Saturday, 10 May 2014

Who will build the Roads?

The title of this post causes many people with free market views to tear their hair out. The free market revolutionised global telecommunications, built the vast complex Internet we now know today and has banished starvation for many in the developed world. Laying down some tarmac? We need a Government. Who else could possibly perform such a vital and complex function for society. One of the most important philosophical concepts to understand regarding human economic freedom is its spontaneous creative nature. Just because you can not envisage an alternative world where entrepreneurs, not state planners build roads, does not mean there are not more efficient means to building such infrastructure like we are used to seeing. Not only could a free market build roads but they could do it far better than any Government.

Roll back 30 years. We had phone lines. The Internet existed but lay dormant for decades, used solely by Government Agencies with no consumer services. Visionaries saw the potential - what if we connected everyone's computer? No one knew how this could be done. Who was going to pay for the infrastructure? Who was going to build the applications? Who was going to invent the technology to deliver the content? Who was going to build this new Global Information "Highway"? Surely the cost of such operation would never take off, it would be far too expensive for people to bother with? 

So the Entrepreneurs, Venture Capitalists and Angel Investors set to work with their time, money and passion. The pioneers bore all the costs, that of money and time to get this going, we didn't have to pay a dime. Early adopters stepped in and began using such systems but at very high costs. Computers costing thousands of dollars with Internet Connections making funny sounds down your phone line at blistering speeds of 14K or lower. All the while the people with no vision, the same people who can't see how roads could be built by a free market proclaimed "It's too hard to use", "Its too expensive", "Its too slow", "It has no use" and so on. We must remember these were real complaints made in the past by the majority. Many other claims were made. Ethernet can not go faster than 1Mbs, it will never scale, Voice over IP will never have the quality of fixed line telephony and so on; the technical complaints kept coming. 

We now know that all these concerns proved false. Never underestimate human ingenuity. What can I currently consume for a £10-20 month internet connection in the present time frame as I write this article on a second hand £60 computer? Unlimited email, video (HD) content, the complete library of humanities knowledge, Instant communication, News as it happens. I can sell my house, my car, get a job, book a holiday, insure my dog and literally shop for everything and anything from the comfort of my armchair. Now that's free market value. Value that was created by economic freedom devoid of state planning. The developed world are not the only ones who have benefited. It has exposed numerous totalitarian states with no respect for human rights making such regimes more transparent. Google and Facebook now plan to roll out free Internet access to Africa. They may be connecting a whole continent for the selfish reason to get new users but those people will gain access to one of the most important tools ever developed for humanity. 

If we had economic freedom in the road business then I can guarantee you they would be in far better shape then they are now. Just as we now know the information highway lay dormant until peoples imagination and freedoms were allowed to transform it into one of the greatest tools.

Many people assume that toll roads will be required, that people won't able to access certain geographic locations because they will be denied access. As can be seen from the example above, people could have assumed that high speed internet access would only ever be for the rich but is now even accessible for people on their mobile phones. I can't possibly propose what form road networks would take under the free market as I can't predict the millions of creative minds out there, but I know there are a lot of vested interests in maintaining good roads. For example:
  • Retailers - Physical retailers rely on making it as convenient as possible for people to come buy goods in their stores, after all they now have to compete with online shopping. They don't want people stuck in traffic jams or high toll road costs to put people off. Similar to making private shopping centres a pleasant environment they would also wish to make roads as efficient as possible. 
  • Car makers - Without roads these companies go out of business. Car makers have a large incentive to make driving a pleasurable experience and to make roads as accessible as possible to all consumers. Who wants to buy a budget car, the bulk of the market, if they think roads are too expensive to drive on?
  • Distributors - Think of the wall-marts of the world who have massive distribution costs. Think of how these guys have streamlined their distribution system to remove any inefficiencies. Now think if they were given that freedom with roads. Lots of great ideas would enter the space along with capital. They don't want poor quality roads damaging their vehicles or traffic jams slowing down delivery times.
  • Private Businesses - All our workplaces rely on people getting there by car. No business wants to see their employees come in to work an hour late and tired. They want them there as soon as possible and fresh for the days challenges.
  • Bus companies/private taxis - Traffic jams do not help profits. Many smaller companies who offer transportation services would also face the same challenges.
How all of this would be funded is like asking how will the Internet be funded in the early 90's. It has to be left to human ingenuity to solve such issues. Advertising? Companies could pay to sponsor a road, the BMW bypass? A company would want to ensure it was a quality road to uphold their image. Road subscriber fees to end users based on mileages similar to buying Internet packages from Internet Subscriber Providers (introducing the concept of consumer demand)? Maybe over time roads would be free for the poorest. Premium services could be provided to power users, similar to many computer services such as email. Who knows. I am neither an expert in the field nor do I have the talent or the creative imagination that many others will have.

Railways were initially completely funded by the free market. Huge expanses of track were laid by private investors. They did this from prices, consumer demand and had the freedom to do so. It wasn't the mess of a railway system we see today after years of state interference. It was a marvel at the time, holidays to the seaside for the first time, allowing people to live in the suburbs for the first time. A great liberator.

I know there are lots of suppressed Entrepreneurs out there who are waiting to transform the road business but have a hard time even getting funding or started due to the Governments monopoly provider status. Some people still try. Instead of using asphalt, engineers are now proposing using pre-fabricated slabs to try make roads more robust and easier to maintain. Instead of having road works that take months how about days? How about just at night then the road is re-laid for busy periods? How about less human labour, more automation and thus lower prices for consumers?

97% of city pavements are asphalt because it's cheapest to put down and easy to dig through if you need to access utilities. Asphalt lasts 7-15 years but needs service every couple years. Patches are easy, but low quality. Concrete lasts 25-35 years but has a cure time, is tougher to fix, and harder to get to utilities. Our products should last 50 years with minimal service or maintenance, and it's fairly easy to remove and replace a slab if need be. We have utility access slabs that can go over utilities so that you can pull out the piece, fix the problem, and put the same piece back in. 
I just got tired of the constant resurfacing. The formative moment was probably when I spent an entire summer driving down the wrong side of the highway because they were reconstructing the other lanes - only for it to start snowing, and they had to re-do the grade again in the spring. It just seemed obvious to me that they could build the pieces for the road off-site then assemble them on-site like they do for bridges & buildings.

Of course, it took a long time to get from there to here.

I don't know if this will succeed or if it is even a good idea. There are probably a dozen competing ideas out there and thousands more to be explored. All I do know is that human prosperity is built by failures and by people trying different ideas. To have failures and to try ideas you need complete economic freedom with no central authority, no monopoly and no select committee. 

Always have faith in humans. Socialists and Statists mislead you to believe that people can't solve societies problems and you need the state there to provide core services. It used to be food, clothes, manufactured products, cars and so forth. When it became clear to many that this was not the case; that the free market was doing a far better job the Government repositioned itself into having you to believe that healthcare, education, money, laws and so forth needed a Government; and of course who will build the roads! I propose people will build roads. Free people. No monopoly. The public as individual consumers will decide who will build our roads not a small set of central planners with little accountability. Just like the information highway was built now known now as the Internet, our transport highway has so much unseen potential. We just need to release the human mind to create it.

1 comment:

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