About half-way through ‘Atlas Shrugged’, Hank Rearden, his business under threat from the looters who were running the United States, is driving away from the meeting with them.
“He was aware of the long, empty road streaming, then curving, then streaming straight before him, of the effortless pressure of his hands on the wheel and the screech of the tires on the curves. But he felt as if he were speeding down a skyway suspended and coiling in empty space.
It has to be said that, however good an industrialist Rearden may have been, he was a pretty bad driver, if his tyres screeched every time he went round a corner. Perhaps that explains why, some time later, and after he has finally signed his business over to the looters, he was on foot on that same road when he was accosted by a stranger. A stranger who, as is a necessity for a Randian hero, had a face that “was more than handsome, that it had the startling beauty of physical perfection”. It was the face of Ragnar Danneskjold, who was risking his life to deliver to Rearden a down-payment on an eventual full return of the income tax that had been extracted from him during the previous ten years. After Danneskjold had disappeared again into the night
“Rearden stood on the edge of an empty road in a spread of loneliness vaster than it had seemed before. Then he saw, lying at his feet, an object wrapped in burlap, with one corner exposed and glistening in the moonlight, the color of the pirate’s hair. He bent, picked it up and walked on.”
It is not clear what that gold bar (for that was what it was) was going to buy him that would be of any use, in a United States that was collapsing into chaos, and it also supposes thar none of those taxes had been used to build and maintain the road on which he was walking and along which he must so often have driven during those ten years.
The question of who pays for roads is raised in a still more acute form later in the book, when Dagny Taggart is the guest of John Galt in the secret hideaway of Galt’s Gulch in the Rocky Mountains. In order to show her over the estate, Galt needs the car owned by Midas Mulligan and, according to the inflexible rule by which the community lives, he has to pay Mulligan twenry-five cents n gold, the only currency accepted in the valley. That transaction completed,
“She sat by Galt’s side as he drove, skirting the town, to Midas Mulligan’s house. It stood on a ridge, the largest house of the valley, the only one built two stories high, an odd combination of fortress and pleasure resort, with stout granite walls and broad, open terraces. He stopped to let Daniels off, then drove on up a winding road rising slowly into the mountains”.
If Galt had to pay Mulligan for the hire of the car, then surely there must have been someone, or some people, who should have been paid for him to drive along the road, but that was an aspect of life in the valley on which Rand was silent. It is, however, a subject to which libertarian thinkers have given some thought, and in an exchange on LinkedIn with David Schellenberg, who describes himself as a Volunteer Advocate for International Liberty, I was pointed in the right direction. Among the links that he sent me was one to an article entitled Who Will Build the Roads? Anyone Who Stands to Benefit from Them. The solution, it seems is very simple. As David put it,
“The alternative to government provision includes a mix of private (i.e., voluntary) governance, community cooperation, private businesses, and non-profit organizations”.
Which does not address what is known as the ‘free-rider problem’. How, in a totally free society, do you deal with people who ignore ‘private (i.e., voluntary) governance’ and do not participate in ‘community cooperation’, but nonetheless continue to use the roads. This was not, however, a problem that was ignored in the link David provided, in which Chris Calton considered it ‘from a historical perspective’ for the Mises Institute. Despite the Institute advertising itself in terms of ‘Austrian Economics, Freedom and Peace’, the history he chose was the history of the United States. It seems rather a big leap to assume that arrangements that worked well (if indeed they did) in North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would work equally well in modern societies built around the dominance of motor transport, but Calton did also consider the modern world. He wrote that
“Privately constructed roads are not merely a thing of the past. Even today, many neighborhood roads are privately maintained, often further combatting free riders by adding clauses to mortgages obligating homeowners to contribute to the cost of road maintenance.”
And added that
“commercial real estate is unmarketable if not connected to a roadway”.
And therein lies the rub. Our modern society relies not just on a road, but on a road network. That connectivity has to be countrywide, and that requires a countrywide organisation to run it, to set the rules (imagine a libertarian approach to driving on the left or the right) and to enforce them. Much as we may dislike such institutions, it requires something that looks very much like a government.
A free market in road building also requires land to be available to build alternatives, if a road owner is disposed to charge to much. In the early days of the United States that land was generally available, but only because, as I pointed out to David, it had been taken by force from its original occupants. Not a happy precedent
I would have liked to continue the discussion with him, but he used the option available on LinkedIn and blocked me..