Privatization of Roads. Leonard Peikoff on his mid-90s radio show on KIEV in Los Angeles stated his belief that public roads should be privatized. While this view is entirely consistent with Objectivism's laissez-faire dogmatism, it does raise questions concerning Peikoff’s grasp of basic social realities.
The issue of road privatization illustrates some of the weaknesses of the laissez-faire position, particular on the issue of whether economic behavior can be effectively regulated by mere self-interest. There are basically two main issues: (1) whether the private sector would find it profitable to build roads into undeveloped or underdeveloped areas; and (2) whether private ownership of roads might lead to gross abuses that would greatly inconvenience consumers.
(1) Sometimes infrastructure (such as roads, canals, railroads) is required before a given locality becomes productive. It is not unlikely, for example, that if no road existed between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, private companies would be able to raise the capital necessary to build one. Yet if there had been no road between Las Vegas and Los Angeles to begin with, it’s not clear that Las Vegas would have become the glitzy mecca it has developed into. Hence, building the road before it is needed helps bring about the very development that would render the road profitable later on via private means.
(2) While it is entirely reasonable to think that many people (or maybe even most people) could be trusted to run private roads through self-interest alone, it is grossly implausible to believe that every individual owner of private roads can be trusted. There are always going to be at least a few people who will use their property in ways that seriously harm the so-called public interest. What if the road to my house, for example, was inherited by a radical leftist, or a white supremacist, or an extreme environmentalist? What would prevent such a person from discriminating against any individual he doesn’t like? What would prevent the radical leftist, for instance, from refusing to allow conservatives to use his road? Or the white supremacist from refusing to allow blacks to drive on his street? Or the extreme environmentalist from refusing anyone to drive a car on his property? How would you like to be unable to get to your place of residence because the owner of the road to your home doesn’t, for one reason or another, approve of you? “But the market punishes such irrational people,” advocates of private roads might say. “They will lose control of their road, eventually.” Eventually? How long is “eventually”? One month? One year? Ten years? In the meantime, you can’t access your own property. There’s a very good reason for making roads public property. They are too important to be placed in the hands of whimsical private interests. Rational self-interest cannot be assumed to work in all cases, because not all people are rational.
But what if the advocates of the privatization of roads are willing to make an exception for residential streets? Shouldn’t we at least have highways privately owned? Not at all, for the same logic holds. I live in one of the more isolated areas in the country, along the northern coast of California, in Humboldt County. On one side I am faced by a treacherous Pacific Ocean, a grave yard of many a ship, and all other sides, by steeped, rugged, mountainous terrain. There are only four roads leading out of western Humboldt County: one to the south, one to the north, and two to the east. Suppose these roads were private. In that case, they could be sold. What if some left-wing billionaire (a cross between, say, George Soros and Al Gore) got ahold of all four of those roads: what would prevent him from basically shutting the roads down? After all, they are his property: he may do with them as he pleases, the public be damned!
I haven’t even mentioned the very real possibility of monopoly abuses of roads. Given the immense costs of building the road (and the immense difficulties of acquiring the property for that road), many highways would constitute natural monopolies that could easily be used to exploit consumers.
Even though society may be little more than a collection of individuals, this doesn’t mean there aren’t broader interests shared by most of the individuals in that society. One of the interests that all rational individuals in a society share is to live in a society where roads aren’t at the mercy of the individual whims and eccentricities of private owners.