, they can remove them citing another interpretation of vague implicit user agreement.

When we apply these principles to private roads it would, in some cases, result in property owners being veritably imprisoned within the confines of their property lines.  The only road out is privately owned by a guy like me, or a faceless entity run by Dick Dastardly, who does not like that individual, and has denied that individual the use of the road leading to other parts of the world.  Such as the office, where he works for a living.  Such as the grocery store, where he gets his food.  Such as the school his children attend.  This would undoubtedly happen millions of times over, throughout the country.  We’ve now reconstructed feudalism, even if in a limited and confusing manner, and are pleased to call it liberty.

With liberty like that, who needs authoritarian dictatorship?

Of course, that breed of theory-heavy libertarian who sees nothing wrong with the foregoing will shout out a solution from the comfy confines of the navel he gazes into: “Competition!

Yes.  The answer is competition.  Roadway competition.  Because new real estate upon which to build those alternate roads is created over and on top of the existing real estate, which explains why the value of property keeps going down: vast increase in supply.

So … roads on stilts, then? with access ramps?  Running all the way to another road system operated by a more amenable operator.  A nice, cheap, workable option, that.


Let’s be honest: idiotic is the most polite way of describing “competition”.  Back we go to the courts.

One of the legal arguments to be put up by someone confined within his property lines by road owners denying him road access will be some form or other of hardship.  Setting aside the loyyerly minutiae, these cases will be decided in a patchwork of predictable rulings, and ultimately settled by the Supreme Court choosing one of them.

The first is the thoroughly libertarian way: the courts rule that the road on my property is my property; I get to decide who can use it and who can’t.  If that means a few of my neighbors are imprisoned on their own land, so be it.  And the courts have validated a libertarian feudalism.  Only those approved of by the road operators are permitted to participate in the Free Market.  Everyone else is a vassal, tied to his land.  One is rendered into a vassal by running afoul of the owner of the road leading away from that land.

The second is the socialist way: the courts rule that the roads are properly accessible by all as a “public accommodation” with user fees waived under a [growing] list of reasons − completely ignoring the fact that in a constitutional republic the only true “public accommodation” is one operated by the government.  Anything that is privately owned is, by definition, a private accommodation.  This ruling, though, is keeping in line with many other legal rulings of our courts, deciding
, e.g., that all privately-owned businesses be accessible to the handicapped, even if the business doesn’t want the business of the handicapped.  This would effectively nationalize the roads, putting us right back where we started by having government-controlled roads, only with private maintenance at private cost but without usage-fee funding, and with convoluted 6-mile trips to go a half mile.

The third is a hybrid of the two − and is also a common landing spot for court rulings − in which the courts declare that the roads may be operated for private profit by their owners, but that everyone must still have access, and fees are set by the courts, or a court-appointed entity.  Roads become, effectively, a public utility and road operators are rendered into a franchise of the government and may be profitable only to the limits of government allowance.  Rate hikes must be approved by the government, and will take years.

I would be willing to bet that the courts would not allow libertarian roads to stand.

In the absence of courts, however, private roads result in post-apocalyptic Mad Maxianism.  In the presence of courts, private roads result in cultural devolution into feudalism, or outright socialism, or semi-socialism … which is still socialism.  And just to be clear, socialism is the government control of economic activities.  Private roads operated for profit are an economic activity.   When the government confiscates roads without also confiscating the responsibility for them, or when the government sets economic caps on their operation, it is government control, and therefore socialism.  On the other hand, public roads operated for public use and the responsibility of the government are a public service and not a direct economic activity.

Let’s simply acknowledge that the Constitution which ushered in our libertarian system of governance was written by those who understood that in order to effect the greatest liberty for the greatest number, the government needed to provide for communication and transportation.  Communication in the late 18th century consisted of mail; transportation consisted of the roads to carry it on.  Trade, and the Free Market which relies upon trade, cannot occur otherwise.  Mail and roads are constitutionally defined government powers.  For libertarians, that must be enough.

The primary Not Quite Libertarian argument against government roads is that the government is inherently inefficient and corrupt − which is not even marginally disputed.  And we may thank god that non-government entities like Facebook and YouTube are not.  So address the government’s inefficiency and corruption.  Either take part in your governance and be an involved libertarian, or ignore it as an inevitable consequence of any government and be a cynical libertarian.

But be a libertarian.  Stop trying to play off cultural retrograde as a social benefit.