Why the Government Sucks at Building Roads

A common phrase you’ll hear amongst libertarian circles is “But without government who will build the roads?!” This phrase is a sarcastic remark meant to poke fun at statists who cannot conceive of an alternative to government transportation infrastructure. While statists continue to claim that government is necessary to build and maintain roads, us libertarians are asking why government roads suck so much.

As I mentioned yesterday, Minnesota has a lot of dilapidated bridges. Anybody who drives the roads around here knows that bridges aren’t the only part of our automobile infrastructure that sucks. Some roads are so full of potholes that I feel as though the off-road package on my Ranger is necessary when traveling on the roads. No tax increases or surpluses seem to change anything. What’s the problem?

The problem is incentives. Statists scoff at the idea of private roads but the fact of the matter is private entities that derive profits from roads have an incentive to maintain those roads. Businessed, for example, want to make it as easy as possible for customers to get to them. Organizations that own highways want to provide motorists the best experience possible so they’ll keep coming back. Governments have no such incentives.

The two biggest problem with government roads are monopolization and mandatory payments. In many states the government maintains a near monopoly on road infrastructure. This is done through regulations that make building roads illegal or prohibitively expensive. Regulations usually take the form of outright bans, building permits, property taxes, arbitrary environmental restrictions, etc. Effectively the state declares a monopoly for itself on any notable infrastructure. If people living in a state need access to roads and don’t like what the state has provided they have no alternatives so there is no concern that users will go elsewhere. Even if users stopped using the roads they’re still required to pay for them. Taxes, after all, aren’t voluntary. Using private roads to get around wouldn’t exempt you from paying the state gas tax when you filled up your tank. Property and sales taxes, which are sometimes used in addition to gas taxes to build infrastructure, are also not optional.

When an alternative can’t exist and you have to pay for something regardless there is no incentive for the provider to make you happy. Motorists weren’t able to go to a different provider when the 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed due to government negligence because there were no alternatives. Minnesotans also didn’t receive a discount on their taxes as compensation for being unable to utilize the bridge. In fact Minnesotans were expected to pay more. How’s that for an incentive? If the state government neglected more bridges to the point of collapse it could then demand even more tax money.

There are no shortages of entrepreneurs who want to build roads so the idea that nobody will build them if the government doesn’t is preposterous. The real question is what incentive does the state have to provide motorists with quality infrastructure?