Bless or heart, the man in the highest office cannot be trusted....

Taxes do have their benefits — take public roads

john hood

John Hood


Monday, March 5, 2018

Before the advent of the automobile — and thus before the advent of car and gas taxes to fund surface transportation — North Carolina and other states had public roads. They were built by conscription, not by tax-paid labor. And they were often pitifully inadequate.

Although the specific policies varied, here are the basics. Each county was composed of townships. Each township had a board of supervisors. They, in turn, appointed overseers for specific roads and bridges. Virtually every adult male was required to work a certain number of days each year. Overseers were responsible for assigning them to construction or maintenance tasks.

What happened if overseers and workers didn’t get their jobs done? They were subject to arrest, fines, and other punishments. In practice, the system mostly relied on community spirit, peer pressure, and potential embarrassment. But the system didn’t work very well.

On Sept. 2, 1891, for example, the main newspaper in Caldwell County, The Lenoir Topic, republished an editorial from The Racket, a local scandal-sheet, on the poor condition of public roads. “The Grange road from Gamewell to Collettsville in Lenoir township was only worked one day a year and is subject to indictment for being out of repair,” it stated.

The man responsible for the road “was guilty of this misdemeanor,” the editorial continued, “and it is the duty of the supervisors to indict him, and if they cannot perform their duties they should resign.” The editor concluded from these and other examples that “taxation is the only thing that will give us good roads.”

A few days later, the overseer of the Grange road, Bristol Hood, responded in the Topic with a combination of contempt and indignation. He ridiculed the Racket as “a very popular paper, judging from the number of subscribers, which is about one dozen” and criticized the Lenoir Topic for reprinting the accusation that he was guilty of a crime without first asking him about it.

Then he turned his attention to the broader issue. “I agree with the Racket in regard to working roads by taxation,” wrote Hood, my great-grandfather, because public roads “can’t be marched along successfully in the line of progress without dollars and sense.”

Transportation has been and remains mostly a private affair. Individuals and businesses have built or purchased vehicles, fueled them, insured them, and operated them. It was also feasible in most cases to charge users for using transportation infrastructure — think docking fees at seaports or river landings, fares for railroads, and tolls at bridges. These were private goods, in economic terms, not public goods.

Those who didn’t pay, either directly or by buying the goods thus transported, could be excluded from benefitting. Surface roads were another story, however. It was very difficult to exclude non-payers. When turnpike companies, for instance, tried to collect fees, travelers often took rough bypasses called “shunpikes” to avoid the pay stations.

Until the automobile came along, then, roads were largely public enterprises. Major inter-city highways were financed by governments and often built by soldiers, as their main purpose was to move troops and messages. Minor rural roads and city streets, used more for commerce, were local responsibilities and, as in North Carolina, were built and maintained by domestic, not military, conscripts.

The 20th century brought welcome change. Gas-powered vehicles offered a market-friendly device, gas and car taxes, for users to pay for the overall road network roughly according to their use. And substituting taxation for forced labor was clearly a more efficient way to finance local and regional roads. Conservatives and progressives agreed on that.

Bristol Hood was right about the policy, then — but that doesn’t mean I entirely buy my great-grandfather’s self-defense. According to family lore, he strongly preferred talking and writing to manual labor. A longtime justice of the peace, Hood often traveled the North Carolina mountains to teach poetry and literature.

Should itinerant poets be forced to build roads? No. Should they be compelled to pay for the roads they travel? Of course.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 12:30 p.m. Sundays on UNC-TV.


Humans of Greenville


Local photographer Joe Pellegrino explores Greenville to create a photographic census of its people.

Op Ed

September 25, 2018

For the first time in years, Republicans are playing defense on health care in the midst of an election campaign.

A lot of them would like to keep bashing Obamacare and, now, bash the single-payer plans that are drawing more and more support from Democrats. But the way they have gone after the…


September 25, 2018

With so much attention rightfully focused on Hurricane Florence and its terrible aftermath in North Carolina, it's easy to forget that there's an election just over a month away.

For a few days at least, politics took a time out. Both political parties used their platforms to post storm safety…

Colin Campbell

September 24, 2018

Baltimore Sun

Stop us when this sounds familiar: A woman comes forward to allege sexual misconduct by a nominee to the United States Supreme Court. Her credibility and motives are attacked. She is invited to give testimony about some of the most painful moments of her life before a panel of…

September 24, 2018

Do you want to hear some good news? For many readers across North Carolina who are still suffering from or cleaning up after the ravages of Hurricane Florence, some good news might be a welcome relief.

On the other hand, there is a built-in human tendency to pay more attention to bad news. Our…

john hood

September 24, 2018

You don't need to spend time on Twitter to realize that politics is not bringing out the best in us, to put it mildly. The Brett Kavanaugh confirmation ordeal seems to be some kind of breaking point. And yet, haven't we had many of them over the past weeks, months and years — and decades?…

September 23, 2018

Roughly 40 years ago, I showed up at a prominent music executive's office for an appointment that had been scheduled suspiciously late in the workday. But I wasn't suspicious. I was instead eager to try to place some of my original songs with artists he represented. One of my songs had appeared on…

Patti Davis

September 23, 2018

Christine Blasey Ford has accused Brett M. Kavanaugh of attempted rape while they were both in high school — a charge he unequivocally denies. She can't remember the date the alleged attack took place. She isn't even certain about the year (although she reportedly thinks it may have been the…


September 22, 2018

Here is America at its best: Faith-based organizations across the country are volunteering to help resettle refugee families in their communities. In the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. where we live, Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations have formed a partnership called Neighbors to…

Steve and Cokie Roberts

September 22, 2018

Bloomberg Opinion

President Donald Trump's planned nomination of Nellie Liang to the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors, which oversees everything from interest-rate policy to financial stability, is a little surprising. She's admirably well-qualified and in every way a good choice.

Trump hasn't…

September 22, 2018

An oft-used, if hackneyed, axiom is: Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Applied to politics, it means that if you lose a special election, don't try again in the general.

Danny O'Connor says he's going to defy that conventional wisdom. Last month, the 32 year-old Democrat barely…

albert hunt
297 stories in Op Ed. Viewing 1 through 10.
«First Page   «Previous Page        
Page 1 of 30
        Next Page»   Last Page»