A Ride Too Easy

Muh Roads

One thing people always insist is necessary are the roads. Who will pay for roads with no government?

You hear it with any large project that requires a lot of investment with little obvious ROI. Black Science Man says it about space travel. My father, a giant train nerd and literal train-spotter, will say it about the rail network. And one thing that’s said in response is, well, it would be cheaper when done privately, and you’d just change the system of funding anyway, to some sort of subscription or toll. I mean, heck, that’s what you do in the UK: you pay something called a Road Tax, and without it its illegal for you to be on the road. Wouldn’t be hard to make that a private “Road Subscription” with all the same infrastructure (of course it’s a joke to suggest any government project is adequetly funded, or that funds come from the explicitly claimed Tax for that item).

It’s less clear-cut as an American, especially when a guy who never leaves California is paying for an Interstate through Nebraska, even if he never visits – the idea is that he has a right to use it anyway. But the idea is basically that some portion of your taxes pays for roads anyway, so why is it any different to make that a specific private payment instead? In a private system, you’d replace that with a voluntary subscription. And that cost would vary, with trucking companies paying a lot more since they use the roads a lot more, and a lot heavier. And businesses would likely help fund it too – it would essentially be part of your cost of doing business: you’ll be more likely to invest a bit extra into building a road that drives more customers towards your current or future locations.

And so we say: job well done. We’ve proved that life will not change that much without government intervention. Let’s all go home in separate vehicles on our multi-lane roads to our individual houses.

But one thing all that talk makes me think about is that a new, or expanded, road might not be the best idea, and that maybe government incentives have created perverse ideas and rationales about what is the ideal, optimal, proper material state of affairs. I mean, our problems are these: the creation of new roads in the future, the maintenance of existing roads, and the widening of roads with extra lanes (which also exists on city streets, where they also need to be widened to accommodate more parking) – why are these things necessary? This is the problem with state funding of public goods/services/spaces.

For instance, let’s say you have a $100m project to expand the highways to accommodate increased usage. Is that the best use of money? Wouldn’t it be far more cost effective for the bus networks currently using that road to instead invest in more (and better) buses, that cover a wider array of networks and can be run more frequently? Or heck, maybe the road owner would have to institute stricter policies, and require more car-sharing on every lane, since he can’t afford to build these new lanes without massively hiking up prices?

My point is, there are either creative solutions or there are market forces pushing people to change their behaviour. All state funding does is encourage a certain style of behaviour, and then normalise it over generations so that no-one can imagine a way of doing things that isn’t this one, very-specific way that the government has perversely encouraged.

You look at Bogota, for instance. Very similar to Los Angeles in that it had a rapidly increasing population, except it took a different approach to building roads on top of roads. You see this in a lot of South American cities actually. They’re going through exactly what American cities went through, with rapid expansion leading to too many people on the roads. And Bogota’s municipal authorities had the option to act like LA and entrench the private mentality and keep expanding the roads. Instead, they said a bus carrying 100 people has 100 times more right to use the road than a car carrying 1 person – why should a bus get stuck in traffic with other cars, when it’s the one thing helping to reduce the swelling and need for more lanes? So instead of investing in wider highways to carry more people, they decided to (1) create priority bus lanes, like a car pool lane just for buses, and (2) place a priority on improving those lands rather than the car lanes, to encourage people to use the bus more.

Intra-city roads are different to intercity and interstate highways, with different demands that don’t always make more public transport the best option for people commuting on those roads, but a massive share of people could be potentially better served with more creative solutions like this, which require less capital investment (and much less risky investment, since the ROI is more immediate, with a more predictable revenue stream).

But when the problem gets fobbed off onto the taxpayer purse, and when it all comes down to lobbyists bribing politicians funding election campaigns in return for getting these projects built, those questions or better solutions don’t come up.

I mean, we can agree that transport projects require massive amounts of capital, but I think we get shielded from the real pinch of those costs because they get absorbed into taxes and handled behind the scenes – they’re a thing that happens, but which don’t require our active thinking. And, worse, we then just take it for granted as a normal part of life that somehow roads happen and we have free access to just drive wherever we like, with complete freedom.

This is part of the legacy of the same people who’ll talk about Muh Great Interstate Highway System and Muh American Dream being some American Graffiti / Easy Rider’s inflected idea of being able to drive wherever you want, in your own car. Boomers who inherited this massive infrastructure, and create art which is entrenched with this idea, which just takes these comforts for granted, which makes it Unamerican to consider any other way of living. They’re the ones who’ll really preach this “Muh Roads” mentality, and who also stand there shocked that “young people just don’t seem as interested in cars like we were!”

It gets ingrained in us that we must upkeep the roads, no matter what, at the best possible standard, all across America, with no traffic jams, so that each person can drive around in their individuated vehicle, with the absolute minimum distance from departure to arrival, with more and more car parks and parking spaces built to facilitate these needs. Because… god damn it, that’s what being an American is all about!

And of course, when that stuff is being subsidized or entirely funded by the state, it doesn’t lead us to prioritize what we really want, or to consider that freedom from the state is much more American than having a cupholder next to you, and so (1) we don’t even think about cheaper ways of doing things, (2) we grow complacent in this lifestyle that only exists because of government intervention. It’s considered downright unAmerican and, if you’re a man, humiliating and feminising to not have your own car that you drive anywhere you damn well please.

It’s similar to the way the family unit has disintegrated, and people have become more atomised. For the Boomers, an incredibly unusually accelerated economy made children living away from parents, and parents retiring away from their kids, an entirely normal thing – which is an entire break from historical norms. Now that economic times are becoming tough again (arguably, they’re returning to normal, as the music stops and we face real, natural market forces), those boomers and X’ers are finding their kids, in their 20s, having to spend more time under their roof, and elderly parents having to either live in a nursing home or move in with their kids. Parents and children alike are resenting this trend, because of how normal it used to be to live the other way.

And, arguably, that state of affairs, of incredibly quick atomisation, and normalisation of atomised living, was only made possible by government forces that kept propping up and accelerating the economy, rather than allowing it to contract when it hit problems, and re-grow slowly in recovery, in a way that would’ve made that shift much slower, and would’ve prevented this massive snap-back we’re seeing now.

I mean, heck, let’s not forget the great US Highway system came from FDR and all those boondoggles of the 1930s, in an attempt to revitalise the economy. Was it actually necessary? Or was it part economic stimulus, part defense-program (because roads mean rapid movement of troops and material), which then set an expectation for how easy travel and cargo-transport across States should be, which now only increased a perceived reliance on the State?

I look at it and I see the reaction to privatising the roads as I hear when people freak out when we suggest cutting government funding for education (K-12 and University) or for childcare. And it extends from the same way that government interference has created a certain belief that things can only be done a certain way, and that that way of doing it is a natural, American right.

After all, what happens if the State doesn’t provide education, childcare benefits, or subsidies and loan programs for University? Do you know how expensive raising a child is? Healthcare, education, child-minding – plus all the associated administrative costs. And what, they say, you think this whole system can suddenly be done privately?

No! Indeed! It might not exist at all the way it does now, because the only way the current system exists like it does is because of perverse incentives and structures created and ingrained by government! People might have to… I know, this will sound crazy, but… make tough choices about whether they make more consumer purchases or whether they invest in their kids! One of the parents might have to stay home and educate and feed and care for the child! And, thanks to the normalisation of Dual Income dependence, this is presently more difficult than it has to be. Or heck, with people privately investing more in their progeny and less in consumer goods, we might see more economic investment in those areas, driving down the costs and finding new creative solutions, instead of those very things rising in cost!

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