When a libertarian cites Sweden you know there’s something fishy going on

The Insitute of Economic Affair’s Head of Transport is at it again, and his libertarian views on why the roads we currently own should be sold off to private bidders for £150bn is all over the mainstream media, thanks to a flurry of ‘road tax’ stories. Dr Richard Wellings, a climate change skeptic, thinks cyclists are “low value” road users and wants Britain to be covered in wider, longer roads to be used by motorists alone (“entrepreneurs would be incentivised to build routes where they would attract traffic.”). I’ve critiqued his views before and I do so again today over on BikeBiz.com. It would be possible to write volumes on why his worldview is so chilling.

But here I’ll counter just one of his arguments. He likes how the Swedes do it, apparently. Roads ownership, that is.

He wrote:

“Local roads should be owned and managed by local residents and businesses. This has happened via private road associations in Sweden, where road management costs have been reduced but the quality of services provided is high.”

When a libertarian cherry picks an ownership model from Sweden – which has a world-famous cradle-to-grave welfare system and hence is a country to send shudders down libertarian spines – you know there’s something fishy going on.

It’s true, private road associations manage two thirds of the road network in Sweden. But what Wellings doesn’t reveal in the executive summary is that the Swedish Government subsidises these road associations. Furthermore, the privately owned and operated roads are mostly dirt tracks, in the middle of nowhere, with incredibly low volumes of traffic. Municipal roads in Sweden, just like municipal roads in most places in the world, are owned by the municipalities concerned. Private ownership of all city streets would lead to dystopian horrors, in Sweden and everywhere else.

The private roads in Sweden see very low numbers of vehicles, less than 50 vehicles per day from outside the area and 70 local journeys per day.

And private roads in Great Britain are hardly paragons of good management. Roads are a shared national resource, a form of commons, and any movement seeking to reverse such ownership needs to be monitored closely.

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Road tax doesn’t exist. It’s car tax, a tax on cars and other vehicles, not a tax on roads or a fee to use them. Motorists do not pay directly for the roads. Roads are paid for via general and local taxation. In 1926, Winston Churchill started the process to abolish road tax. It was finally culled in 1937.

The ironically-named iPayRoadTax.com helps spread this message on cycle jerseys. Car tax is based on amount of CO2 emitted so, if a fee had to be paid, cyclists – who are sometimes branded as ‘tax dodgers’ – would pay the same as ‘tax-dodgers’ such as disabled drivers, police cars, the Royal family, and band A motorists, ie £0. Most cyclists are also car-owners, too, so pay VED.

  • Paul

    What a shame that this site, which used to be so insightful, is now being used a vehicle to further an unrelated political agenda – criticising libertarianism as a general approach and making fallacious arguments about Sweden.

  • http://gillinger.se/ Christian Gillinger

    How are they fallacious?

  • Dr C.

    Fallacious? Seems like a fairly straight presentation of the relevant information to me. As for libertarianism, like any other political philosophy it becomes ludicrous when taken to extremes; Richard Wellings representes that extreme.