That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
October 6, 2016

But how would you ...


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"But how would you build the roads?"

Is there a free-market anarchist or libertarian in the world who has not heard this question? Even as a Randian Objectivist limited-government-type, I heard it. Maybe even leftist anarchists hear it.

I want to know, Why? What is there about roads that commands such universal attention? Why not schools? Why not a military?

Of all the things we could be challenged on, it's the roads that seem to leap first into people's minds. Maybe it's because they use the roads every day.

Let me reply to the question in a few different ways. First, let's try some dialogue.

Road statist: But how would you build the roads?

Neff: Me? How would you build the roads?

RS: I don't know how to build roads.

N: Neither do I.

RS: But people in the government do.

N: No, they don't. They subcontract the work to people who know how.

RS: But they direct the work. They plan it.

N: No, they don't. They hire engineers and other people to design and plan the roads. They determine what the road should be made of and what it should look like, and where it should go.

RS: No, they don't. The state decides where the roads should go. The state gets the land that the contractors build on. The state supplies the money for paying the contractors.

N: Oh. I see. I think, then, what you asking me is something like this: Who will steal the money for paying contractors? From whom will they steal it? Who will steal the land roads are built on? And from whom will they steal it? I see. Well, if that's what it takes to build roads, I guess in a free society there just won't be any roads.

RS: But people will want roads. You can't just have a society without roads.

N: How bad?

RS: Huh?

N: How bad do people want roads?

RS: Well, bad enough to pay taxes for them.

N: So people want roads bad enough to pay for them.

RS: You could put it that way.

N: When people want something real bad, don't greedy trolls usually find a way to sell it to them?

RS: Sure they do.

N: Then that's who will build the roads.

RS: Who?

N: Greedy trolls.

RS: Where will they get the money?

N: They'll steal it.

RS: What? What are you talking about? I thought you were against stealing.

N: I am. But you're not.

RS: Don't be silly. Of course I am.

N: Then I ask you: How will you build the roads?

I think I'll stop there. Eventually the RS will decide that he is wasting his time by talking about this to me, and will move on to something else, like what happens if we're invaded by the Red Chinese, or something.

My more important point is this: "But how would you ..." is not an argument. If another person and I are discussing questions about the state — its legitimacy, whether it should even exist, its financing, things like that — "But how would you ..." is simply a change of subject.

If the state is illegitimate, how the roads are going to be built is an irrelevancy. Once it is determined what is right and what is wrong, a thinking person can turn his thoughts to how to do what is right. He will not persist in doing what he sees as wrong. (I hope.) The important point is: first figure out what is right.

Now, if you're one of those people who think that right and wrong aren't important, and that what works is what is important, then for now I don't have anything to say to you. We need to have a different conversation altogether — mostly about the logical incoherence of your views. But for those people who still think questions of right and wrong matter, "But how would you ..." is a question to be delayed until long after we have discussed "What should you do?"

"But how would you ..." is a question that may flatter the person being asked — Gee, I am so smart and so shrewd that I can see the future, and I understand all subjects that can possibly fit into the ellipsis. But if you're not the sort of person who is swayed by flattery — at least not very much — it's not going to have much impact on you. If you are, you may start to scratch your noodle and start wondering to yourself, "Well, heck, I never thought of that. How would I build the roads?"

As it happens, I confess that there was a brief time when I found myself swayed by such flattery when I was asked not how would I build the roads, but who would build the sidewalks.

I came up with a list:

(1) The same people who build the roads (and who have an economic interest in pedestrians' not getting killed on them). They might just "include" the charge for the sidewalks in the charging system by which they are paid for the roads. (Not a real helpful answer if you don't have any idea of who would pay for the roads. So let's move on.)

(2) Maybe the people who build residential developments. Wouldn't homes in a development with sidewalks command a better price than homes in developments without them?

(3) Maybe a homeowners' association.

(4) Maybe a toll business that wanted to set up a tollbooth to collect a fee from joggers every 10 feet. (This is silly, but I know it's the sort of thing most people imagine when they first hear about market sidewalks; and I think most of them suspect that's what people who believe in a really free market want. 'Cause we're morons.)

(5) Maybe merchants who would prefer to have customers who don't have to walk through mud.

(6) Maybe a merchants' association.

(7) Maybe insurance companies who wanted to keep injury claims to a minimum.

(8) Maybe philanthropists.

(9) Maybe advertising agencies who would figure that they could sell billboard space along them.

(10) Maybe a streetwalkers' professional association.

(11) Maybe Baptist churches whose deacons could patrol them to keep streetwalkers out of the neighborhood.

(12) Maybe Unitarians who wanted to keep Baptist deacons from interfering with streetwalkers.

(13) Maybe drug dealers who would figure they could accost pedestrians more easily and make impulse sales.

(14) Maybe a group of evangelical Methodists who wanted the right to pass out Four Spiritual Laws pamphlets to everyone who walked by them.

(15) Maybe the Salvation Army who wanted to have someplace to hold a parade every Saturday. ... Naaa. They're going to build the streets.

(16) Maybe artists who wanted to paint on them and become rich and famous when they're dead.

(17) Maybe sidewalk merchants (i.e., not people who sell sidewalks, but people who sell sunglasses, umbrellas, drug paraphernalia, and Roach Pruf from tables on sidewalks).

(18) Maybe Koreans who ran the convenience stores in ghettoes, who were sick and tired of the schwartzes (or whatever term they use) tracking mud in on their linoleum.

(19) Maybe 18 different sidewalks in an area would each be built by one of these methods.

You get the idea. I came up with those in about 20 minutes — including the time it took to type the list and proofread it. Sometimes to imagine this stuff you have to step off the idea-sidewalk and walk down the middle of the street.

Not only do I not know how sidewalks or roads would get built and paid for, but there's no reason in the world to suppose they all would be built and paid for by the same arrangements. Or the same people. Different sidewalks (and roads) have different purposes and serve a different clientele.

Keep in mind: the only thing government can do is organize capital for projects like this. Their distinctive method of organizing capital is to coerce it from those who have earned and saved it; then they transfer it to someone in the business of building sidewalks (who is presumably related to someone who controls the capital) who then builds them. Then they let them go to hell (the sidewalks, not the contractors or their in-laws) until someone needs a visible cause to help him get re-elected (presumably someone with a brother-in-law in the sidewalk-building business) or until they want to raise some taxes, and then they are fixed up.

Now let's look at who is actually "building" the roads.

It's an organization that has made no name for itself for frugality or prudent management and investing. I'm not going to try to list the boondoggles here, but I think it's pretty certain that a free-market road-building company is not going to spend very much money studying the mobility of crustaceans on tread machines. Or the obesity of lesbians. They're probably not going to invest very much money in the building of automobiles with batteries that will take you 55 miles and take 13 hours to recharge.

A free-market road-building firm is not going to have the ability to make me pay for their little hobby horses. And they're not going to be able to devalue the money I am using so that they can hide their waste and overcharges.

Even if you're not thrilled by the idea of a free market in road building, you may want to cast about to see whether you can find someone who's a little more thrifty and profit-oriented. I mean, how much do you actually want to spend on a road?

Then there's this: Did you ever read the Declaration of Independence? There's an interesting clause at the end that is worth keeping in mind, to wit:

"We, therefore ... do solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; ... and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do."

How about that. The first thing that states may "of right" do is to levy war. By the way, read it carefully; you won't find any mention of roads in it. For that matter, I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if you read John Locke, or Thomas Hobbes, or Montesquieu, or Plato, or Aristotle, you won't find any mention of roads. Or if you do, I'll bet it's not the first thing they say we need a state for.

I'll bet even St. Augustine doesn't say we need the state to build roads for us. And he's all about the common good.

I could be wrong. I haven't done a thorough search. Anyone who finds such a mention is invited to write me to bring it to my attention. I will be sure to cast all my future writings to take account of the reference.

But back to war. In the wars Americans have fought (including the one they fought against each other), there have been at least 1.2 million deaths — battle deaths and non-battle theater and non-theater deaths.

Is that who you want building your roads? It sounds like an organization that doesn't have much regard for the lives of its own citizens.

You might want someone who has some kind of vested interest in your staying alive. You might think that the state — which needs taxpayers — would have an interest in your staying alive. But when you look at the war statistics, you just have to think they're using a different accounting system. Ω

October 6, 2016

Published in 2016 by WTM Enterprises.

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