The Recovery of Stolen Roads
by Jim Davies
Imagine freedom! (To borrow Stormy Mon’s title.) Government has vanished, and everyone celebrates – for everyone has learned what a catastrophe it has been for the human race, during the last ten thousand years. Everyone looks forward to controlling his or her own life, for the first time ever. But right away, we’ll face the huge though one-time task of clearing up the mess.
That mess has several dimensions, and one of them is to handle what was formerly known as “government property.” Buildings, computer systems, roadways, forests, nuclear missiles, fighters, bombers, tanks, carriers, etc. etc. ad nauseam. Once, to offer help to Harry Browne as he was writing his 1995 campaign book Why Government Doesn’t Work, I tried to estimate the market value of the assets of the Federal Government alone, and it was formidably difficult. Not least was the problem of what one assumes about how those assets might be sold: were they to be brought to market gradually over a decade or two, or would a fire sale be held during a single month? – huge difference, in potential proceeds. Eventually Harry settled on an estimate of $12 trillion – and in 1995, a trillion dollars was so big as to be hard to imagine. Those were the days!
Not least among the difficulties is the conceptual one of defining what “government property” is, anyway. “Property” consists of stuff with an owner, some person or group of persons with a right to control its use. But “government,” like “public,” isn’t a group of persons; it’s a legal fiction. Therefore it cannot actually own anything. Therefore “government property” is an oxymoron. Suppose the IRS Headquarters building was auctioned and sold; to whom, exactly, would the proceeds be paid, given that government (which was always a legal fiction anyway) had altogether ceased to exist? The “public”? We begin to see how tricky it gets.
One class of these assets is roads – apparently “owned” and operated by all three levels of government. Most of them are very useful and would need to continue in operation in the new, free society. That being so, somebody would have to own them – to operate them for profit as private property. So apparently, titles would have to be created, and to pass. How?
There is yet another layer of difficulty, unique to roads: those assets are not merely useful, they are vital. Imagine that a road system in a town is acquired by a newly formed company, Acme Roads. Its business will be to maintain them, here and there to retire them, elsewhere to build profitable extensions, and offer their use under contract to those wishing to travel. At the point of intersection with other private properties (many thousands of them) there will be points of access to Acme’s roads. Pay the fee, gain the access. Decline to pay it, stay home – absent a helicopter in the back yard. Acme thereby instantly gains enormous control over the town’s residents; it has a monopoly. Conceivably, it might use that power to deny travel rights to those it does not like, for example people with red hair, dark skin, or weird opinions. Oops! – this is not quite what was meant by “freedom”!
Clearly, my reasoning has somehow gone awry, so let’s back up and consider how a road – any road – came to be under the de facto control of government. How does any land become “owned” by anybody? I can’t improve on Locke’s theory that if a person mixes his labor with unowned, unclaimed land then it becomes his property. That’s how wilderness gets to be owned. Then if he so wishes, that original owner can sell it to others and the real-estate saga begins. However, stuff does not get a new owner when somebody steals it; the thief may gain possession by force and even keep it, but the original owner retains his ownership, and is entitled to repossess it should he get the chance. Now, when government takes possession of some stuff, it always steals it, that’s its S.O.P. If it buys some land under “eminent domain” it does so by enforcing the title transfer and stealing the money to pay what it admits is due; or if it lays claim to wilderness land it does so by a pen stroke, not by mixing its own labor with it, for it is a fictional entity and has no labor to mix (and if it sends employees to do the mixing it is paying them wages with stolen money, so while the employees might have some ownership claim their fictional employer does not).
So roads today are stolen property. They are typically built on land that was previously owned by somebody real. Suppose there is a development of houses, with land parcels abutting each other. A road is needed, clearly, but instead of the land owners agreeing among themselves to transfer ownership of parts of their front yards to a local road company, formed for the purpose and in which they each hold shares, government steps in and declares those front-yard parcels to be under its control and goes ahead to build the road at taxpayers’ expense. That’s clearly theft, and so the resulting road is possessed in practice by government but still truly owned by the landowners from whom the land parcels were stolen.
When government finally vanishes, that process can simply be reversed; rightful ownership can be restored. The stolen parcels of front yards, paved though they are with tar or concrete, can become again the property of the householders lining the road. For obvious practical purposes, the adjoining landowners can then be expected to do what they might have done at the beginning: form a company or association to own the set of parcels and operate the road built on them. Then, however, the stolen property will have been recovered.
When a free society begins, therefore, roads will be owned by adjacent landowners; and if the East side belongs to Jones and the West to Smith, the division line will be the middle of the road. I was interested to read in an LRC article by Bart Frazier that the town of North Oaks, MN, has actually acknowledged this reality, that its roads are legally owned by adjacent landowners, meeting in the middle. It’s not clear, though, how far it abstains from trespassing on those ownership rights.
What of the highway that runs through one of the huge tracts of “government land,” originally wilderness, after government expires? – that land will by some method become real property, with real owners. It’s by no means easy to visualize what that method will be, though in my book A Vision of Liberty I suggested that free-market title companies would grant titles to first comers, perhaps after a waiting period, then later comers could acquire them by paying the first one to quit-claim. Perhaps there is a better way. But whatever the process, rather quickly all property will get an owner, and then the above arrangement will apply to them; all roads too will become owned, by owners of the land through which they run.
If then the road owner (individual or company) at some point elects to sell his road to someone else, such as the Acme Road Co, we can be sure that a clause in the sale contract will specify that existing access rights will be honored in perpetuity. So yes, it’s possible that in the coming free society there will develop giant companies that specialize in road ownership, but it’s not possible that for some malignant motive they might deny access to adjacent landowners. So the above threat of a monopolistic stranglehold on the lives of road users is not real; freedom will work just fine.
Road owners can be expected to manage their property so as to maximize its economic return. While the easiest way to do that will be to attract ever more paying customers (users), strictly the aim will be to maximize profits and that will sometimes mean charging more and expecting fewer. How, we might wonder, will these usage fees be set and collected? With toll booths every hundred yards?
One fun thing about freedom is that it will find the best way to arrange things, and quickly; but because that will often involve invention at the time, we cannot readily predict that solution. One possibility would be that each customer pays an annual access fee to his local road owner (where he gains access from his driveway) and then gets billed monthly for usage nationwide – quite comparable to the system used by land-line phone companies. Periodically along the road could be scanners to detect who’s moving, to pass data along to the accounting system and allocate revenue to road owners – such data being very well guarded from third parties. Physical toll booths may play a part, but they would be labor-intensive so I’d not be surprised if cash toll rates were a fair bit higher than those of the scan-and-bill system.
Something like that, perhaps, but who can tell what else will be offered? – I can hardly wait to find out.
June 17, 2010