I recently received a series of questions pertaining to my articles, “The Necessity of Road Privatization” and “How to Privatize the Roads.” I make my answers available to the public, as I have heard the same questions frequently posed to advocates of turning roads over to free-market competition.
Issue: Unavailability of Electronic Technology
Question: “You suggested that electronic tolling can be used for private roads, but what if this technology is not available for some countries? If the technology were not in place, would privatization still be desirable?”
Answer: Road privatization is desirable no matter what the technological level of the society adopting it. There are several justifications for this:
1) In a private, competitive road market, the requisite technologies for providing easy, convenient access to roads for customers will develop quickly, as entrepreneurs will be motivated by profit to invest in them. After all, if customers must spend a lot of time waiting at toll booths to get on the road, they will take their business elsewhere.
2) At any level of initial technology, it is possible to have superior organizational and logistical methods that maximize user convenience. For instance, if we assume no electronic technology whatsoever and physical cash collection as the only feasible means of obtaining payment, we can still conceive of entrepreneurs having large numbers of toll booths at each checkpoint to ensure that customers can pay quickly and be on their way. Alternatively, entrepreneurs can always charge road users regular membership fees and issue members identification papers that would be checked anytime the user enters the road. It is not always possible, of course, to predict the specific form an organizational innovation will take. However, tens of competing producers, each working under the hard budget constraint of a private enterprise, are much more likely to come up with innovative, efficient solutions than a monopoly producer with a soft budget constraint.
3) Historically, some of the first major roads in the United States – the turnpikes of the late 18th and early 19th centuries – were privately built and operated, in an era long before today’s advanced technology. The roads functioned quite well for their time, facilitating inter-state commerce and the westward migration of large numbers of settlers. Private roads have existed with much more primitive technology than is available anywhere today, and so there is no reason to suppose that a given technological level is required for them to be viable. Technology certainly improves quality in this area, as in virtually all others, but the laws of economics function in a society of any level of advancement.
Issue: Different Ownership and Different Rules
Question: “If every road is owned by different people and different rules are imposed, would it not be too confusing?”
Answer: Standardization of rules often happens to a significant extent in private markets. For instance, railroads standardized many of their practices in the 19th century by mutual agreement of private railroad companies. In any business, it is useful and profitable to enable the customers to rely on some common and well-known elements and practices, and it is quite likely that many rules of the road will be extremely similar. On the other hand, this similarity will not be of the rigid, ossified sort that currently exists on government roads – where the rules are uniform and immutable, irrespective of how well they actually work in facilitating safe and efficient roadway use. Entrepreneurs would be free to experiment with new rules and arrangements, and if consumers do not like a particular arrangement, they would always be free to use a competing road. Entrepreneurs will be aware of this and so will hesitate to adopt measures that would be difficult for users to understand and to follow. Roads that do things differently and continue to attract traffic will likely need to prominently advertise the aspects that make them unique, so that potential users are well aware of the peculiarities in advance and in a concise, easy-to-understand manner. The best road innovations will take hold among other entrepreneurs and will eventually become part of a new set of evolving standards.
Issue: Private Road Monopolies
Question: “Can a road monopoly be allowed to charge exorbitantly if there’s no alternative to a place?”
Answer: It is extremely unlikely that any individual business would be able to purchase all possible access routes to a given place, as this would be extraordinarily expensive. If any alternative route exists, and a non-coercive monopoly currently charges exorbitant prices, this will be a strong signal for competitors to enter the market, buy up land on the alternative route, build their own roads, and charge lower prices than the former monopolist. If there is a single provider of a road to a particular place, even the potential of this kind of competition would keep such a provider charging reasonable prices.
In the odd event that competition does not enter the field, people might simply choose not to go to the place for which the only road requires an exorbitant fee for its use. In this case, many individuals will come to see the benefits of going to the place in question as being outweighed by the costs, and so the place will cease to become popular, and the road provider’s revenue will diminish greatly. At that point, the road provider will either need to lower its prices to attract more business or go out of business entirely.
It is important to recognize that a road monopoly is precisely what exists virtually everywhere in many countries today. This monopoly, unlike to transitory monopolies that may sometimes occur on the free market, is supported by law. The consequences of a coercive monopoly in the provision of any good are easy to foresee and identify: lower quality at a higher price. It is reasonable to believe that taxpayers are already being charged exorbitantly for the use of government roads today.