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Yes, Virginia, Roads Can Be Private

September 21, 2020

Those of us who call ourselves libertarian believe that government has only one legitimate function, protecting our liberty. This basically means national defense at the federal level; police and courts at the local level. Everything else should be private and operate in the world of competition and cooperation, not in the government run world based on taxation and coercion.

Most people can accept “privatization” of some services such as trash pickup and certain infrastructure but they baulk at the idea of private roads, even though these same people are aware of private freeways, called toll roads, and private local roads, usually controlled by homeowner associations. However, the roads in between these two extremes, what we usually call arterials, the roads we use to get from one place to another in a city, must be government controlled.

Not so. I just returned from visiting friends in North Oaks, Minnesota, a city of more than 5000 people where ALL the roads and ALL the lands are private. Homeowners own the lands front of their home up to the middle of the adjacent roads and they grant an easement for the roads. When you enter North Oaks there is not a gate but there is a sign which informs you that you are entering an area that is entirely private and that, if you do not have a reason to be there, you are trespassing.

You may not be surprised to learn that there is almost no crime in North Oaks, there is no graffiti, there are no people sleeping in tents along the roads, and there is none of the other objectionable features that we have come to associate with government owned property. This negative phenomenon is sometimes referred to the “tragedy of the commons.” When property is owned in common, e.g. by government, there is less incentive to take care of it than when it is private.

Could all roads be private? Yes, Virginia. Could all land be private? Certainly. Government could lease land that it needs from private owners. Current government owned land could be sold with deed restrictions for uses we want to maintain such as parks and monuments.

Finally, I was struck when visiting North Oaks to see the contrast between the conditions there and the destruction and riots of nearby Minneapolis where I went to high school. There is a lesson here.

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