Libertarian Road Safety


by Daniel Harding

In this post, I’m going to discuss how private roads can be made safe for drivers, motorcyclists, and other road users. First of all, when I say ‘road safety’ here, I mean the use of rules to determine how someone travelling on a road should use it to avoid as much danger as is possible. Now even for a die-hard libertarian who hates the state, it must be admitted that roads need to have some rules applied to them; speed rules in particular. How then do we achieve this without each private road applying rules to the property in a subjective manner that leads to confusion and chaos?

The answer is insurance, which must and would have an even bigger presence in a free society. Ownership of a road with many users is a big responsibility, and the market would surely allow for roads to be insured against damage from natural causes as well as from collisions. Such insurance would naturally be a commonplace purchase for most owners of roads.

It is natural of insurance companies to want to reduce their costs as much as possible to avoid having to pay out in the case of claims, so it is certain that they would want to impose rules on the use of road to avoid as much risk of collisions, injuries and deaths as possible. Now obviously this leaves the problem that each road would likely have rules that are specific to that particular place, which returns us to our original problem, the confusion of a road user who has one set of rules on one stretch of road, and another set of rules on the next. However, although each road is individual and needs specific rules for use, most roads obviously share traits with others, such as motorways, urban roads, and country roads. These similarities mean that insurance companies can create standardized sets of rules that apply to all roads of a certain class (motorway, urban, country). Sharing information between insurance companies is common practice, and is beneficial for all of them to avoid risk; therefore, we can also assume that extensive research would be done to discover the best way to manage roads so that risk is avoided and payouts are being made as little as possible.

The beauty of the idea discussed in this post is that the same rules also apply to things like personal defense (protection from those who would do harm to your person and property). This idea is a very useful way of thinking when discussing a free society, as it can help you to discover the way in which many things would work in a free society that are very different from the way they are now under democratic (communist-lite) big government.

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10 comments

  • “You are now entering The Great North Road PLC. Standard rules apply”.

  • It is indeed up to the owner of the road to see that they as safe as is practical. And it would be in the interests of road owners to do so.

    Such roads should (of course) either be owned by private making companies, or by charitable trusts. Some roads being (most likely) for-profit and some charitable trusts (like the old Turn Pike Trusts).

    Modern technology (rather than old toll bars) being used.

    What the exact mix would be between road, rail, canal and air – I do not know.

    It depends on civil interaction – the voluntary actions of people and private associations.

    Private insurance (both commercial and fraternal – “friendly society”) would indeed be important.

  • The interesting question is whether an entirely privately owned road system is going to produce the troubling effect that somebody could be imprisoned in their house by the owners barring them from their road. Or what happens if your road is purchased by a Muslim organisation who require women to wear burkas?

    I’m not arguing against the article. These are however questions that a sceptic might ask, and it’s worth considering how we would answer them.

    • Hey, I’d never thought of those. But in the case of the road purchased by a kind of organisation that I cannot name here for fear of committing a religious hate-crime: most or all all the businesses upon it would flee instantly, rendering his road so unprofitable (because nobody would go on it) that he’d go bust. Then, all the Halal ones that he’d coerce into coming in, would all not earn enough money since he can’t charge them usury or “proper rent” and…he’d go bust. Perhaps not quite as fast, but bust he would go.

      • True, but that would presume that our road owner is home economicus. If he’s more interested in something other than maximal profit, he might well find it a useful purchase. When the public square becomes the private square, you’ve got a pretty powerful tool for implementing a cultural hegemony.

    • Actually Walter Block addresses some of these at least from memory. For instance, if there weren’t a contract to allow access to the road for as long as someone was living in an adjoining property, why would they buy it? If there was, and it was changed after the agreement, that itself would be a cause for action and (Block at least) believes that the idea that you cannot block someone off from their rightful property (or “homestead a donut”) can be easily argued on the basis of the NAP such that no sensible adjudicator would rule in favour of a blockading road owner. Similarly if new conditions were attempted to be imposed (the women in burkas example) and they make it unreasonably difficult to get to or from your property how you want without harming someone it would be argued as a change in the contract affecting the enjoyment of one’s property (the now cut off home). I’ve not read “Privatisation of Roads and Highways” just some of his articles on it, so assume there’s much more thought about this sort of thing in the book itself.

      • Surely though Jock, you’ve then got the problem of the law forcing a property owner (the owner of the road) to allow access to their property by somebody else on some sort of vague “positive right to get around” principle. This doesn’t seem compatible with Libertarianism or the NAP either. You will end up then with judges making the “rules of the road”, rather than its owner.

        It’s basically the same issue as forcing a baker to sell gay wedding cake to gays, because if he doesn’t their “right to wedding cake” is being infringed. Whose rights are paramount?

  • I don’t think it’s at all like the wedding cake thing.

    First, let’s get over the access issue rather than rules of the road specifically. You would agree that you would not buy a property with no access (or would be highly unlikely to at least – I suppose a heli-pad on a seastead platform or something you would – but you’d still want secure landing, and possibly take off from somewhere, else agreements). More than that, it’s a contract for access that you (both) agree to.

    You’d also not buy that property without knowing that you could pass such easement rights on to a future new occupier. I mean this happens all the time already with those roads, what are they called, “development roads”, no I think not – anyway, I have one near me – private road where the landowners adjacent own and are responsible for their stretch of road and could technically block access to other properties down the street.

    And, as Randy Barnett, I think, would say, the “contract is the law”. It’s not vague – you simply wouldn’t buy the property without it, and any change to it would have to be subject to agreement also, else challengeable in arbitration.

    So, would such a challenge be upheld or dismissed? Well, if one is a “propertarian” type, and believes that one’s property is an extension of onesself, then the NAP applies to the use of your property as well as what you do. So to use your property to damage someone’s “peaceful enjoyment” of their property would also be initiating aggression, which one would hope any arbitrator would put a stop to.

    That’s not to say you could try to impose all sorts of conditions, just as other institutions in the statist world today also impose similar restrictions (such as on women outside without a veil). One could even imagine a part of Tower Hamlets, or Leicester, in a similar way to the Golders Green Jewish Community, could set up stricter religious origin rules, but if access and rights of easement contracts were already in place they’d need to get agreement from everyone, make exceptions for some, or maybe buy them out.

    I seem to recall reading plenty of libertarian authors who talk about how denying someone a service is not an act of aggression because they have no right (like the gay wedding couple) to demand you use your property to satisfy them (no NAP). But equally you have no right to use your property in an active (and maybe even just a negligent) sense to damage the property of another (NAP). That’s why the two are different.

  • Ian.

    It is an old principle of Common Law that one can not imprison someone by buying land in a circle round them.

    Just as one can not deny someone light and air (or pollute their air or water supplies) by blocking out the sun, or throwing nasty stuff into the air or water on one’s property (before it goes on to their property). Or damage their hearing (etc) with noise

    One does not have to reinvent the wheel on these matters.

    The worst a private owner could do is the following…

    “What do you mean I have imprisoned you? I have even provided a bridge (at my own expense) so that you can take your tractor over my road to your fields. Oh you want to drive your car on my road? Well you can not – because I hate you”.

    That actually would be lawful – in Common Law.

    As long as the car could be driven from the house and then off into the fields (where other access roads are theoretically possible) there is no tort.

    So Jack Coats is correct on that point.

    Of course no farmer would be forced to sell his land to a road developer (not in a free society) – so a farmer could (if bloody minded) insist on a road avoiding his whole farm (not just avoiding his farm house).

    However, I think a large bag of gold would convince most farmers to be reasonable.

  • Jock and Paul, thanks. Those are better answers than I would have thought of on my own. I’m not so good on the legal stuff (if indeed I am good on anything).

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