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  • Writer's pictureAlan Stevens - AWAH - Libertarianism, Freedom.

Owning the Street where You Live

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

Libertarians are often asked how private ownership of local streets could either be justified or managed.  Private ownership would bring benefits in financial, aesthetic and security terms.  Any potential ‘non-payers’ might well have to be ‘Boycotted’.

Libertarians are often asked how private ownership of local streets could either be justified or managed.  Private ownership would bring benefits in financial, aesthetic and security terms.  Any potential ‘non-payers’ might well have to be ‘Boycotted’.

A common question is, what happens to the ownership of the roads in a free society.  Especially what happens about roads at the hypothetical moment when the state vanishes?

This usually crops up when people hear that, in libertarian terms, the state is simply code for a criminal association claiming judicial immunity from being sued for its theft and bullying.  It secures this immunity by controlling a monopoly on judgement and enforcement.  This then prevents the victims of the state approved thieves and bullies from getting justice. In other words, it is an idea that is well worth dispensing with.

A moment of apparent surprise often occurs after this fairly simple point is made.  If people are willing to engage with our courageous libertarian advocate, they will first start to recite a whole list of services – health, education, transport infrastructure, scientific research, welfare – which they incorrectly believe would not exist in a free society. 

These activities would of course not only exist but be done better and more cheaply on a competitive basis.  There would not be the inefficiencies and cost-plus rackets that characterise state monopolies.  One cannot blame people for not knowing that these things were actually done by private initiative historically.  The state-defined education curriculum is unlikely to explain that, for obvious reasons, is it?  Which is why we will have to wait until governments have properly discredited themselves.  To be fair they are diligently making as much of a mess of things as possible at the moment.

Objections from obviously self-interested state supporters need to be ignored.  You weaken yourself by trying convince those who would not listen.  Famously, you can’t explain anything to a man, or woman, whose income depends on their not understanding it.

This, by the way, is why libertarian ideas (and separately and unfortunately totalitarian ideas) will be making headway in the next few years.  Incomes which are derived from upholding the current Social Democratic set-up will be falling in value.  The state pay-cheques may keep coming but they won’t buy much.  Different ideas are going to be of more interest to more people soon.    

Back to the roads then.  The more serious minded and indeed intellectually open questions about the practicality of libertarianism will often home in on the roads.  These are currently provided free at the point of use by the state. They are an easy topic for everyone to feel they understand.  They represent the most obvious and one of the biggest elements of the state’s domain.   And they are, as it were, close to home.

The first move is to put to one side the question of what one might call public inter-settlement roads, i.e. highways.  These were provided and/or maintained by private initiative in Britain and America, as were railways, canals and docks (see my June 25th post ‘Transport in Britain without the State’).  Indeed, in many countries there still are state hybrid toll roads and turnpikes.  Airports too could obviously be privately provided in a free society, probably by airlines, which would make sense.  So far so good.

The issue is the street where you live, and neighbouring streets, in built up areas?  How does that work outside of state control?  It is indeed something of a three-pipe problem, as Sherlock Holmes would say.  But hopefully we can bring order to the question, and paint a picture of a better, libertarian future. 

As part of my support for the cause of secession from the EU, I managed to get elected as a County Councillor to serve for four years.  By chance, therefore, I had to do with local roads in my division.  That was because, for no particular reason, most roads have usually been the responsibility of the counties in the UK.  These counties are big administrative units which are tens of miles across and contain many hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.  Their management accordingly can seem rather distant from the point of view of homeowners.

Roads are one of the few things that the county does that impact everybody.  But they were a small part of the Council’s expenditure.  Political incentives seemed to work in the direction of neglecting the roads.  It may have been deemed necessary to make them look ‘underfunded’ to be able to get ad hoc extra central government capital grants for the roads. 

This seemed to me, as an ‘opposition’ Councillor, to happen particularly often just ahead of elections.  But it just might be because UK elections generally happen in late spring around the time that government departments are throwing money around in order to use their budgets up in order to claim more next year. Anyway, the big ‘social’ spending fiefdoms in the council were able to avoid retrenching to fund the roads properly.

Certainly, the roads were not managed economically so as to maximise their useful life.  The roads had instead been allowed to become more and more dilapidated.  The volume of complaint and disenchantment about the Council was great.  And it fell on our not quite deaf ears as Councillors.

It didn’t help that the road work was in the hands of a county wide maintenance department, which had been subcontracted out as a privatized monopoly provider of repairs.  Suffice to say that I found it easy to see why streets might be more effectively managed by residents or their agents than centrally by the state.

An initial improvement might have been to let each local town or parish council look after their own roads.  Local accountability and local knowledge would be better.  And with more separate road owners the road maintenance market would automatically contain more independent, competitive and cost-effective outfits. That would be better than a small number of sub-regional monopolies.

Some communities in a free society might look quite like a small town with the equivalent of a town council acting as the manager of all streets in the community.  In a future libertarian society, it is likely that there would be separate communities which would restrict residence to people meeting certain criteria (see June 15th post ‘Let my People go – to our own CHAZ’).  In such cases arrangements for managing streets would be stipulated by the town operator or developer before businesses or residents bought or rented their properties.

What preoccupies most people is what would happen to existing streets if the state stepped back.  Who should own them?  What would the benefits be?  And what would happen about residents who tried to be ‘free-riders’ who would not participate in the maintenance expense? There are many different aspects to the use of streets and the whole question of who has access to what. 

For example, many houses in Britain do not have room for two cars (or even one) to park on the property. One very important use of local streets is not for driving along but for parking.  Residents want to have parking spaces on the road.  They don’t want ‘their’ space (which they don’t own) taken by people from outside the street, except if they are invitees – delivery vans or cars belonging to friends and relatives.  Nor do they want the road blocked by other residents’ and invitees’ badly parked cars. They may want their children to be able to play in the road, or they may want others’ children not to play there.

Then there are non-residents who nevertheless also want to use the road, including any footpaths.  These include innocent through traffic, vehicles and pedestrians, using the road to get to legitimate activities in other streets.  There may also be street vendors such as ice cream vans, or less welcome, prostitutes and/or illegal drug dealers.  Burglars and thieves also rely on easy access and exit along local streets. 

There is even an immigration component to the streets. Western politicians are encouraging in effect an invasion by third world migrants with few skills.  This is vastly facilitated by access to the entire domain of state-owned property including schools, libraries, hospitals, but most of all the roads linking them together.

Entities like the EU and the Democratic party are particularly keen to swamp their productive first world citizens with migrant voters willing to support more intervention in return for more welfare. A certain proportion of migrants will be attracted by opportunities to engage in crime. Peaks of immigration tend to be accompanied by crime waves.  The existence of state- controlled road networks enable migrants to literally penetrate countries against the will, for the most part, of productive members of society.

So, there is really a lot going on, on the currently state-owned roads.  Not all of it is well managed, coherent or good.  As well as raising a lot of access and control issues, streets are expensive to maintain, especially if you think every road and street should always have a perfect heavy-duty sheen of impeccable asphalt paid for by taxpayers.  But if the council can’t or won’t maintain such standards, then residents are left fuming without recourse.  Dilapidated asphalt roads are ugly. They pull down local property values, damage cars, and attract antisocial behaviour.  

When I was a Councillor, I was involved in trying to implement a parking scheme which had been in the works for some years already.  I learned much, including how much waste and inertia has been inserted into the public sector by well-meant but ill-thought out regulations.  Changing anything much on a street involves about £10,000 of legal and compliance costs per scheme.  The actual cost of the works could be much less - maybe just several hundred or a few thousand pounds for material and labour.

Cleverly, my predecessor had bundled four separate schemes into one, thus spreading a single lump of the ‘compliance cost’ absorbed by the bureaucracy.  Whatever the reason, progress was very slow.  The main issue was parking.  Outsiders understandably parked in the roads nearest the commuter railway station and the shops.  Residents in the closest roads suffered because of these extra cars.  The pressure was on to restrict parking on these roads, in the clear knowledge that the poor commuters and shoppers or shopworkers would simply have to park a bit further away on the still unrestricted roads up the hill. 

A number of points sprang to mind.  First of all, there was no mechanism for residents to benefit from managing their streets. They would even get charged by the Council for participating in a residents parking scheme.  They could not sell parking places on ‘their’ street to outsiders.  And yet they could have been worth hundreds or thousands of pounds annually to the right buyers.  And they had no way to influence how expensively maintained their street should be.  They could only lobby me to get the general taxpayer to pay for possibly excessive road repair standards and costs. 

I noticed that in all the excitement I had never heard from one of the roads up the hill.  It was still a private road.  It had never been ‘adopted’ by the Council.  Private roads already exist.  It had a tidy, probably less expensive, gravel surface and none of the ugliness of modern street design and signage.  It did have an understated white painted sign saying ‘Private Road’ and ‘No Parking’.  The little road exuded a good humoured but steely confidence that there would indeed be no trespassers, no unwelcome visitors of any kind.  I suggested to some residents that they take their roads private too.  But as long as the state might do the work at someone else’s expense this was not an attractive enough idea.

How much better it would be if residents did own their streets.  Legally many house plots front boundaries do indeed extend across the street to its midline.  It’s just a question of ‘un-adopting’ those streets. In other cases, it would be wise for residents to band together to buy their streets to ensure their own access.   In a free society, everything is private property (which itself is the very basis of liberty). 

Incidentally that means that any incomer or migrant must secure at least one property owner’s permission to exist in a territory at all.  He must in effect be sponsored or able to contribute, i.e. pay his way, from the start.  Mass invasion by government sponsored welfare seeking migrants simply could not occur in conditions of liberty.

At the moment, the road outside your house is a bureaucratically managed no-man’s land which brings aggravation and excessive – if indirect – cost.  It is also a point of vulnerability allowing potential threats and nuisances to get to your property without challenge until they are at your gate.  

All this would change for the better when streets are no longer in the hands of government. Your street could become a source of safety and even profit. Resident management of the streets would do much to create islands of sociability and co-operation, which are sadly absent in many places. Such islands in turn could become building blocks of a genuine , and general, revival of local civic life.

Residents, the new owners of each local road or town streets, would be able to properly manage their roads (or they might band together to manage groups of roads or streets).  They could create and allocate parking places and/or rent them out to outsiders.  They could choose the most suitable type and standard of road surface.  Residents could choose their own rather prettier signage, and provide for street lighting.  Speed limits could be set and altered with little fuss.   

Private ownership of streets could encourage or discourage through traffic by charging tolls collected via apps on telephones.  Mobile phones can already tell what speed limits govern every bit of road so tolls for each street could be input too. Cheating cars, without toll apps, could be identified and their owners sued for trespass (it is an open and shut NAP violation case) in the new, low cost and fast reaction, competing courts.  Once the road is the residents’ property it is much easier to discourage unwelcome visitors.

If a street has serious enough security concerns, arrangements could be made to pre-identify residents’ and visitors’ cars.  Warnings could be set up if cars with no pre-clearance authorisation attempt to loiter.  Motion detectors and cameras on door bells can do much of the work.  Surveillance is a lot less Orwellian in a free society where there is no state, no criminal association, attempting to rob or bully you.  Unwelcome cars or pedestrians can simply be asked to leave.  Again, if they are there without authorisation, they are simply trespassers under the Non-Aggression Principle.

Alright, but what if people cannot agree on how to manage the road?  In particular what if some people won’t share the costs of street maintenance?   Non payers may have agreed to pay up, as part of their original property purchase, or at the time when the streets went private.  It would then be a simple matter of the residents’ association or their road manager agent taking the would be free-rider to court – a much quicker and easier process than it is now.

If there was no prior agreement making the recalcitrant resident liable for his share of road costs, then it is time to introduce the very libertarian concept of the Boycott.  Under the key libertarian NAP principle, no person may initiate violence against anybody or anybody’s justly acquired goods.  But people can refuse to deal with people or businesses of whom they disapprove. 

They can most certainly deny people the right to pass over their land.  It is likely that the whole street will now be privately owned, either as part of each house plot or as a separately (perhaps communally) owned piece of property. 

It is not a good idea, especially in a free country, to act sufficiently antisocially to upset every surrounding property owner.  You might find you can’t actually travel to and from your property.  At which point coming to some sort of understanding, if only about the need for immediate departure, would quickly be worked out.  Suffice it to say that ways and means would be found to make private ownership and operation of local streets practicable.  And the benefits in terms of nicer and safer streets could be considerable.

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