The Story of the Greedy Road Baron
Once upon a time, there was a lowland kingdom, called Broodendam.
Broodendam was a large city, built on what was once a marsh. The city was surrounded by farms and pastures, which had also once been marshland. It had taken the work of many different people, over many decades, to transform the landscape into something that humans could use.
In this tiny kingdom of Broodendam lived a man, Baron Pastei. Pastei's ancestors had been road builders. Tasked by the King of the time, the Baron's grandfather had built city streets and bridges, hewing stone with his own two hands. His father had subsequently funded and coordinated efforts to drive long piles into the muck, fill sloughs with gravel, and build dikes and causeways over the waterlogged terrain of the surrounding countryside. The result of all this labour and all this investment had been a network of infrastructure that helped keep life in Broodendam moving. For this, the Pasteis were made lords.
But the current Baron Pastei had contributed little, and had become bored. He collected a meagre tithe from the kingdom's tax revenues to pay for maintenance of the kingdom's roads, which he had inherited responsibility for. While he lived quite comfortably on a large salary in a fine house – better off than the majority of citizens – he couldn't help but wondering, didn't he deserve more?
From the top of his ample, three-story home, he looked down upon the city, and thought:
Whenever someone wants to go somewhere, they use my roads. When the farmer brings his wheat to the city, they use my roads. When the miller delivers flour to the baker, he uses my roads. The baker brings her wares to market, again, she uses my road. None of this would be possible without my roads, and yet, they all make profit off of my roads. What do I get in return? I must labour to maintain these roads for those who abrade them with their ungrateful feet!
So the Baron got it in his head that part of the value of that wheat, and that flour, and that bread, belonged to him. After all, his family had built the roads, and without the roads, making all the bread in the city would be impossible.
So, the Baron Pastei went to the palace to visit King Troef. The Baron explained his thinking to the King. Because the two were friends, and because the Pastei family had done so much for the kingdom, the King was receptive to the Baron's thinking:
"Perhaps the current roads tithe is insufficient recompense. I will allow you to collect tolls – at a figure you deem appropriate – on any roads which your family constructed and maintains."
The Baron thanked his King and hurried off to enact his plans.
Within days, the city was filled with checkpoints, and the highways of the surrounding countryside mired by tollbooths. At every checkpoint, officious guards asked citizens and merchants alike: Where are you going? To do what? What are you carrying? The guards then consulted a series of ponderous charts to determine what toll was owed by the person wishing to pass though.
Most of the time, the toll was only a few stuivers, so most were able to pay, though they grumbled bitterly. The poorest were turned away from checkpoints entirely, now trapped within their part of the city. The lineups snarled the city, and long queues of people waiting to pay tolls snaked around avenues. Still, some citizens (usually the wealthier ones) continued to lionize Baron Pastei: "Well, I suppose his family did build these roads and bridges, so it is his right to charge us..."
But the worst was yet to come.
One morning, a farmer arrived at the city, intending to sell her wheat to the miller she worked with. When she arrived at the toll booth, the guards consulted some newer-looking charts. After a moment, one of them turned to face her:
The farmer was gobsmacked: "WHAT?!? Twenty guilders? I don't have that much money lying around for road tolls!"
The meaty guard crossed his arms and wrinkled his nose, "That's the toll."
As the shock began to wear off, the farmer thought she might cry, her entire livelihood now in jeopardy.
"Alternatively," the guard suggested, "you can sell the wheat directly to the Association of Thoroughfares & Transport for ten guilders."
"But that's only 60% of what I would get from the miller!" objected the farmer.
The guard said nothing, merely staring at her intractably, arms folded. So the farmer heaved a sigh and handed over her load of wheat, for ten guilders.
Within a few weeks, the farmer was on the verge of insolvency, so she went to visit Baron Pastei himself. The farmer explained her predicament, and the Baron – uncharacteristically – listened to her woes patiently.
"You must understand," the Baron implored, "that I do need to pay for extensive maintenance of all these roads and highways, which is not cheap – hence the tolls. May I suggest a compromise? If you'll excuse my bluntness, you're not a young woman anymore. Let me buy your farm from you for nine-hundred guilders, you can retire, and my people will take over your farming operation."
The farmer had never conceived of that much money in her entire life. Her bones ached from decades of hard work, and she had no children to take over the farm, so the idea of retirement was appealing. After some consideration, she agreed to the Baron's terms, and sold her farm.
A couple of months passed, and similar circumstances allowed the Baron's Association of Thoroughfares & Transport to acquire another farm, a windmill, and a bakery. Now Baron Pastei had everything he needed to really leverage his advantage.
The Baron announced that his Association of Thoroughfares & Transport was now in the business of selling bread. Further, the Baron claimed that – since they controlled the entire process from farm to table – their bread was of superior quality. But it wasn't really as good as the other bakers' bread, and it was slightly more expensive. The first week in business, the Association barely sold more than a handful of loaves.
The week after that, the Baron imposed new road tolls on all the millers delivering flour to bakeries. The millers passed the cost of the tolls onto the bakers, who were in turn forced to raise the prices of their bread substantially, making Baron Pastei's bread the cheapest. Week over week, the Baron slowly raised the tolls on the millers, and sold his cheap bread. Some bakers started going out of business.
Frustrated, the bakers and millers started to try tricks to get around the tolls. They tried mislabelling their packets of flour as other goods, as "bonemeal" or "chalk". Some even tried tunnelling under some of the toll booths. These actions only served to make Baron Pastei angry. He hired more guards to shut down and backfill the tunnels, and to perform deep inspections of goods packets to make sure they didn't contain "illicit" flour.
Eventually, the patience of the citizens of Broodendam expired.
A huge crowd of people marched up to the palace: bakers and farmers who were going out of business after a lifetime of carefully honing their crafts; millers and merchants tired of waiting in long lines for guards to poke and prod their goods; and of course, the population at large, who were sick of being treated like criminals by Baron Pastei's guards, and who – thanks to the tolls – were paying more for almost everything they bought (except for the Baron's dry, flavourless bread, of course).
Stepping out onto a balcony, King Troef looked down upon his people, and asked them: "My citizens: why are you so angry?"
One woman decided to step to the front of the crowd to speak for the masses: "You have allowed the Baron to gouge us with tolls at nearly every turn of our lives! His checkpoints disrupt everything in this city for the sake of his greed, and yet he produces nothing of real value. That Your Majesty has enabled and sanctioned this swindle is an intolerable injustice!"
As the crowd roared their agreement with the well-spoken woman, King Troef nodded, carefully considering his response. After a pause, he spoke:
"Don't you see, my people? Baron Pastei does add value. He employs dozens of guards and thugs, creating local jobs. He produces an affordable brand of bread. His company keeps our roads, highways, and bridges in good repair. And when he occasionally spends his now-vast wealth, it injects money into our economy. But most of all, we must remember: his ancestors built those roads, meaning that we are forever in his debt, and should be grateful in perpetuity. Nay, the Baron is no swindler! Baron Pastei is our best and brightest!"
The King raised his arms, as if expecting a cheer to go up. Instead, a long and awkward silence ensued. Finally, the well-spoken woman took a step forward, and issued her rebuttal:
The people of Broodendam stormed the castle, and seized the King. They proceeded next to the Baron's house, and seized him as well. All of the toll booths and checkpoints were torn down, and the assets of the Association of Thoroughfares & Transport were nationalized. The people acclaimed the well-spoken woman to the position of Chancellor, where she immediately announced a system of comprehensive welfare to help the kingdom's poorest, including those worst affected by the Baron's monopolistic excesses. She declared that henceforth the roads, bridges, and highways would be maintained by the state for the good of everyone who wished to use them.
All in all, everyone was happier – except for King Troef and Baron Pastei. The state of Broodendam employed the ample system of highways to exile the two men to the fringes of the kingdom. There, the two former noblemen were deposited in the swamp, to live where they belonged.