Last week, there was a large snowstorm where I live. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for a New England winter, but it was enough to make the roads basically undrivable.
The next day, I entered into a discussion with someone on social media about government’s role in removing snow from the roads. This person (who was well-aware of my political views) said that “there would be no snowplows without government/taxes.” He was backed up by others saying the same thing.
I made several arguments to try to invalidate what I viewed as a ridiculous proposition. I pointed out that there are already private roads today; many of these roads are plowed without government involvement. Those who own the roads hire someone to plow them, just like any other voluntary transaction. No one in their right mind would argue that there would be no plumbers to fix your toilet or landscapers to mow your lawn if the government were not involved. But yet, the idea of a driver using a tool attached to a car to remove snow and ice from a stretch of pavement without government being included sounds absolutely foreign to many people. The snowplow is hardly a modern technological marvel. We rely on private companies to do things that are astronomically more advanced, such as designing a device that can let us see people on the opposite side of the world through a screen.
Why then, is it so hard for many to imagine how road maintenance could work without government? There are many different theories on how roads could operate in a voluntary society (one without taxation). There have been entire books written about this issue (I highly recommend The Privatization of Roads and Highways by Walter Block), but I’ll outline a few ideas.
Residential roads could be paid for and maintained by homeowners associations or cooperation between neighbors (this already happens in gated communities and other private residential roads). Well-traveled roads would be prime candidates to be toll roads, either on a per use basis or with a subscription (yes, there would be a cost to drivers, but those drivers would have substantially more money in their pockets due to a lack of taxation and the fact that they could choose which services they paid for.) Businesses in a commercial area could enter into a contract with each other to own and maintain nearby roads, as a business has an incentive to allow customers to get to its store. Keep in mind that these are only tentative proposals; if this were to be tried, the market may come up with something even better.
In the social media discussion I was having, I talked about the ideas above and more. And yet, I felt that everything I said wasn’t having much of an effect. This was not a substantive policy discussion; I felt like I was talking to a brick wall with a message written on it. No matter what I said, there was never any thorough examination of my argument. There were only continued assurances that was I proposing would never work; the message never changed.
The interaction was incredibly frustrating to me. As a former conservative, I completely understand how hard it can be to imagine a society without government. Government has performed certain services for our entire lives, and it’s often difficult to think outside the box and question one’s own worldview. I was once the person who said that a society without a coercive government couldn’t work. It was only after hours of reading, listening, and thinking that I realized that a stateless society was a legitimate possibility that would not result in chaos. Even still, the fact that so many people (many of whom are likely very intelligent) could not grasp the idea of supply and demand in the snowplowing industry was perplexing.
Imagine a scenario in which the government announced that it was no longer going to plow the roads. In this scenario, if there were people living on a road who needed to drive somewhere but couldn’t, they wouldn’t just wait around for the snow to melt. People can act and create solutions without government; when there’s a demand for a service, there will be a supply. Those who live in snowy areas would know that plowing would be a frequently-needed service and would come up with a contingency plan ahead of time. To think that these people would say “government won’t plow my road, so no one can” is asinine. Government is not some all-knowing being with superpowers; it is simply another group of people (albeit once that relies on coercive force to fund its actions). There is no service that a government can perform that others cannot.
As those trying to spread the message of freedom, we must remember that sound logic alone will not convince others that a society without a state is advantageous to us. No one likes to feel defeated; a contentious argument often only results in a person digging their heels in more instead of acknowledging their blind spots or contradictions in their thinking. We need to re-examine the way we conduct discussions and debates. Just beating the other person in a battle of reason is not enough.
If at all possible, we must attempt to guide others to an answer rather than show it to them. It is almost always through thinking and self-reflection that one realizes the immorality and dispensability of government, not through being called names in a social media argument. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, although I’ve made a conscious decision in recent years to attempt to cut back. Even still, it’s difficult to overcome years of an unquestioning loyalty to the state by those we are talking to. In my aforementioned discussion about snowplows, I did everything I could to focus on policy and not dismiss anyone’s intelligence. By doing this, I hope to have left open the possibility that I planted a seed in someone’s head that could someday grow and lead them down the same path I’ve gone down.
We must be understanding of the fact that even those who now believe in freedom and self-ownership were not born that way. Many of us were conservatives, liberals, or other ideologies before we got here. Plant seeds and encourage others to ask questions and think for themselves. If we rely on insults and feelings of superiority, we will never achieve our goals.