Why Are Paved Roads in Texas Being Replaced by Gravel?

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In a telling display of the inefficiency of state-provided services, officials from the Texas department of transportation are undergoing the process of ripping up over 83 miles of roadway and replacing them with gravel. Citing insufficient state funding as the motivation behind the operation, the decision to convert the formerly-paved roads into unpaved stretches of gravel was reached due to the department’s financial inability to maintain the road’s conditions. Following an oil boom near the south-western border of Mexico, the roads have received exceptionally heavy wear in recent times from the distribution traffic of the industry’s oil carriers.  As a result of the endeavor, drivers in the region will from now on have to reduce their speeds down to 30 miles per hour, as the 70 mile per hour speeds that had been possible while the roads were still paved is now far too fast of a speed at which to travel. Such an increase in travel time is sure to become a significant distribution setback, further hindering the Texas businesses which generate the state’s tax revenue in the first place (much of which is needed to pay for the roads).  The entire situation is likely to become a vicious and economically devastating cycle for the state of Texas and its many inhabitants as time goes on.

What’s fascinating about this story is that one of the most common arguments made by those attempting to defend the belief that government is necessary to the organization of society is the cliche and hackneyed retort, “But without the government, who would build the roads?” The expression is so commonplace, in fact, that it has become a popular catchphrase used in jest among libertarians and anarchists when discussing the most frequently made arguments against freedom-oriented philosophies. The idea behind such fallacious speculation is that since roads have always been laid out, paid for, and constructed by government developers and tax-funded contractors, there could never be an alternative system of building and maintaining them. Contrarily, critics of the government’s control over the market for roads insist that the privatization of roads would result in a cheaper, more efficient, and above all else freer means of transportation for society. Their evidence to support this belief is that when property is privately owned and operated based on profit motives rather than being ruled over and offered for public use by a mandatorily-funded monopoly such as a government, such property will be better cared for. Following this line of thinking, a private individual is directly responsible for satisfying his customer’s demands in order to earn an honest living, and will strive to provide a good product at a reasonable price.  Government has no incentive to do so because there is no competition for the services it provides.  To make matters worse, the other individuals who utilize public facilities lack personal responsibility for the preservation of those services, and are consequently less likely to care for them as well as they would if such property been private, and are more prone to abuse or take advantage of faculties that are being publicly offered.

A real-life demonstration of this concept can be observed with the case of publicly-accessible lavatories: since perhaps only a few of the individuals using the restroom are directly responsible for maintaining its cleanliness and upkeep, many public restrooms tend to be much dirtier than a bathroom in a private home might be. The reason for this is that when many individuals lack a sense of personal responsibility for a particular piece of property, whatever it may be, they tend not to care about its conditions because they don’t have to worry about the consequences later. Someone else will clean the restrooms and pay for the supplies. Littering is another fantastic example of this concept. Few people would ever be willing to litter on their own front lawns or in their own backyards, even if they might otherwise be less reluctant to do so on property which exists outside of their range of ownership. This idea is known as the “tragedy of the commons.”

This concept of the “tragedy of the commons” also applies to the economics scenario in which an organization such as a government seizes financial and productive control over a particular market (in this case, roads). Since the government is able to force others to pay for any services it provides, it will naturally have much less concern for how much money it spends to provide them, how well that money is spent, how much it charges others to pay for them, and even the overall quality of such services.  It’s not the government’s money being spent to finance its operations, since the government itself has no money of its own.  Instead, the state must extract its wealth from others through means of theft in the form of taxation. At the end of the day, government will always force someone else to foot the bills for its endeavors, regardless of how satisfied individual taxpayers may or may not be with whatever is being offered to them in return.  In fact, even if he or she outright disapproves of one of the state’s practices (for example: war), he is not permitted to refrain from funding it, lest he risk imprisonment for tax evasion.

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muhroads

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Conversely, in a more free society based on private property rights, an individual road owner would prefer to spend as little money as possible to pay for its upkeep, and would be persuaded by the market to charge others the lowest feasible price to drive on it.  If he spends too much money to maintain the road, he’ll have to charge drivers more for using it in order to cover his costs, making them less likely to want to pay for the service at all. Additionally, if he tries to charge too much simply to make a gigantic profit, drivers will be disinclined to pay such high tolls, and will select a cheaper route of travel. When a government or mafia has a monopoly on all of the roads, however, drivers have no other option than to meet the demands of those in control, oftentimes paying inordinately high fees and receiving little in return, and with no complaint department to assist them.

Considering the notion that property will naturally not be cared for as efficiently and inexpensively by government as it would be by private individuals, it is not surprising that the Texas department of transportation is struggling to keep up with the maintenance costs of the roads over which it holds monopoly. Actually, it is only surprising to me that this kind of scenario hasn’t already been occurring with more notable frequency. I am certain that similar situations will continue to arise in the future, however, so long as this foolish belief that government is somehow beneficial or necessary for the provision of roads and other services continues. As the economy continues to be stifled by the cumbersome regulations being imposed on businesses by the government, insufficient tax funding and the subsequent deterioration of service quality is going to be a trend that progresses with time. Hopefully, a story like the one in Texas can serve as something of a wake-up call to every member of the general public that as long as they continue to support the existence of a state and its monopoly on public services, the economy is only going to get worse, the taxes are only going to go up, and the services themselves being provided by government are only going to degrade in quality along with most other aspects of everyday life. Perhaps examples such as this one will finally put a stop to the endless and tedious debate over who should be building the roads and providing the public with goods and services, once and for all. Until that happens, however, don’t be surprised if you should one day find yourself having to leave for work twice as early to make your slow and lengthy commute along the formerly-paved gravel roads that are costing you roughly a third of your total income in taxes.

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***For more information about the “tragedy of the commons,” check out this video produced by Learn Liberty.

***For even MORE information about the “tragedy of the commons” and private property rights, check out this episode clip from John Stossel.