Friday, July 16, 2010

Big Government, Big Highways

William S. Lind exposes the myth that "the dominance of automobiles and highways is a free-market outcome" — What’s so conservative about federal highways? "Nothing could be further from the truth," he writes:
    Were we to drop back 100 years, we would find that Americans were highly mobile. Their mobility was based on a dense, nationwide network of rail transportation: intercity trains, streetcars, and interurbans (the latter two electrically powered). Almost all of these rail systems were privately owned, paid taxes, and were expected to make a profit. But they were wiped out by massive government subsidies to highways. Today’s situation, where “drive or die” is the reality for most Americans, is a product of almost a century of government intervention in the transportation market....

    In transportation as in many things, the past was in some ways better than the present. Thanks to the Pullman Company, the night boats, our cities’ excellent streetcar systems, and the fast, electric interurbans that connected cities with towns and the countryside, earlier generations weren’t merely transported like so many barrels of flour. They traveled. Today, whether driving on the bland Interstate Highways or flying, Americans are just packaged and shipped....

    As late as the 1950s, it was still possible to travel from anywhere in America to pretty much anywhere else in the country on a network of buses and trains. But President Eisenhower’s National Defense Interstate Highway Act, which has poured $114 billion into highway construction, killed the privately operated passenger train. We’re left with only a shadow of a wraith of its ghost in Amtrak’s skeletal national system.

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Anonymous Abdul Alhazred said...

I always think cities (in all countries) looked more interesting in the days of streetcars. Check out some of the photos of Japanese cities in the 1950s and earlier decades. Definitely more interesting.

12:15 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Nagasaki still runs vintage 1930s era streetcars, each painted differently.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous ben said...

There is a lot about the rail system that was not very conservative either. the Railroad Act of 1862 wherein the congress just gave away million of acres of prime land to the railroads was just as interventionist as federal highway support in the 20th century. And it was the private action of GM that did away with most of the streetcar systems.

3:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People still had to choose to drive cars on highways instead of taking trains. Very many people enjoy the open road and the fact that they are in control of the route, the timetable, the steering wheel, the model of car they're driving, etc. Some of my fondest memories are of road trips taken on interstates. There was a sense of intimacy and privacy with the other people in the car, switching drivers, etc. If we wanted to pull over for a roadside attraction, we could. Not so with a train. If we wanted to skip out of town at 3:00 A.M., so be it. Without the interstates, these goods would not be possible.

I think that there is a difference between conservatism and knee-jerk reactionism of the "it is currently true, so it must be worse than went before, but almost certainly better than what will come next" variety. We can concede that the rise of the highway killed trains and that trains had much to commend them. That doesn't mean that the rise of the highway is bad. It just means that the event has both good and bad sides. The rise of trains had a good and a bad side. Once upon a time, Greek and Roman poets condemned the invention of the ship. We don't live in Eden. Things are bad with cars. Things were bad with trains. Things were bad with the Conestoga wagon. They will be bad with the thing that follows the car. Things were also good in all of those situations and will be good in the future. When it comes to technology, there is little that is a pure gain or a pure loss. Any criticism of the highway system that does not admit multiple benefits (and even strictly utilitarian benefits are still benefits because utility, while not the highest good, is still a good, particularly for technology) is a misleading one.


12:35 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

You're right, of course. But the thing to remember is that highways were not some free market outcome as the lefties claim, but rather a result of state interventionism, as were the railroads, as ben so kindly pointed out.

4:21 PM  

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