Anarchy Road

A question often asked of anarchists is “How would roads be built in anarchy?” The short answer is “Roads would be built and maintained in as many ways as people found to work.”

In a previous column, I responded to the question of roads in anarchy by asking Who Would Maintain Roads Worse Than the State? But focusing on the failures of the state left little room for describing some examples of how roads might work in a stateless society.

One likely outcome is for many roads to be regarded as common property. Those who use them, particularly those whose livelihoods depend on their function, could enter into agreements of varying formality to maintain and set rules for their use. In A Plea For Public Property, Roderick Long describes a libertarian property-rights case for ownership by the unorganized public – “property that the public at large was deemed to have a right of access to, but without any presumption that government would be involved in the matter at all.”

The Tragedy of the Commons idea – that commonly-held property is inherently unstable because self-interested individuals would take as much as they could with no incentive to preserve the commons – has been shown to be false. As Elinor Ostrom and others have noted, individuals are capable of spontaneously developing rules for usage and abiding by them for common benefit. Recognizing the value of free movement, people in a libertarian society would likely consider the use of thoroughfares to be a freedom worth exerting personal effort to achieve.

In some cases, more recognizable forms of private ownership might be seen. A neighborhood cul-de-sac might be considered private property like a driveway or lawn. Local business associations might take responsibility for roads using arrangements that resemble private property.

The large highways constructed by the state, often at the expense of private property, have influenced human settlement for the foreseeable future and will not disappear overnight. To maintain and improve them, highway workers could set up companies and take control of the highways out of state hands.

There is no free rider problem with stateless roads. If people are perceived as freeloading they will suffer social costs. For example, individuals who think that a neighbor is not fulfilling his share of responsibility for road maintenance will be less likely to help him in other ways or to patronize services that he offers.

Disputes over road use could be resolved based on the purposes of the road and the goals of those who rightfully control it. Obstructing a road would infringe on the rights of other road owners and users. If the road is regarded as property to be used for a specific purpose then violating that purpose violates someone’s rights. But protests that block traffic should be regarded as escalations of disputes that need to be resolved, not as unlawful assemblies that need to be assaulted. Assemblies of vendors or friends would simply be cases of different uses to take into account. If the rules of the road were made by those who use the road, then things like speed limits and right-of-way would be more likely to be based on safety and convenience than on ticket revenue generation and creating a perception of control.

Organization and rules would not make road conventions into a state. As Kevin Carson describes in Society Versus the State, the state rests on the principle that it can do things outside of what would be considered the rights of an individual. The state engages in coercion and forcible expropriation on behalf of favored interests. The anarchist ideas in this column rest on figuring out the optimal way for those who use or maintain a particular road to have a say over how it operates.

Nevertheless it is necessary for libertarian thought – that which focuses on maximizing the liberty of each individual without infringing on the equal liberty of others – to be widely valued to prevent oppression from springing out of social or economic conventions to become the new political authority. But libertarian ideas need to be spread in order to get to a more libertarian society anyway.

Volumes of work could be written on different ways to organize roads without government. Arrangements discussed here are just some examples of how principles of liberty could be applied according to prevailing needs and tastes. The varied mechanisms that work in practice will be discovered through experimentation, cooperation, and competition in a free future.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory