I’ve been on a road trip from Chicago to the east coast and back, and along the way I’ve been looking for something I can make into a libertarian lesson. For example, I could write about the poor selection of products at the rest stops along the limited access turnpike, which is an illustration of the problems that come with a government-created monopoly. There are probably a couple of other things like that. But what I finally settled on is the roads themselves.

The highways, expressways, interstates, turnpikes, toll roads, and back roads are all government-built. From time-to-time, this fact leads to someone trotting out a criticism of libertarianism that basically goes something like this:

You’re a libertarian, right? But you use roads, right? Gotcha. Roads are built by governments! Paid for by taxes! Ha, ha! Stupid libertarians.

Yeah, Einstein, you got us. We use roads that are built by the government and funded through taxation. You have totally pwned us, and we are now powerless to object to your beloved government’s regulation of vehicle fuel economy, seat belts, air bags, window tinting, and motorcycle helmets. Also banking, credit cards, investments, stock and commodity markets, corporate leave policies, accounting rules, hiring policies, agricultural production, and net neutrality. And then there’s gambling, drugs (both medical and recreational), liquor, prostitution, obscenity, television and radio content, and cash transaction reporting.

And don’t forget roofing tiles, lawn maintenance, campaign contributions, high school and college athletics, residential rents, taxicabs licenses, beautician licenses, florist licenses, cable television monopolies, tariffs, immigration quotas, zoning, landmarks, employment policies, and whether or not gas stations can have locking pump handles.


Just because there are some government activities that are legitimate and useful doesn’t mean that you get to sneak all the rest of that bullshit past us.

About Mark:
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.
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  1. Posted June 29, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Roads are actually a good argument for libertarianism. Because the government is indeed good at big brute-force applications like building highway systems and conducting wars, it tends to view everything as soluble by application of brute force. Since its only tool is a hammer, it runs around pounding everything, which is why so many government campaigns are described as “wars”…and conducted as such.

    • Posted June 29, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s not so much that the government is good at building highways and conducting wars, but that the free market is bad at those things. Free markets only produce goods and services that people will pay for, and people won’t pay for things they can get for free. So if all of my neighbors buy the national defense product, I can safely opt out, because there’s no way to defend them without also defending me.

      But if everyone thinks that way, we have no national defense at all. You could have private roads — some places do — but you’d need toll booths to control access, which would be a horrible mess if there are hundreds of interacting road owners. Or else it would be a crushing government-like monopoly if they have a single owner. However, just because command economies are better than free markets at some things, doesn’t mean they’re an all-purpose solution any more than the free market is.

      (Economists generally have a pretty clear idea what markets are good at, so the lines are not that hard to draw, although I should mention that anarcho-libertarians have a variety of ideas for free-market solutions to problems like roads, police, and national defense, but I’m not convinced.)

  2. Posted June 29, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget when the government stops by to issue you a condemnation notice when it decides that its “public good” should run through your living room.

    • Posted June 29, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      I meant to put that in there. What can I say? I was in a hurry and those were the first things I thought of.

  3. bob l
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    And, actually, the government itself builds no roads; it only cuts the redistribution checks to the private contractors who do.

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