It’s a bad movie that you might have seen before. It tends to show up whenever an advocate of voluntary cooperation explains how society could operate without state coercion. Right on cue, the zombies from “Night of the Living Statists” rear their heads and mindlessly intone, “But if there’s no government, who will build the roads?!”
The zombies can’t hear your response, so it’s useless to try to give them facts and explain how things could be done in a way that’s better for everyone if roads and other such things were provided as private services rather than as coercive government monopolies. For those who are open to the facts, though, is there any evidence that people can actually cooperate voluntarily for their own interests?
As a matter of fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence of that.
Three years ago, the businesses and residents of the Hawaii island of Kauai were in trouble. The livelihood of the local people depended on tourism, but a state park they relied on to funnel business to them was closed. Flooding several months before had destroyed an access road to Polihale State Park and damaged park facilities.
The state said the repairs would cost $4 million that it didn’t have. So the park was going to be closed that summer — and probably even the next year. This wasn’t acceptable to the business people and the residents, because they needed that park open in order to earn their living. So they got together and decided to do something on their own.
In just eight days, the businesses put their resources together and performed all the necessary repairs — for free. The park re-opened. The businesses survived, because they cooperated to do what was best for all of them, without waiting for someone else to do it for them.
“We can wait around for the state or federal government to make this move, or we can go out and do our part,” said the owner of a local kayak business. “Just like everyone’s sitting around waiting for a stimulus check, we were waiting for this but decided we couldn’t wait anymore.”
This is a great little story, but maybe it only worked because of the small scale. Surely big projects require the federal government to take money from people and pay for projects. Right?
People frequently point to the example of the 19th century railroads as evidence that government loans and other assistance are necessary for such large-scale projects. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads were built with federal subsidies by politically connected businessmen. Doesn’t that prove it’s the only way?
The free market way was shown by a great businessman named James J. Hill. While some of the other major railroads were slapped together in shoddy ways — because government was subsidizing their construction on a per-mile basis, not a long-term basis — he built the Great Northern Railway without a dime of government help.
Hill was obsessed with building a business for the long term. While his competitors slapped together useless miles of track on longer routes, he found shorter routes and built more sturdy rail beds. He invested money in the communities around his railroad’s territory, understanding that his long-term success was directly tied to their success.
As a result, the Great Northern was the only railroad to avoid receivership after the Panic of 1893. The others were built on a shaky foundation by robber barons who just wanted quick profits from the public treasury. (Please read this excellent article by libertarian historian Thomas J. DiLorenzo for many more details.) Hill and his company understood the long-term success provided by the free market. Which is a better model?
Just because you’re accustomed to seeing things done by coercive governments taking money from people by force (or threat of force) doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do those things. It doesn’t even mean it’s the best way to to those things.
Who will build the roads? That question makes no more sense than asking who will grow the food and who will build the cars and who will operate hardware stores. People will voluntarily create arrangements and companies that suit their own needs. If there’s a need for grocery stores, someone will start companies to fill the need. If there’s a need for cars, someone will build and sell them. If there’s a need for roads, someone will build them and sell the service. The providers and the customers will do all those things because they’re in their own interest — not because some coercive, paternalistic government decides for them.
Simply put, government coercion short-circuits the ability of voluntary cooperation to work. In other words, the government you’re counting on to fix the problems is getting in the way. They’re not only failing to solve the problems, but they are the problems.
When I tell people that coercion is wrong and that people have the right to be free and make their own voluntary decisions, they frequently tell me that there are no alternatives. The truth is that voluntary cooperation is a viable alternative, but many people don’t want to see it — because it would mean giving up many of the assumptions they have about how society is structured. It would require them to face the reality that the current system is not only immoral, but it’s unnecessary.
Voluntaryism is the notion that every person is free to make his own choices about how he interacts with others. If anyone tells you that coercion is necessary, he hasn’t looked closely at the evidence. Individual freedom is not only moral, but it’s pragmatic.
Note: Thanks to Lou Gignac for finding the great graphic that sparked this idea, along with providing links to relevant research.