The Privatization of Roads & Highways: Human and Economic Factors

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The Privatization of Roads & Highways: Human and Economic Factors by Walter Block Ludwig von Mises Institute * 2009 * 475 pages * $19.00

Reviewed by Arthur Foulkes

Loyola University economist 'Walter Block is among the most fearless advocates of freedom today. At a time when pundits widely believe the free market has failed, Block takes his case for truly free markets deep into unfriendly territory by arguing for the full privatization of all roads and highways.

In 2006 officials in Indiana leased 157 miles of the Indiana Toll Road to a private Spanish/Australian consortium. While this was called a "privatization," Block would clearly dismiss it as nothing of the kind. The Indiana Toll Road remains owned by the state. Real privatization would mean completely private ownership of all streets, roadways, paths, and freeways. Only private roadway owners "would determine regulations and prices.

In the current political climate it may seem Block has the cart before the horse. Arguing for free-market roads these days is a little like a starving person worrying about his dessert. Shouldn't we first try to halt the current growth in the size and scope of government and deal with the almost Utopian idea of private streets and highways later? But anyone who has read Block's provocative book, Defending the Undefendable, or has heard him discuss free-market ideas one on one, knows he does not blink in his support for freedom. Besides, if "we can establish that private property and the profit motive can function even in 'hard cases' such as roads, the better we can make the overall case on behalf of free enterprise," he writes.

A big roadblock, so to speak, in arguing for private roads and highways is that practically everyone takes government ownership for granted. Even many economists, using "market failure" arguments such as the one about "externalities," often cite roads as something only government can provide. Block carefully takes apart these arguments. For example, the "externalities" argument contends that private investors would underinvest in roads and highways. But who is to say, given a complete lack of market signals, a government agency would invest the correct amount? Indeed, this part is among the book's best contributions.

In addition to giving readers a seminar in logical economic reasoning, Block's book also reflects his passion for freedom. He believes firmly that government management of roads and highways is not only inefficient but also deadly. "Road socialism" causes the deaths of more than 40,000 people in the United States each year. And although many people blame highway deaths on alcohol, unsafe vehicles, or speeding, Block lays the blame on the government officials who manage the highway system. …