"The main objective, after all, is to develop a truly free market in highway service, and that requires that only those projects that are seen by investors as promising a reasonable prospect of making a return on total investment be built ... So there is a case for radicalism -- for legislating that government will get out of highways and phase down the taxes that currently support them. Henceforth they will be funded by investors charging tolls and subject to competition."
One way in which urban areas have been said to subsidize rural areas - and "blue" states to subsidize "red" states - is by the funding of roads and highways. Thinkers as diverse as libertarians and distributists, from Milton Friedman to John Medaille [Correction: Medaille does not propose privatizing highways. Please see note at bottom of entry. - JC], have proposed the privatization of highways as a means of correcting the perceived inequity. Their shared belief is that those who use highways should be the ones who pay for them, and those who do not use them should not have to pay for them. Besides, don't highway subsidies result in too many highways? As Cato's Peter Samuel argues in "Highway Aggravation: The Case For Privatizing The Highways", and as every good conservative understands, "projects that would not fly without subsidy usually should not fly".
(By the way, the Cato article linked and quoted above is not without some valuable insights and is well worth a read. On the matter of traffic congestion, Samuel writes: "At least three-quarters of the increase in traffic has nothing at all to do with population. It has everything to do with women and young people getting their own cars. That explains why areas of the country with little population growth have not been spared the upsurge of traffic on the roads.")
It seems to me that a free highway system is a near-perfect metaphor for the interconnectedness of human society. It's true that our transportation infrastructure involves subsidies and the re-distribution of wealth. But to look at this as an "us" vs. "them" problem is, in my opinion, a mistake. They are us, and we are them, and a free highway system benefits everyone. Even if urban taxpayers don't personally travel on rural highways, the trucks which stock their shelves do travel on them, as do the farmers and ranchers who grow their food. City dwellers work for employers whose suppliers, vendors, contractors and and customers depend on rural highways. Most people have relatives and friends who live in other cities, at least, if not in small towns and rural areas, and maintaining those relationships requires travel on rural highways. At some point in their lives most urban and suburban dwellers utilize rural highways for work or recreation, or they depend upon others who do. Etc.
Furthermore, the highway "subsidy" makes rural and small-town living more economically viable. It's in everyone's interest to preserve this way of life, which has been in retreat for decades due to all kinds of pressures. A free highway system eases the economic hardship of rural living, making it a little less impossible to start a business or to commute to a job in town. Why should city dwellers care about this? Because rural/small town people are their countrymen, first and foremost, but also because it's important to make the social benefits of small town life available to as many as possible. These benefits are good in themselves, and for that reason alone they are deserving of a "subsidy".
But the most compelling argument for preserving a free, public highway system is that it's as American as apple pie. How different would our heritage be - our songs and stories and poems and lore - without the romantic freedom of the open road? Without the contrasts and tensions between the rambler and the settler? Granted, the kind of mobility that our highway system affords is partially responsible for the dissolution of community life that I often lament. But nevermind: rising fuel prices will soon cure this problem without the need for privatizing highways. In the meantime, I find there are few things more enjoyable than driving freely in the countryside, exploring the back roads, chasing ghost towns and landmarks, spying on the neighbors and their projects, and just drinking in the beauty of this delightfully obscure corner of the Golden West.
For me, the open road represents one of our last freedoms in an increasingly un-free world. Or maybe I just have a powerful streak of American wanderlust. Either way, a free highway system is more than just a subsidy: it's a symbol of our national character, and not one I'm inclined to barter away.
[Correction: Prof. John Medaille does not advocate privatizing highways. I misremembered what he had written in "Towards a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More". Medaille proposes converting freeways into state-operated toll systems with the use of RFID cards. Apologies to all.]