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Such is the title of a 1987 comedy movie starring Steve Martin and John Candy (two of our favorite actors). And no, we have not gone crazy overnight. And no, we are not switching careers to become movie critics. This movie, however funny it may be, summarizes one simple and critical economic fact: the need for transportation. Logistics, so to speak. The unglamorous cousin of manufacturing. Moving goods and services from point A to point B. Even the internet depends of the movement of information from A to B. Without logistics, there are no markets. Central to logistic needs are roads. Sure, boats, trains and airplanes do the heavy transportation, but in the end, without roads, we can’t get our stuff and we can’t move either. Without movement of people, there is no labor and without labor there is no economy. So roads are pretty important and the question is: are roads too important to leave them in government hands?

IN THE PAST

Isolation

To answer this question, we need to understand how roads came to be. Originally, there were no roads. Actually, people did not move too much either. Usually people spent their entire lives in or near a village. As a matter of fact, villages were so isolated that they developed their own dialects which were often incomprehensible from the village in the next valley. Even today, if you travel through Eastern Europe through former communist countries, particularly those with high percentage of mountains or hills, you will find this shocking difference. Some countries even recognize 100 or so dialects as official languages!

So why did this happen? Simple. People had no reason to move. They were farmers and were quite busy tending their land (which was a full-time job giving their primitive resources). Besides, why would they expose themselves to inclement weather, a very good chance of getting lost forever and possibly robbery and death?

Imperative

So why did they? In a word: trade. The major imperative to get out was purely economic. It wasn’t tourism or exploration; it was a daily need. It was a business enterprise. As such, it was conducted logically, not leisurely. Their objective was to go from point A to point B safely with their cargo. Period.

As such, “safer” routes started to be developed. People talked to other people who had done it before asking for advice. Routes became trails and trails and trails received names and reference points. These markings were usually terrain features such as a large tree, a strangely shaped hill, a river, a big rock.

If you hike in less than touristic hills you can experience this today. Go to your friendly hiking club and you will be presented with hand-drawn maps showing trails exhibiting reference points. These maps are much handier than GPS coordinates because a map is never a territory. GPSs are good, but these maps are better. These maps trace their origins back to the original movements of the first traders and are still as useful today as they were then.

Traffic

As people began to trade more (and hence travel), transit on trails increased. This increase widened the trails and killed most of the vegetation hence naturally creating a road which was easier to follow. People carrying their cargo on their backs were replaced by transport animals (typically donkeys or oxen) and later on by carriages. Throughout every step of technological improvement, roads widened.

Construction

Throughout this historical process, people came across obstacles. Originally, people simply avoided them, even if this meant taking a longer road. Eventually, they begun to overcome them because they realized not only that time was money but that staying on a frequently traveled road was far safer than taking detours. The first efforts to improve roads were quite basic; the removal of a tree here and adding a few rocks there; a few logs to cross a small creek, widening the road there.

Profit

Eventually, some roads became so popular that “professionals” got into the game. They developed better and alternative roads or, more importantly, they provided obstacle-avoiding services such as rafts to cross rivers or “safer” roads. All for a reasonable fee. They could do this because the land did not belong to anybody and if it nominally did (such as a lord), they were not there to enforce their so-called titles.

These toll roads were a win-win scenario. A professional provided a better maintained and obstacle-free road which enabled traders to move their products from A to B safely and efficiently.

Summary

Roads were developed as a means to transport goods and services. They were developed by traders (i.e. people just like you and us) and they were based on real (not imaginary) necessities. They were based on economic needs not in political ideas. Roads were a triumph of economics over politics because governments were nowhere to be seen.

GOVERNMENTS GET INTO THE GAME

Of course, this state of affairs could not last. It was too profitable not to be plundered. Governments took two different approaches to roads. They were:

Build them

Some governments wanted roads for military purposes. They had a vast empire to protect and they needed a way to move troops from A to B quickly and efficiently. The problem was that A and B had no economic value whatsoever. They did have strategic value though. Hence, they could not use “normal” roads and they decided to build them themselves. They did so to a great expense… of the taxpayers (or land renters as the case may have been).

Throughout the world there are several examples of such roads, in UK (after the middle ages), China (ancient times) and Western Europe (Romans). The saying “all roads lead to Rome” was quite literal. Rome was the military center of the empire from which the military might originated. Roads needed to connect Rome for military purposes.

Take over them

However, the preferred method of “building” roads by governments were literally to take over them. In the middle ages many roads were labeled “King’s road” for this reason. What this meant was that once a King traveled through an existing road, this road literally belonged to the King. The King simply took over; stole, in simple terms.

Why would the King do so? Because it was profitable. Once the road was his, he could charge whatever toll he felt like it and people had no choice but to pay under severe penalty (including death). Yet another example of thievery followed by artificial monopoly.

Actually this process was so feared that historical records in UK account for towns that went to great lengths to prevent the King from traveling through their road. One such favorite method was to engage in “lunacy” throughout the town. As mental illness was considered a contagious diseases, as soon as King’s rangers would see such as spectacle they would steer the King away from such road!

Political Necessities

As time went on and governments took over more and more roads, private roads simply disappeared and with them the sound economic foundation on which they operated. Many of these roads were eventually given to local authorities (sometimes religious, sometime civil, depending on the country) and other were simply left in the hands of regional governments. The problem was that as roads were now part of governmental duties, they begun to fit into political schemes. As such, roads that had very little economic use but had political value, need to be maintained too. Therefore different schemes (scams) were invented to “sustain” and “maintain” such roads. Some involved a network of tolls (as in UK or USA) and some increased taxation.

Time passed and now the government fully in control of all roads, decided to build more of them, again based on political assumptions which sometimes included theoretical economic considerations. As usual, governments reached out to taxpayer using the tried-and-true plunder-and-build scheme.

Technology takes over

Once the political principle of state ownership of all roads was firmly established, there was no way back and technology took over. In every country it was understood that roads belonged to the government and it was also understood that taxpayers had no saying in this process. From this point on, new roads were commissioned exclusively by governments following the newest technological improvements. This process gave us the roads we have today, where we still don’t have any saying.

Note: as with any ultra-short history of events, we always warn that it is not perfect and exceptions exist. The purpose is not to provide a full, complete and detail historical record, but to underline the main historical events.

Note: please see the Glossary if you are unfamiliar with certain words.

Continue to Planes, trains and automobiles - Part 2

 

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