My Most Unlibertarian Position
September 6, 2011, 2:56 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

One issue on which I’d lose points on a libertarian purity test is toll roads. In libertarian utopia, one presumes there would be toll roads everywhere, perhaps even only toll roads. Me, I would abolish them

It’s not the money. It’s the stupidity of the thing. You’re driving quickly, making good time, when oops, time for everyone to slow down, fan out into a highly wasteful 12 or maybe 24 lanes (obtained how? is there no better use for this land?), stop at a little hellish booth in which it’s some poor soul’s actual job to sit 8 hours a day, and hand the poor overweight lady, like, $1.15. Then maybe like 4 miles later, you have to hand over 75 cents to some other poor schmoe.

Is there anything more idiotic? And the entire East Coast is like this! With an associated, parasitic-offshoot infrastructure of those hellish toll-road-captive roadside malls sprinkled all over New Jersey and thereabouts. Some words come to mind: wasteful (of everyone’s time, mostly), stupid, ugly, cruel (in particular, to those tool booth workers). And yet nobody thinks it’s even unusual or noteworthy. Like sheep, they all just accept it, as if it’s normal to constrain our own movement in this way (and hire an army of toll takers to breathe car exhaust full time), as if there’s no conceivable better way to collect revenue for (supposedly) road maintenance. At least, if there’s any sort of grass roots movement at all to abandon this 17th-century-and-before relic turnpike system, I have not observed it.

Maybe people on the East Coast are just dumber. After all they do put up with the weather too, seemingly wholly unaware of how unnatural and swampy the humidity; most of the suburbs haven’t caught on to the concept of installing fences to separate each other’s yards from view; I could go on. The more I think on it the harder a time I have trying to rule out the ‘dumber’ hypothesis.

20 Comments so far
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In a lot of places you don’t pay an actual human. The Sydney Harbour Bridge (and Tunnel) have automatic booths that scan a little box in your car. They work fast, too, you don’t slow down much. The French autoroutes use your credit card, although I think they have a scan-able box option, too (I just don’t have one).

There are still humans around for those without boxes/credit cards but the numbers are way lower than they used to be. There are entrances to the Sydney Harbour Bridge/Tunnel system where you have to have an electronic box or you won’t get on.

Comment by bc

I agree that the less the collection needs to be manned by actual people, the less weight my objections carry. However, even with electronic methods there is considerable slowdown at the toll gates (at least in the U.S.)

I still have problems with electronics-based tolling though, even if done ‘efficiently’. Basically, such methods require you to jump through yet another bureaucratic set of hoops (fill out paperwork to start using the ‘little box in your car’ or whatever it is) just to move from point A to point B. Generally, I don’t like that.

For example, ‘have to have an electronic box or you won’t get on’ – or in other words, ‘plug yourself into our bureaucracy, or we restrict your movement’ doesn’t sit right with me.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

I think in libertopia, toll collection is done using systems like EZpass or by reading license plates. That eliminates the inefficiency of the actual toll booths, and can be done with pretty minor infrastructure costs compared to building a road.

Comment by Jonathan

In libertopia, it wouldn’t be the government doing it at all. But yes, the resulting setup would likely involve (many competing, perhaps incompatible) EZpass’es and license-plate readers.

In any event, I’m clearly deviating from libertopia on this one…

Comment by Sonic Charmer

You do a good job highlighting the inefficiencies of the current toll booth structure, but what do you suggest as a better alternative for funding public roads? (assuming that your libertopia still contains public roads, for if all roads are privately built you cannot “abolish” tolls but must simply “choose” to use roads with no tolls)

The national highways are funded by the national gas tax (at least in principle), but we have a growing problem there as MPGs continue to increase or even have the potential to reach infinity over short ranges. The technocrat response is to have everyone report mileage and pay an annual kind of tax, but the Big Brother aspect is undesirable. Tolls have a few advantages in the ability to retain anonymity while still paying an amount equivalent to your use of the road, and if technology can overcome the practical inefficiencies of collecting them (as suggested above), I think they may turn out to be the superior method.

Comment by joshua

It’s true that I didn’t suggest a better alternative. I know it’s hard to believe but I can’t solve every problem! ;-)

Since this is, apparently, a thing I think the central government should be doing, and I don’t want it done through tolls, I suppose it follows that I want it funded out of general revenues (like lots of other things).

This is also an area where I differ from conservative orthodoxy as well (which would all else equal like to see things funded out of targeted taxes – gas tax, in this case). The philosophy behind that is sound – if you fund roads out of taxes, the purpose of the tax is transparent and the spending is specific.

However, I just don’t think our government ever works that way in practice; I think shady accounting and redirecting funds from Tax A to Pet Cause B is inevitable. As you say: ‘at least in principle’. I think that principle being violated is the rule not the exception. Hence, I see no point in linking such things to specific ‘gas taxes’, actually I see it as harmful because the more taxes that flower and bloom, the more shenanigans.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

Hmmm, this is a new one for me. Never thought of this as an anti-libertarian position. Now that I think on it, I do know some libertarians like this: Nobody should ever contribute to any common resource that might possibly be consumed in larger share by some other class, no matter what. So they end up being pro-tollbooth? I suppose that stands to reason. How sad.

I’m in complete agreement with you about the stupidity of it. Every time I drive through the Eastern part, I end up thinking derogatory thoughts about the people who live there and put up with it — how can you not? These are not low-tax states. These are people who were told “After all that, there’s not enough money in the kitty to pay for this bridge so you need to toss 75 cents into this metal funnel.” And they reply with: Baaaah! Baaaah!

I live in California, land of the mysterious black hole in which money vanishes, so I recognize I have only so much room to talk. But STILL…

Comment by Morgan K Freeberg

To clarify, it’s not quite that a libertarian would be ‘pro-tollbooth’. It’s that they’d be pro-privatization, which (probably/plausibly/arguably) would lead to lots of tollbooths.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

I don’t know anyone who uses toll roads more than rarely who dosn’t use an EZ Pass electronic doodad. And in dallas, they removed all the tollbooths in favor of licence plate cameras for folks with no TX Tag. They mail you a bill. Your comploaint applies only to old-style toll roads…not the modern efficient version.

Comment by aretae

Like I said above, the EZ pass type method is better, but still leads to slowdowns and still requires you to jump through a bureaucratic hoop (=getting the EZ pass to begin with) just to move around. I think the less such hoops, the better; bureaucracy should not be encouraged to come up with more and more hoops because they’re ‘efficient’.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

This is my rant every time we travel from our home in Wisconsin to Chicago via the Illinois Tollroad, especially at the collection site that snags all the O’Hare traffic. Once it took us 2 hours to clear it. How stupid is that?

Comment by Lulu

My fiance is from upstate NY. Whenever the subject of tolls on the Eastside comes up I say “Now let’s see…which side of the country threw that tea in the harbor and declared independence from tyranny?” And she says, knowing full well the validity of the point I’m making, “shuddup.”

Comment by Morgan K Freeberg

Toll roads are libertarian? Oh, I dunno…. if I’m reading you correctly, toll roads are, in general, “wasteful (of everyone’s time, mostly), stupid, ugly, cruel (in particular, to those tool booth workers).” In other words, they are a huge inconvenience to everyone, make everyone a little bit poorer without actually contributing anything to the general welfare, and force people to give money to the government for no discernible reason.

That’s sounds like the very definition of liberalism to me, guys.

Comment by Severian

See my response to MKF. I’m not saying toll roads ‘are libertarian’ (especially not government-operated toll roads). Just that the libertarian approach (privatization) would likely have tolling as a result. To put it another way, the only real way to guarantee no toll roads is to have the government own, provide and maintain roads as a public good, which is an unlibertarian solution, and it’s the one I’m implicitly advocating.

My understanding of the libertarian solution would be that the government would auction off whatever highway land it owns/operates to the highest bidder, since, why should the government be doing this in the first place. Then private actors could run/maintain the roads on that land (or not) and charge tolls for access as they see fit. Libertarians would tend to have arguments that this would lead to competition, innovation etc., that there would always be choice, and thus that the consumer would win out in the end. I’m not won over by this argument apparently….

Comment by Sonic Charmer


I’m totally with you. I just couldn’t resist an opportunity for some anti-liberal snark. :)

In all seriousness, though, the reason I can’t call myself a libertarian is that there really are some legitimate functions of the state. “Promote the general welfare” and “secure domestic tranquility” may be over-used rationales for all kinds of half-baked leftist nonsense, but if the state can’t legitimately engage in general-welfare-promoting activities like building and maintaining roads, I can’t see much that the state is actually empowered to do. The stauncher libertarians would agree with this, no doubt, but we all know that extremes tend to meet, and libertarianism quickly shades over into outright anarchism.

Besides, they debated this “promote the general welfare stuff” when they were first constructing the National Road and the Erie Canal, when some of the Framers were still alive, so…

Comment by Severian

[…] okay, Sonic Charmer isn’t going that far, but he is definitely opposed to toll roads, and it’s… It’s the stupidity of the thing. You’re driving quickly, making good time, when oops, […]

Pingback by » Taking arms against Baron von Tollbooth

And this is a great example of why I stopped hanging out with “L” Libertarians, and just call myself a “libertarian” (adjective) rather than a “Libertarian” (noun).

Comment by philmon

[…] Charmer: My Most Unlibertarian Position, My Economic Prescription: Maneuver […]

Pingback by Twelfth Linkfest

This is my first google result for “unlibertarian”. Nice post. So do you consider yourself mostly-libertarian then? Or do you feel you maintain enough libertarian positions to still make the cut?

Personally…for the longest time I considered myself mostly-libertarian because I strongly supported the government’s role in protecting the environment…and…hmmm…there were a few other things as well that I seem to have forgotten.

These days I’ve completely stepped away from the issues. My only argument is that taxpayers should be allowed to directly allocate their taxes. If you wanted to allocate your taxes to public roads then so be it. If I wanted to allocate my taxes to the EPA then so be it. If somebody else wanted to allocate their taxes to welfare then so be it.

What do you think…would you still consider me to be a libertarian?

Comment by Xerographica

[…] the pro-lots-of-immigration viewpoint have made me realize a far more appropriate candidate for my most unlibertarian position: not only do I not favor lax immigration, but I think I’m only getting worse as time goes on. […]

Pingback by My Real Most Unlibertarian Position « Rhymes With Cars & Girls

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