Many people believe that roads, and hence transport, would not exist without a strong central government, and so therefore limited government is impractical.

It’s important to know why roads exist in the first place. Ancient empires like the Persia and Rome built roads to make it easier to move their armies around and also to speed communication between distant cities. These roads were irrelevant to the vast majority of people because, for most of history, it was rare for a person to travel more than a few miles from where they were born. Only a small fraction of people like soldiers, explorers and traders would routinely travel long distances on land. The only practical way to travel long distances for most of history was by horse, and most people couldn’t afford horses.

For most of history, only capital cities had paved roads because kings wanted their cities to look more beautiful. Building roads is expensive now, but it was even more expensive when everything had to be done by hand.

And what roads did exist were usually privatized. The Romans planted olive trees next to their roads and auctioned off sections. Whoever owned the section got to keep the olives in exchange for maintaining the road.

In England, most roads were locally owned or toll roads until the mid 19th century. A typical owner would only own a few miles of road, which was usually nothing more than a gravel path wide enough for a wagon.

In the early years of the US, most roads were built and owned by private companies that sold stock to raise capital, like Pennsylvania’s 1795 Lancaster Turnpike Company. Later, most long distance travel was by rail and canal, the vast majority of which was built and owned by corporations. Competition from rails and canals led to the bankruptcy of many toll roads which became the property of the states.

Since the states lacked money to maintain these roads, they deteriorated.

All the way up until the advent of cars in the early 20th century, most of the roads in the US were unpaved. Outside the cities, roads were dirt or sometimes gravel. They turned to mud in the winter and dust in the summer. Travel on these roads was slow and unpleasant even in the best conditions.

So to recap the history of roads:

1. Paved roads were rare.
2. Most people didn’t travel long distances on roads.
3. Roads were mainly built to aid the movement of armies.
4. Most roads were privately owned.

The better roads we have now are mainly the result of two inventions: the car (invented by Karl Benz in 1885) and tarmac (invented by Edgar Hooley in 1902). Both these came from the free market. If they didn’t exist, the modern roads we have today would not exist, regardless of what the government did.

It’s also worth pointing out that governments around the world do a poor job of maintaining roads. Of the 25 largest cities in the US, about half the roads have been rated as poor. The city governments have plenty of money to fix roads, but for some reason, they never get around to it.

The best roads are generally found in places with low taxes and government spending. The state with the best roads is Indiana, whose government privatized its highways in 2006. In contrast, San Francisco was rated as having the worst roads in the country despite a city budget of almost $9 billion. Indiana, which has 8 times as many people as San Francisco has a budget of about $12 billion and has had a surplus every year since privatizing its highways.

So rather than being a slam dunk for government, roads are yet another example of how something works better when it is left to the market.