Radical libertarians who spend a lot of time online (or do I repeat myself?) have developed a joke where they will say in parody, “But who will build the roads?” (Some of the Images in this Google search are funny, but your mileage may vary. Pun intended.) For a more recent example of when I myself entered this comedy genre, see this Tweet, which at least 40 people enjoyed.
The reason anarcho-capitalists find “Who will build the roads?” hilarious is that this is such an obviously silly justification for the State. Sure, it is reasonable for someone to ask, “How could there be a rule of law?” It’s perfectly understandable for someone to wonder, “Wouldn’t a small libertarian paradise be conquered by a neighboring State?” (Indeed, I considered these such good questions that I published a pamphlet in grad school addressing them.)
But to wonder how a fully privatized economy would build roads?! C’mon. Such a question doesn’t require a pamphlet (though Walter Block, as is his wont, has written an entire book). It can be settled in three sentences from Tom Woods: ““Who will build the roads?” is the question that belongs at the top of every libertarian drinking game. If we didn’t have forced labor, the argument runs, there would be no roads. There’d be a Sears store over there, and your house over here, and everyone involved would just be standing there scratching their heads.”
In this context, then, you can imagine my amusement to see economist Noah Smith give the following examples as he chides libertarians for their narrow focus on restricting government intervention in the economy:
But there are other kinds of freedom that matter a lot for the vast majority of people — people who don’t try to derive their ideologies from axioms, or spend time curled up with a Hayek book. For example, social freedom — the ability to express your individuality without having people ostracize you — is hugely important in most people’s lives…
Nor is the state always a destroyer of human freedom. It’s liberating to be able to hop in a car and drive to another city without stopping to pay a toll every few miles. It’s also liberating to be able to hop on a train and jaunt across a city without sitting in traffic.
Normally I italicize block quotes from other authors, but in this case I retained the original formatting. That italicized “train” is Noah’s. It would be foolish to suggest that I truly understand how this man’s mind works, but I *think* what he is doing there is to shake the reader, as it were. “You know, a TRAIN, for heaven’s sake. You like the option of taking a TRAIN, right? So maybe we need taxes after all, Mr. Stop-Taking-My-Money-At-Gunpoint.”
This is truly astounding. Noah’s not even (apparently) making an argument, say, about eminent domain reducing construction costs. No, he seems to be suggesting that we need the State if we want trains to exist. I feel as much need to argue with him on this point, as if he had claimed, “It’s also liberating to be able to buy nonfat yogurt, so I wish libertarians would stop focusing on limiting the State all the time.”
For those who want to see an excellent historical discussion of train builders–one who turned to State subsidies, the other who relied on good ol’ capitalism–see Burt Folsom’s The Myth of the Robber Barons.