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Who Will Take Care of the Roads? Why, The Coercive, Substandard, and Monopolistic Government Department, That’s Who

Summary:
The sight of fresh snow is always invigorating to me, so I was happy to wake up the other day to a blanket of snow—roughly three inches—on my yard. I was less happy, though, to see the same blanket still covering the street in my neighborhood. Things took an even-more disheartening turn when, a few hours later around 10 a.m., I got to the main state road at the end of my street: still snow covered, despite the relatively meager (for this area) snowfall and the fact that the storm had begun over eight hours prior and was at that point only flurries. It was then my thoughts turned, as they often do when I see such idiocy or incompetence, to government “services”—such as for road maintenance—and how they illuminate the most grotesque warts of the state: coercive

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The sight of fresh snow is always invigorating to me, so I was happy to wake up the other day to a blanket of snow—roughly three inches—on my yard. I was less happy, though, to see the same blanket still covering the street in my neighborhood. Things took an even-more disheartening turn when, a few hours later around 10 a.m., I got to the main state road at the end of my street: still snow covered, despite the relatively meager (for this area) snowfall and the fact that the storm had begun over eight hours prior and was at that point only flurries. It was then my thoughts turned, as they often do when I see such idiocy or incompetence, to government “services”—such as for road maintenance—and how they illuminate the most grotesque warts of the state: coercive funding, substandard service and results, and a lack of competition.

Let’s explore each of these elements in more depth and see why the state apologist’s lament of “Who would care for the roads?” really should be “Who would care for the roads so abysmally and have the audacity to steal to do it?”

Coercive Funding

Many people reason for state services—such as road maintenance—by claiming, among other arguments, that they value such services. However, even if I claim that I value the service provided by the state or local government, the fact that it is funded through coercion means that I can never truly tell how much I value that service. For example, if I have been buying M&M’s for years at prices ranging from two to four dollars per bag, we can see exactly how much I value that finest of delicacies. However, if you then hack into my bank account and withdraw twenty dollars each week with which you buy me M&M’s, and I eat them, we do not know whether I value M&M’s at that price.

This uncertainty occurs because my options essentially were to (a) be $20 poorer and not eat the M&M’s or (b) be $20 poorer and eat the M&M’s. If I choose option B, then is it really arguable that I have condoned the theft from my bank account? Of course not. The theft happened regardless of my actions, and the M&M’s showed up to my door whether I ate them or not. In no sense is such a sequence of events the result of my exercising my free will to show how much I value M&M’s.

So, it is the same with services the state provides. We may say we value (or not) the services, but the point is that we never know whether we value them at the price we are charged because that amount is expropriated from us no matter what. Love the service or hate it—you’re paying for it.

As a thought experiment, ask yourself if you would value road maintenance if you had to pay $2,000 per year for it. What about $4,000? $10,000? Each of us places a different value on the service, but the state forces us to pay for it no matter how we value it (and no matter how the service meets our needs). Most people say they want drivable, safe roads, but at what price? The state’s answer: whatever price we tell you.

Substandard Service and Results

In addition to being funded involuntarily through the violence of taxes, government roads departments often provide substandard service and even worse results, which is usually my first point when someone brings up the mindless gotcha of “Who will take care of the roads without government?” Well, judging by the condition of the roads I see, I’m not sure who is taking care of them right now.

If there is one thing on which Americans can agree today, it is that the roads are anything but well-tended, smooth, and a joy on which to drive. From potholes and ridiculous speed limits to traffic congestion and snow—and ice-covered conditions, most of our roads are average at best.

In fact, a recent Consumer Affairs study found that the average road rating was 4.8 out of 10. In Hawaii, the worst-ranked state, nearly 70 percent of the urban roads are in “poor or mediocre condition,” leading residents to pay over $800, on average, per year on extra fuel and repair and wear costs.

Maybe, though, the problem is insufficient funding, and states such as Hawaii are just not spending enough on their road maintenance.

To check this assertion, I used the state rankings from the Consumer Affairs study and plotted them along with the per capita road spending (as of 2021) for each of those states as compiled by the Tax Policy Center. Figure 1 shows the results. (For reference, the United States average was $622 per capita.)

As we can see, there is essentially no difference in the distribution of spending between the top—and bottom-ranked states, so spending is at least not the only issue at play.

Figure 12021 US road spending per capita for the ten best and worst states, ranked by road quality

Who Will Take Care of the Roads? Why, The Coercive, Substandard, and Monopolistic Government Department, That’s Who

Source: Data from the Tax Policy Center for per capita spending and from Consumer Affairs for state road rankings.

More specifically, spending per capita seemingly has, at best, a tenuous connection to road quality, but why is that? Most proponents of big government take it as axiomatic that spending and results are completely correlated, but even without the overwhelming data to the contrary, such a belief is specious on its face.

Lack of Competition

Because government employees have no market mechanism providing rewards and consequences, they also have no incentive to provide better results. No matter the quality of or “customer” satisfaction with road repairs, the workers get paid and continue on to the next job. The roads departments—whether local, state, or federal—cannot go out of business, so they do not have to worry about meeting any customers’ actual desires. Whether you’re happy or unhappy with the roads, the outcome for you is the same—pay me (the state).

However, the fact that the state’s roads departments cannot go out of business is not the chief impetus for low-quality roads; rather, the fact that these departments face no competition is the primary nodus.

Without competition, the state’s roads departments can always rely on their apologists to offer the canard of “Think these roads are bad? Just imagine what they’d be like without the government’s involvement” in response to any questioning of the state’s competency in this arena. Unfortunately, the simple absence of an alternative to the state has proven time and again to be a powerful stimulus for people to accept, even grudgingly, what the state forces upon them—see, for example, people’s defenses of the police, the US Postal Service, and the military. Moreover, consider in schooling the fact that numerous alternatives to government schools do exist, yet people still argue along the lines of the earlier reasoning in defense of government schools (and roughly 85 percent of children in the US still attend such schools).

This lack of competition in nearly all state-controlled arenas means that the state actors bear little cost (no firings for not meeting customers’ needs, no bankruptcies, and no ability for customers to choose an alternative) and still receive benefits (pay, fringe benefits, and steady jobs), regardless of the outcomes of their actions. Citizens, on the other hand, bear nearly all the costs (taxes and vehicle repair costs resulting from road damage) and receive dubious and dispersed benefits (the roads do exist, such as they are).

Furthermore, no competition means few, if any, customer-centric features to differentiate one business from another. For instance, one private snow plowing company might offer early-bird service to have driveways and roads plowed by 5 a.m. for the morning commute while another company might offer an ice-free guarantee by assiduously salting.

On the other hand, no government roads department offers any such features or even a semblance of consistency. Do you have any guarantee that roads in your area will be plowed and safe by the time you head to work? Do you even know when the plows will be out so that you might plan accordingly? Even a basic concept such as communicating with customers is absent for the government monopoly because they simply have no reason to do otherwise. No competitors means no competitive features and lackluster service.

Conclusion

Although it may feel good to defend those government service providers whose work we can actually see—such as roads, police, and fire departments—the simple fact is that, without competition and with coercive funding, we will always reap suboptimal results. So, the real answer to the bromide of “Who will care for the roads?” should be “Any entrepreneurs interested in profiting by providing value.” Let’s do away with government monopolies and let those entrepreneurs get ready for the next snowfall.


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