Saturday, November 3, 2012

Publicly built highways are not an expression of the free market

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Publicly built highways are not an expression of the free market
Nov 2, 2012 | James Tuttle

Publicly built highways are not an expression of the free market was originally posted to the Art of the Possible blog by Jackson.

My friend Alex Marshall, in his newest post up on Governing magazine, asks “What’s up with groups that argue for less government but see publicly built highways as an expression of the free market?” Alex is highly critical of right-wing libertarians whose policy preferences are a simple Rorschach test of their own personal biases – people who label their preferences with the language of freedom, individualism and happiness, whereas any policy they dislike is labeled “socialism” or “tyranny”. Thus, if these people like to drive big cars, then any government action that supports their ability to drive big cars is a bold stroke for glorious emancipation, whereas any policy that interferes with their ability to drive big cars is a form of Stalinism so black that even Stalin himself would have thought it excessive. I encourage you to read the whole post. This is how it starts:

Building a road is a manifestation of power, particularly state power. Carving a road across multiple jurisdictions and property lines — not to mention varying terrain — can be done only by an institution that can override the wishes of any one individual.

This was true in the days of the Roman Empire, when mighty roads were built so well that many of them still exist. And it’s true today. In the exercise of that authority, local, state and federal governments spent more than $150 billion on roads in 2005, according to the most recent federal Highway Statistics report. That’s comparable to what we spend annually on waging war in Iraq.

Given all this, I find it exceedingly strange that a group of conservative and libertarian-oriented think tanks — groups that argue for less government — have embraced highways and roads as a solution to traffic congestion and a general boon to living. In the same breath, they usually attack mass-transit spending, particularly on trains. They seem to see a highway as an expression of the free market and of American individualism, and a rail line as an example of government meddling and creeping socialism.

I should add, Alex is the author of “How Cities Work : Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken“. Chapter Six of this book will have especial interest for anyone who reads Art Of The Possible. This chapter, titled “The Master Hand“, focuses on the role that government plays in shaping cities:

Americans tend to think of government as something outside themselves, a kind of regulatory body that interferes with the working of both an economy and the development of places. According to this view, the shapers of cities and the creators of wealth are the individual actors: the developer, the house builder, the company owner.

But government–that is, us–almost always lays down the concrete slab that economies and places are built upon. Government not only creates the laws, and operates the courts and the police, it then lays down the roads and builds the schools. In a modern economy, it then proceeds to set up a Federal Reserve System, a Securities and Exchange Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and other more elaborate financial infrastructure.

I sense that most people do not understand this, and the reason can be laid at the feet of an insidious idea called “the free market.” We tend to think that places and economies just happen, built by the invisible hand of Adam Smith if by anyone. In our mind’s eye, we tend to see supermarkets and subdivisions proliferating across the countryside, driven by consumer choice and the decisions of banks to finance them. We tend not to see the government’s prior decision to build an Interstate through the area that made the whole thing possible.

The intersection of place and economics is often in transportation. The decision of what transportation system to build, something almost always done by government, tends to create both an economy for an area or metropolis, and a particular physical framework organized around that infrastructure. So when Denver builds a big airport, it also creates the loose physical structure of warehouses, offices, and shopping centers that proliferates around airports. When New York City built its subway system (which was nominally private but steered and aided by government), it also created the possibility of the dense networks of skyscrapers that would follow. The Interstate Highway System created both a new economics of transportation and a new lifestyle organized around suburban living.

I should add, before I read this book I already had a keen understanding of the extent to which cities were shaped by their economies, and I appreciated the irony of the saying that all cities are similar yet each is historically unique and a product of circumstance. However, this book brought home to me the extent to which every era has its dominant modes of transportation, and how cities are very much shaped by the constraints and possibilities of those modes.

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