The Recovery of Stolen Roads

by: Jim Davies

Imagine freedom! (To borrow Stormy Mon’s title.) Government has vanished, and everyone celebrates – for everyone has learned what a catastrophe it has been for the human race, during the last ten thousand years. Everyone looks forward to controlling his or her own life, for the first time ever. But right away, we’ll face the huge though one-time task of clearing up the mess.

That mess has several dimensions, and one of them is to handle what was formerly known as “government property.” Buildings, computer systems, roadways, forests, nuclear missiles, fighters, bombers, tanks, carriers, etc. etc. ad nauseam. Once, to offer help to Harry Browne as he was writing his 1995 campaign book Why Government Doesn’t Work, I tried to estimate the market value of the assets of the Federal Government alone, and it was formidably difficult. Not least was the problem of what one assumes about how those assets might be sold: were they to be brought to market gradually over a decade or two, or would a fire sale be held during a single month? – huge difference, in potential proceeds. Eventually Harry settled on an estimate of $12 trillion – and in 1995, a trillion dollars was so big as to be hard to imagine. Those were the days!

Not least among the difficulties is the conceptual one of defining what “government property” is, anyway. “Property” consists of stuff with an owner, some person or group of persons with a right to control its use. But “government,” like “public,” isn’t a group of persons; it’s a legal fiction. Therefore it cannot actually own anything. Therefore “government property” is an oxymoron. Suppose the IRS Headquarters building was auctioned and sold; to whom, exactly, would the proceeds be paid, given that government (which was always a legal fiction anyway) had altogether ceased to exist? The “public”? We begin to see how tricky it gets.

One class of these assets is roads – apparently “owned” and operated by all three levels of government. Most of them are very useful and would need to continue in operation in the new, free society. That being so, somebody would have to own them – to operate them for profit as private property. So apparently, titles would have to be created, and to pass. How?

There is yet another layer of difficulty, unique to roads: those assets are not merely useful, they are vital. Imagine that a road system in a town is acquired by a newly formed company, Acme Roads. Its business will be to maintain them, here and there to retire them, elsewhere to build profitable extensions, and offer their use under contract to those wishing to travel. At the point of intersection with other private properties (many thousands of them) there will be points of access to Acme’s roads. Pay the fee, gain the access. Decline to pay it, stay home – absent a helicopter in the back yard. Acme thereby instantly gains enormous control over the town’s residents; it has a monopoly. Conceivably, it might use that power to deny travel rights to those it does not like, for example people with red hair, dark skin, or weird opinions. Oops! – this is not quite what was meant by “freedom”!

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