UK to Privatize…no, PrivatiSe Roads

An interesting development in the UK, as PM Cameron proposes to sell some roadways to the private sector. This came to my attention via Chris Bertram, a philosopher at Univ. of Bristol, who sees “the new enclosures as a threat to freedom“, in the sense that many basic freedoms could possibly be curbed, such as rights to assembly, protest, even take photographs.

The contrast between this line of argument to the long-standing economic argument for congestion pricing of roadways, is jarring. The latter holds that trips on a congested roadway carry untaxed externalities, and should therefore not be seen as an intrinsic right, but a service that needs to be regulated to ensure that decisions to travel on the roadway are socially efficient.

This contrast highlights the danger in conflating very different kinds of roadway management issues. In the case of congestion pricing, the targets are usually an urban motorways or arterials with high levels of recurring congestion. Being high-capacity components of the network, such roads are physically separated from dense land uses, acting as trunks that feed smaller roads leading to houses, offices, government buildings, etc.

The point being that these are not good candidates for demonstrations. Where freedoms of expression and congregation are the concern, the priority is usually to be visible, targeting public squares, government and quasi-public buildings, and perhaps particular corporate offices. These, as far as the Guardian article indicates, are not the subject of Cameron’s proposals.

So, can we differentiate between these in a practicable way? The grey area appears when we try to motivate privatization of motorways on the basis of different rights: why is it justifiable to sacrifice motorists’ rights to drive on a roadway, while others’ rights to stand in it are preserved? Perhaps the answer lies in motor vehicle licensing. If the government requires guarantees for personal rights from the roadway operators, while allowing vehicle passage to be privately regulated, then a balance can be struck.