Even libertarians don't want private roads

Can you ever have free-market highways?

Just missing the UK news agenda, the Atlantic has a post up on road tolls and private highways. In a reversal of the norm for discussions of high degrees of privatisation, its merely a theoritical concern for Americans, but has deeply practical relevence for Brits.

Timothy B. Lee writes:

While I'm generally sympathetic to the idea of privately-managed roads, I've become convinced that the broader vision of "free-market roads" is a conceptual confusion. In the abstract, the idea of competing, privately-owned roads has a lot of appeal. But the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. Roads are deeply intertwined with governments. They always have been and as far as I can see they always will be. This means that they'll never be truly private in the sense that other private companies like restaurants or shoe factors can be.

Assembling the land needed for a long-distance road is prohibitively expensive without government assistance. Unsurprisingly, private roads almost never come into existence without extensive government assistance. And that means that the profitability of a "private" road depends crucially on how many competing roads the government allows to exist.

Lee is no anti-privatisation zealot, either. An adjunct scholar with the high-libertarian Cato Institute, he's exactly the sort of person who would love to support the government taking a back seat on provision of transportation.

It is noteable that the government's plans don't involve large scale private road-building, but the lesser challenge of handing over the maintanence and development of existing roads to private investors on extremely long-term leases. If the private companies do so purely through existing funding, then the issue is merely one of comparative efficiency of the public and private sector, and the privatisation is just a showy, irreversible outsourcing. But if, as Cameron suggested, they are allowed to charge tolls on new capacity, then that carries additional risks.

As Lee argues, because any large scale road-building (which surely includes things like adding extra lanes to motorways, cited by Cameron as something which could be funded through tolls) requires massive public support, through use of eminent domain to assemble the land and no-compete clauses to prevent revenue streams from drying up, tolls on previously public roads represent, at least in part, a tax on mobility.

There is one key difference between the American and British contexts, though; in the UK, competition – of a sort – exists. Freight is frequently moved through the rail network as well as the roads, and shipping is far more useful in a country which is never further than 70 miles from the sea. Of course, true competition means avoiding "too-big-to-fail" scenarios; for now, the idea of reposessed roads might be a bit much to handle.

Future of British roads? A Bolivian highway. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.