Freedom to travel and transport goods anywhere within the nation

In order for people and companies to contribute to a growing economy, they need easy access to large markets, which should be at least as large as the entire nation. One of the main reasons Britain prospered so remarkably during the Industrial Revolution was ease of transportation and open access to the entire nation as a large market:

New turnpike roads and canals, intended primarily to serve industry and mining, opened the way to valuable resources, linked production to markets, facilitated the division of labor. . . . Nowhere else were roads and canals typically the work of private enterprise, hence responsive to need (rather than to prestige and military concerns) and profitable to users.[1]

Merchants could take their wares without hindrance anywhere in Britain, so they had free access to the largest national market in Europe.[2]

By contrast, transportation of goods was difficult and expensive in Germany. While Germany had a large network of rivers that should have provided easy and cheap transportation, merchants encountered frequent river barriers where local tyrants “inspected” goods and ex?torted tolls while providing no benefits in return. The river tolls were so troublesome and expensive that “haulers were often compelled to use roads, however poor and slow, even for bulk commodities of low value per weight.” The entire system “was designed to encourage bribes, including rounds of food and drink for the boys, which did not help the next boat to get through.”[3] Of course, tolls soon were collected on the roads as well, slowing industrial growth and bringing benefit only to the local tyrants who collected these tolls, at the expense of both buyers and sellers in the rest of the nation.

Amazingly, Germany did not abolish these tolls effectively until 1834. In France, customs barriers at the entrances of cities did not disappear until the arrival of the automobile in the early twentieth century.[4]

Tragically, such roadblocks and extortion of money persist in a number of African countries today. Robert Guest, the African editor of The Economist, got permission to accompany the driver of a large truck that was carrying thirty thousand bottles of beer from the Guinness factory in Douala, the port that is the largest commercial center in Cameroon, to Bertoua, a small town five hundred kilometers (three hundred miles) away. In a country with an open and developed freeway system, such a journey would take five or six hours. In Cameroon, it was supposed to take 18 hours (1% days), including an overnight rest stop. But Guest explains that the journey took four days, and when the truck arrived, “it was carrying only two-thirds of its original load.”

Why did the journey take so long? Guest explains:

We were stopped at road blocks forty-seven times. These usually consisted of a pile of tyres or a couple of oil drums in the middle of the road, plus a plank with upturned nails sticking out which could be pulled aside when the policemen on duty were satisfied that the truck had broken no laws and should be allowed to pass. . . . At every other road block, they carried out “safety checks.” . . . At some road blocks the police went through our papers word by word in the hope of finding an error.

The pithiest explanation of why Cameroonians have to put up with all of this came from the gendarme at road block number 31 who had invented a new law about carrying passengers in trucks. . . . When it was put to him that the law he was citing did not, in fact, exist, he patted his holster and replied: “Do you have a gun? No. I have a gun, so I know the rules.”[5]

In addition, many of the roads were in horrible condition, clogged by wrecks that had not been removed, and at one place a bridge was out, forcing the driver to take an alternative route. At one stop, the truck was detained three and a half hours, and at another one the driver and Guest had to wait twenty-five hours before they were allowed to move again.[6]

As I (Wayne Grudem) read this story, I tried to imagine what would happen in a modern industrialized country if a local police chief decided to set up such a “checkpoint” on a major highway and extort bribes before allowing trucks to continue. Within about ten minutes, he would be arrested by police officers and put in jail.

Any nation that wants to move from poverty to prosperity must understand how much damage these barriers to commercial activity cause to the economy of a nation. Every customer who finally was able to buy one of those bottles of beer in Bertoua, Cameroon, had to pay a much higher-than-necessary price for the beer, because the high transportation costs made the price Guinness had to charge higher.

This is true not only for beer but for every consumer product that has to be brought to that town from anywhere else in the country. The only people who benefit are the local tyrants who collect bribes at the checkpoints. But the tyrants who run the checkpoints also suffer from higher prices because everything they buy has been subject to the same exorbitant transportation costs.

Moreover, these petty tyrants produce no useful economic benefit for Cameroon because they are not employed in productive work of any kind. They could be farming, building houses or roads, or learning some professional skill. Instead, they spend their lives becoming experts in theft. Meanwhile, the driver of the beer truck, who could have been making other deliveries or working at a second job in his spare time, was forced to do absolutely no work to produce more goods and services for the nation while he was waiting for twenty-five hours at one stop until the man who could give permission for him to go on could be found.

If a country is going to continually produce more goods and services of value and move from poverty toward prosperity, it must guarantee domestic freedom of commerce. The national government must have enough strength and courage to abolish all internal tariffs and extortions. All the people in the nation must have freedom to travel and transport goods anywhere without fees or penalties.

  • [1] Landes, Wealth and Poverty, 214-15.
  • [2] Ibid., 246.
  • [3] Ibid., 245-46.
  • [4] Ibid., 246-47.
  • [5] Robert Guest, The Shackled Continent: Africa’s Past, Present, and Future (London: Macmillan, 2004), 172-75.
  • [6] Ibid., 175-76.
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