'Solar Roads' To Serfdom – Paths Paved In Government Waste

P. Gardner Goldsmith | August 30, 2019

One of the oft-heard protestations statists offer when they attempt to debate folks who are pro-liberty is: “Who’ll build the roads?”

The fundamental answer lies in history, but we’ll dive into that shortly. First, it’s worthwhile and fun to address this contemporary assumption that, somehow, the poorly managed, crowded, often dangerous, extremely expensive, government roads are the best we can get in an imperfect world. We all know the problems. We also hear stories about highway funds being used to balance state budgets rather than, oh, maintain highways and bridges. But how many of us get to enjoy the sweet treat of reading or hearing about the boondoggles of “solar roads”?

FEE.org’s Ross Marchand has, and he’s written about them so we can enjoy as well.

Marchand’s just revealed a massive failure in “government roads” funded by the French politicians, and he’s noticed how France isn’t alone in avoiding economics and funding fantasies:

Surprise—solar panels don’t make great roads. The French government recently learned this the hard way after debuting a $6 million solar road in Normandy in 2016. The road generated about half as much power as expected, and costs exceeded any reasonable expectation for a road…or even a solar panel.

Thankfully for the French, they aren’t alone. As it was in World War Two, the French have the American government as a kindred spirit – this time in a sad, twisted way.

Marchand noticed that in 2016, The Daily Caller reported on a similar mess in Idaho. Wrote Andrew Follett:

Roughly 25 out of 30 panels installed in a prototype solar road in Idaho broke within a week, after the project received $3.9 million in funding and 6.5 years of development.

What? A politically driven project totally disconnected from profit and loss turned out to be a boondoggle?

Despite massive internet hype, the prototype of the solar “road” can’t be driven on, hasn’t generate any electricity and 75 percent of the panels were broken before they were even installed. Of the panels installed to make a “solar footpath,” 18 of the 30 were dead on arrival due to a manufacturing failure. A short rain shower caused another four panels to fail, and only five panels appear to be presently functional. The prototype appears to be plagued by drainage issues, poor manufacturing controls and fundamental design flaws.

Perhaps the key word above is “hype”, which Flavor Flav told us years ago, we shouldn’t believe, and the hype is not merely isolated to what politicians and bureaucrats said about solar roads.

As Marchand perceptively notes, the difference between hype and reality can be seen in every government program, especially those recently in vogue promoting “alternative energy” provision.

Over the past few decades, a predictable pattern has emerged: Governments tout cool-sounding renewable energy technologies, but promises and funding fall flat because of the biases and inefficiencies of the public sector.

And one should stress “the biases and inefficiencies of the public sector.”

In 1991, scholars Linda Cohen and Roger Noll found that “American political institutions introduce predictable systematic biases to R&D programs so that on balance, government projects will be susceptible to performance underruns and cost overruns.” This trend is especially evident in the billions of dollars in subsidies showered on wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles.

Which is what folks familiar with economics have tried to tell politicians and the media lapdogs who keep pushing government “investments” in these over consumer choice.

The last time I looked, an investment had to be voluntary.

Additionally, when the funding of something is not voluntary, no one is allowed to determine whether it serves his or her purposes and makes his or her life less difficult.

That disconnect could come in the form of Barack Obama’s adored Solyndra, which, as Marchand observes, in 2011 received $500 million in federal loan guarantees and inevitably went kaput. It could come in the form of ATVM:

The Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan (ATVM) program was established in 2007 to aid companies developing “advanced” fuel-efficient vehicles. The ATVM program was authorized by Congress to loan up to $25 billion and appropriated $7.5 billion to subsidize said loans. In all, the program loaned out $9 billion to five companies: Ford, Nissan, Tesla, Fisker Automotive, and Vehicle Production Group (VPG). Fisker and VPG have since gone out of business and defaulted on their loans. Tesla is in serious trouble, compromised by unstable leadership, flawed manufacturing processes, and an exodus of talent.

It could even come in the form of federal mandates for “CAFE” (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards to which auto companies must comply if they want to avoid fines, government lawsuits, and eventual shut-down by that ever-so-constitutional gang of political ne’er-do-wells in DC. These would be the same mandates (read: “standards” to hide the coercion) that see auto makers balance their car lines’ heavier models with exceptionally light models, models that, as studies have shown, become less safe in crashes. Writes Daniel Hewitt, for Mises.org:

The primary unintended consequence of CAFE regulation has been its negative impact on occupant safety. The effect of ever-increasing fuel economy standards has been an accelerated trend towards smaller vehicles (faster than the market would have trended if left alone). Occupants of smaller, lighter vehicles are at a greater risk in multivehicle collisions, due to a greater disparity in vehicle sizes.

The key here being that consumers and sellers have been, and still are being, prevented from purchasing what they determine fulfills their needs and is most efficient. Which brings us back to the larger issue of the roads.

Roads are products that – just like the machines running on them -- can best be provided by non-political entities. As I’ve noted previously for MRCTV, and as Thomas DiLorenzo has observed, the earliest roads in America were not built by government. They were built by private companies that recognized a benefit in helping to allow access to their businesses. Just as shopping malls build, maintain, and police their parking lots – just as private businesses offer air conditioning and other incentives to make the shopping experience pleasurable and safe – private road builders had, and still have, incentives to make roads long-lasting, efficient, and safe.

Disney does it in Florida.

Most of us do it from the poorly-managed government roads to our garages – by making driveways and figuring out the best bang for our buck. Does anyone really think that if government weren’t there to make driveways, we’d stay stuck in our homes, wondering how to escape?

And, sure, perhaps there are methods of saving energy on the roads – be they in cars, or by powering signs with small solar panels. But we cannot tell if they are efficient unless consumers can decide – sans things like “eminent domain” and pork projects.

In all those high-profile stories about government funding the “future”, we should try to remember what’s going unseen: the vast, innumerable market decisions of free people to decide what’s best for themselves.