Much has already been made about how the scandal surrounding the September closures of the George Washington Bridge will affect New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s chances for a future run at the presidency. Despite all of the attention that 2016 has received, however, it’s worth noting that this fiasco actually invites a far more interesting and important conversation—one that centers on how we handle the issue of the roads, in general, within our society and whether or not that system is in need of some changes.
Roads are often used as prototypical examples of “public goods,” meaning that their use is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous. A good is non-excludable if, like national defense, streetlamps and lighthouses, it is costly or tough to keep non-payers from accessing it. A good is non-rivalrous if, like radio waves, fresh air and knowledge, we can’t really consume or use it up. Goods fulfilling both of these criteria can suffer from free-rider problems and, it is thought, do not lend themselves to market-based distribution mechanisms. The apparent existence of public goods is often considered a market failure, and many such goods end up distributed or regulated by the government.
Although the market and the government are often portrayed as antagonistic toward each other, it is more illuminating to see these two distinct modes of social order as evolutionary institutions, which have arisen over time from our interest in coordinating citizens’ wishes, allocating and economizing on resources and resolving interpersonal disputes. The market and the government, which sometimes compete with and sometimes complement one another, generally take different approaches to the same set of problems. The freest and most efficient markets we know typically rely on price systems and profit-and-loss mechanisms to allocate resources across time and space, whereas the freest and most effective governments we know usually place greater emphasis on democratic and egalitarian participation. If markets and governments have different strengths, they also have different weaknesses. The George Washington Bridge scandal gives us an occasion to examine the relative shortcomings of the government-managed highway system.
Any system of social order engaged in mass coordination between thousands or even millions of citizens must rely on some methodology. Although the lack of a price system can appear to be a feature of government rather than a bug, the state’s consequent reliance on unelected politicos and bureaucrats for accountability-free decision-making is an Achilles’ heel. Individuals like Bridget Anne Kelly, the Christie aide ostensibly responsible for the Bridge scandal, should be seen as foils for the free market’s “Scrooge McDuck” CEOs and robber barons. (Most public servants, like most CEOs, do not fit this description, but the system is nevertheless susceptible to the ones who do.) A single gubernatorial chief-of-staff, in other words, can wield a centralized system to unilaterally create catastrophic traffic at will. And to those who would argue that the Bridge scandal is an isolated incident, remember that acts of corruption are like cockroaches: for every one we see, there are a dozen we don’t.
Although the political intrigue behind the George Washington Bridge scandal probably makes for better newspaper headlines, it’s also true that gridlock-style congestion on government roads usually arises less out of skullduggery than overwhelming demand. Although many have argued that this is simply in the nature of the highways, it’s not immediately obvious that rush hour traffic jams do not result at least partially from government mismanagement. A straightforward solution to rush hour traffic might involve “peak-load pricing” schemes. Under such schemes, drivers face higher prices for highway use during busier times, incentivizing those with flexible schedules to avoid peak hours and therefore flattening out demand. A range of industries already use peak-load pricing successfully.
One common objection to free market roads and highways is that toll collection would be intrusive, expensive and inconvenient. “We’d have to stop at a toll booth at every intersection,” writes Brad Edmunds in summary of this position. “A five-minute commute to the grocery store would require…three toll booths, 75 cents and [would] become an eight-minute commute.” Although this unlikely scenario might have been conceivable in the distant past, today the criticism lacks imagination. As Edmunds speculates in his 2009 foreword to Walter Block’s “The Privatization of Roads and Highways,” private systems could use magnetic strips similar to those on credit cards to record miles in a manner that still respects drivers’ privacy. In fact, the existence of Ontario’s 407 Express Toll Route, which functions according to a similar arrangement, suggests that such a system may be feasible.
This is all a little oversimplified, and it is admittedly unfair to compare the market’s strengths to the government’s shortcomings. The bridge scandal is useful, though, for exposing the drawbacks of public highways and could be used as a starting point for arguing for and against two different methods of distributing goods throughout our society.
It’s just something to think about. Mull it over, maybe, next time you find yourself stuck in traffic.
Chris Bassil, Trinity ’12, is currently working in Boston, Mass. His column runs every other Friday. Send Chris a message on Twitter @HamsterdamEcon.