The Principles of Political Economy

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter IV

Section 2

§2. Ordinary Roads. Both the above reasons for governmental intervention apply forcibly to the case of ordinary road-making. The indirect advantages derived from good roads, both in the improved organization of national industry which results from the development of internal trade, and in the general spread of intelligence, are universally recognised; while yet the utilities of transit, as estimated by the individuals who would purchase them, would not be sufficient to enable private undertakers to construct remuneratively the less frequented roads---at any rate if the land had to be bought---: so that to make the road system of a modern civilized community as complete as is on public grounds to be desired, the intervention of Government---central or local---would seem to be almost indispensable. On the other hand, the more frequented roads which it would undoubtedly be profitable to construct, would always be in the condition of partial monopoly; and therefore there would be no general probability that it would be most profitable for the monopolist owners of the roads to charge such a price for their use, or to keep them in such a condition, as would afford the maximum of public utility. The monopoly, no doubt, would always be partly controlled by the fear that excessive tolls or gross neglect would lead to the construction of a new road; but. if the new road were less convenient to the majority of those who used it, and were therefore liable to be at any time abandoned in favour of the old road if the charges and conditions of the two were equalised, its construction would be too hazardous an undertaking to be easily entered upon.

Further, we have to observe that the use of roads managed by private enterprise must necessarily be sold; and the expense and inconvenience involved in this transaction is a serious drawback in the case of much frequented roads. In the extreme case of the streets of a town no one would propose that the expenses of construction or maintenance should be defrayed by tolls; and this arrangement is now regarded as being on the whole undesirable in the case of highways generally---in spite of its obvious equity from the point of view of distribution.

The question, however, whether ordinary roads should be generally managed by private enterprise has never been a practical one; chiefly because the portions of the earth's surface now employed for this purpose, have, to a great extent, been used in common from time immemorial, and so have remained the property of the community using them, while the rest of the land has gradually passed into private ownership.

In England, when the importance of keeping the roads themselves in good condition came, in the 18th century, to be more fully recognised, the expenses were at first defrayed by tolls, the management being what may be called quasi-governmental: but the expense and inconvenience of collecting tolls has led to the gradual abolition of this system, and the defrayment of expenses out of the rates. The bridges that form part of roads have for the most part been similarly dealt with; in a few special cases, such as the bridges over the Thames, the construction has been undertaken by private enterprise on the security of tolls; but even these have, for the most part, been subsequently bought up by public bodies.

[Back to:][PPE, Book III, Chapter 4, Section 1]
[Forward to:] [PPE, Book III, Chapter 4, Section 3] Canals and railways
[Up to:]
[PPE Intro and Table of Contents]