By Tho Bishop
At its best, Independence Day is a celebration of American secession and a testament to individual liberty. At its worst, Independence Day is still a day where government offices are closed, American grills are lit and the evening sky is full of fireworks, which is still pretty good (at least in my subjective value.)
Unfortunately the travel before and after the 4th of July is a different story, with it widely considered one of the worst travel days of the year. While the desire to take advantage of the holiday to enjoy friends and family is a natural product of humans being inherently social creatures, the degree to which this congestion leads to headache and misery rests solely with the institution responsible for them during the rest of the year – the government.
The Curse of Socialist Highways
The question “who will build the roads?” has become such a statist cliché that it’s perhaps the only libertarian internet meme bigger than “taxation is theft” and Ron Paul informing us that “it’s happening.” It has earned that designation because the entire idea of roads and highways has become so synonymous with government that even Joe McCarthy voted for this form of socialism.
Of course, the purpose for the current American interstate system had nothing to do with consumer demand and everything to do with military transportation throughout the country. While some may defend such a project on that basis, it shouldn’t be a surprise that interstates designed to transport tanks and weapons aren’t always the best at facilitating family travel.
As Walter Block has long argued, much of the congestion on these highways is a direct result of their being in the control of government and therefore being unable to have proper pricing. In his article Congestion and Road Pricing, Dr. Block rebuts various arguments defending public management of highways, as well as government-based solutions (such as automobile bans that were in vogue at the time). Block identifies how free market solutions would solve the problem of congestion, such as enabling “travel entrepreneurs” to design and fund higher-cost toll roads for travelers who don’t mind paying extra for a quicker drive. Not only would such a system obviously cut down the congestion for these “luxury drivers”, but their absence from more commonly used roads means less congestion for those who don’t use them.
We have seen this play out when governments have tried to imitate this highway pricing mechanism with the construction of various higher-cost toll roads across the country. While so called “Lexus lanes” do offer alternatives to traditional highways and thus make some impact on congestion, they still suffer from the same problem inherent with government infrastructure in its lack of real economic calculation. Government allowing taxi’s to charge more when picking up from airports isn’t a replacement for Uber surge pricing, and the USPS charging more for overnight deliver isn’t a replacement for Fed Ex.
While there are a few examples of genuine private roads in America -- the Orchard Pond Parkway, Florida’s first privately funded toll road, opened up earlier this year – as long as government roads enjoy the privilege of being subsidized by gasoline taxes over private investment, the highways system will continue to be commanded with all the efficiency of Soviet central planners.
It’s also worth noting the irony that this government project which is often held up by the left as an example of the necessity of government, is also the greatest hindrance to the progressive desire to eliminate gas-burning cars. As libertarians have long pointed out, the Federal highway project was a massive government subsidy to the automobile industry at the expense of alternative travel options – including trains and airplanes. Of course since the government has its own ways of controlling both rails and airspace, we’d likely be suffering from a whole other set of government-caused issues anyway.
Government’s Unfriendly Skies
Speaking of air travel, we would be amiss without highlighting some of the ways government has destroyed the fun of flying.
Some of these are obvious, especially given the number of headlines this spring highlighting how the TSA’s security theater had created unprecedented wait times throughout the country. American Airlines alone reported having 70,000 missed flights due to TSA complications. Even more appalling are the numerous examples of the TSA failing to treat customers with basic human dignity, such as the most recent example of a disabled 19-year old left bloodied after trying to go through airport security in Memphis.
Americans have good reason to be even more livid at these issues than those caused by highway congestion. While government roads have their share of problems, they will at least manage to get you where you need to go. The TSA, on the other hand, doesn’t even succeed at achieving its stated mission. If there is a silver lining to be found in the TSA’s spectacularly incompetence, it’s that the performance has been so abysmal that even government-managed airports are having to seriously consider alternatives.
Subsidizing Terrible Airlines
While the TSA represents an obvious example of government ruining flying, there are a variety of others ways government can ruin air travel. While it may be difficult to rally the public around Murray Rothbard’s calls to abolish the FAA at this time, another program that should infuriate tax payers is the Essential Air Service program. While billed as a way to ensure airlines maintain flights in “underserved” rural communities, in practice it serves as a way for poorly operated airlines to make money in spite of how well they serve their clients.
One airline that received near $18.5 million dollars is Silver Airlines, which recently left my hometown of Panama City Beach, FL and is perhaps the worst company I’ve ever done business with.
During their time in PCB, my family attempted to fly with them four different times for eight different flights. Of those eight times, only two operated without problem. Two flights were cancelled without any notice and the other four suffered delays ranging from three-six hours. While delays and flying weight concerns are part of the operational hazard of flying, Silver Airlines compounded the issue with poor customer service and vouchers that did not adequately cover the expenses of delay. An attempt to resolve these complaints with company management is directed to an automated system as useful as the TSA.
Ludwig von Mises described capitalism as “a social system of consumers’ supremacy.”
As such, following our last experience with Silver, my family agreed to never use them again, the taxes we pay are still going to pad their bottom line. While Silver’s abysmal record is not an indictment on all the other airlines that utilize the EAS program, it is an example of what happens when government intervention serves to enrich terribly operated companies regardless of consumer demand.
So if you find yourself wasting hours stuck in holiday traffic or at the airport this 4th of July, remind yourself that the solution to your headache can be found within the reason for this particular season. If we were to claim independence from the modern-day royalty of the beltway, the markets will ensure better holidays in the future.
This article was originally published at The Mises Institute.