What Does Opposition to Government Rail Projects Have to Do With Individual Liberty?

That's the gist of the question civil libertarian (and sometime Reason contributor) Timothy B. Lee posed recently in this Forbes post concerning The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America. It's a question worth engaging a bit.

Lee likes the first two parts of our book, but then:

The final third of the book, called "operationalize it, baby!" (yes, with an exclamation point), takes a curious turn. The opening chapter, called "we are so out of money," makes two major points: government spends a lot of money on trains, and government spends a lot of money on benefits for public employees.

At this point, a lot of readers must be scratching their heads. Aside from that section on airline deregulation, the first two-thirds of the book doesn't say anything about transportation policy. Nor is the book a treatise on public pensions. So in what sense do these complaints about government spending "operationalize" the book's previous arguments about the value of individual liberty? [...]

I'm familiar enough with libertarian theory to know what the connection is supposed to be: the government spending more money on transportation infrastructure and the government telling you what kind of beer you can drink are both infringements of economic freedom. This line of reasoning is rooted in the work of hard-core libertarians like Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand, for whom all taxation was theft. [...]

If all taxation is theft, then the government subsidizing trains is as much an infringement on your freedom as the government banning small breweries. The problem is that Gillespie and Welch insist they're not that kind of libertarians. [...] Evidently, they believe there are at least some kinds of public services that should be provided with tax revenues.

But if the government is going to provide fire departments and public sidewalks, then presumably it's going to have to hire some employees. And those employees will probably expect some health care and retirement benefits. To be sure, there's a need to reform public pensions, but this is a basically technocratic question that has little to do with economic freedom as such.

As for trains, not only does the subject have no obvious connection to economic freedom, but Gillespie and Welch don't make a very compelling case that trains are particularly prone to mismanagement and boondoggles. To be sure, there have been a lot of wasteful train projects, but it's easy to find examples of mismanaged projects involving other modes of transportation, all of which are also heavily regulated and subsidized by the government. The problem is that large bureaucracies are inefficient, not that there's something uniquely bad about rail transportation.

More to the point, one of the big reasons train-based transit tends to perform poorly is that the government systematically discourages the kind of high-density development patterns that make trains economically viable. Trains are an efficient and popular mode of transportation in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and DC because there's a critical mass of people within walking distance of each stop. But today, rules about minimum parking, setbacks, maximum building heights, and so forth effectively make it illegal to build neighborhoods like the high-density parts of Northeastern cities. Repeal those rules and wait a couple of decades, and some of these train boondoggles might start to make more sense.

In any event, the perennial argument between people who like trains and people who like cars has about as much to do with individual liberty as the Yankees-vs-Red Socks feud. Decisions about which modes of transportation the government should subsidize, and how, involve boring trade-offs between costs and benefits. There’s no reason libertarians, as such, should have a dog in the fight.

Taking Lee's points in order:

1) Aside from that section on airline deregulation, the first two-thirds of the book doesn't say anything about transportation policy is an odd formulation, considering that an entire chapter among the first eight (entitled "You Are Now Free to Move About the Country") is devoted to precisely that. Democratizing travel and mobility has played a significant role in the story of human prosperity and freedom these past 40 years.

2) Our out-of-moneyness does have a direct connection to operationalizing libertarian-flavored insights into public policy. Why? Because it's forcing politicians and voters to confront difficult and long-overdue choices about what the government can no longer afford to spend money on. The status quo is untenable, which is why a growing mass of people is demanding that the government stop rubber-stamping pie-in-the-sky projects and permanent spending increases.

3) All taxation may indeed be theft, but the point of bringing up train boondoggles in this context is that they are among the very worst public policy fiascoes out there, and living evidence that our politicians–who are always the last to know–still haven't fully grokked that we are truly out of money. When the beleagured and stone-broke city of Cincinnati is, in the Year of our Lord 2011, spending millions of dollars on a guaranteed-to-lose-money-for-no-good-goddamned-reason streetcar project (while mouthing such cost-benefit fantasia as "The question isn't whether we can afford to build the streetcar... The question is whether we can afford not to")...when the Republican governor of California, in the teeth of a looming fiscal crisis, helps push through a multi-billion-dollar high speed train to nowhere, relying on projections that even California's Legislative Analyst's Office has openly laughed at...well, these are poignant examples of how far out of whack our political priorities have gone, and how much the stewardship of taxpayer dollars has been driven by "fashionable make-believe."

4) Pro-rail policy is often the explicit foe of individual liberty. All you have to do is consider the enduring fondness among planners and transit enthusiasts (of which I'm one!) for the phrase "get people out of their cars." A transportation approach that respected people's preferences more than trying to change their behavior would be much, much more oriented toward buses and road/highway construction/upkeep. But that's not sexy.

5) While I'm grateful for the "To be sure" in front of Lee's "there's a need to reform public pensions," I can't dismiss this particular budgetary time bomb as a "basically technocratic question that has little to do with economic freedom." Public pensions are considerably more generous than their private sector counterparts, promise unreasonably high rates of return, are subject to all kinds of politicized investment decision-making, and are soaking up an exponentially growing share of state and local budgets even while being catastrophically under-funded. Does it affect economic freedom when pension obligations jack up tax rates, crowd out the provision of public services, then drive various governments into bankruptcy? I'd vote yes.

6) The fact that "government systematically discourages the kind of high-density development patterns that make trains economically viable" is not an argument for building more government train projects, it's an argument for rolling back zoning restrictions. Which certainly costs a lot less.

7) Re: "the perennial argument between people who like trains and people who like cars has about as much to do with individual liberty as the Yankees-vs-Red Socks feud," leaving aside the spelling of the latter, there is an odd assumption embedded here that libertarians who oppose rail boondoggles are more motivated by their "like" of cars than by notions of "individual liberty." All I can say to that is, you really must not have seen Bob Poole's legendary train set....

Put another way, I "like" baseball (probably more than is clinically advisable), but that doesn't mean I like the government to build baseball stadiums. I didn't have a driver's license until age 26, have never owned a car built in the decade I acquired it, and never paid for one with anything but cash. But just because I think the TGV is neat doesn't mean I won't continue pointing out that politics of American rail as practiced right now come embedded with some of the most anti-scientific projections, transparent social engineering, and needlessly expensive price tags in all of public policy. This should be of concern particularly to those of us who like trains, along with everyone else who has an interest in restraining government spending and getting the maximum bang out of the taxpayer's buck.

Make sure to read Lee's whole post. Reason on high-speed rail here.

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  • ||

    Great fucking movie.

    Excellent work Welch.

  • ||

    Anyone care to guess what film the director is most well known for?

  • Almanian||

    "A Triumph of the Will"?

    Too soon?

  • ||

    Not bad. Not bad.

  • Warty||

    It's something absurd. Is it 3 Ninjas? I know it's something similarly degrading. Needing money really bad must be awful.

  • ||

    Getting close, getting close. It had two big stars.

  • Warty||

    Oh yeah, right. That one.

    I won't spoil the game for everyone else, but I do note with amusement that he quit during filming.

  • ||

    I think you can go ahead and spoil it now.

  • Warty||

    That would be terribly gauche of me. I must decline.

  • ||

    Indeed. I stand appropriately reprimanded.

  • Ted S.||

    Which movie? Runaway Train or Silver Streak?

  • Warty||

    One of my favorite movies.

  • ||

    Which one?

    There are two pictured.

  • ||

    If you have to ask ...

  • ||

    I gave up my encyclopedic knowledge of films after god invented the internet.

    Looking through both filmographies i find no film that jumps out at me as has been described above.

    Did one of them work on a failed Ayn Rand film?

  • ||

    I think the rule is anything with Richard Pryor is better than anything with Eric Roberts.

  • ||

    Except for misspelling "Cincinnati."

  • Matt Welch||

    Thanks.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Welch should have used the poster for the movie Unstoppable. It's been on HBO recently. Without giving spoilers, for anyone not familiar with the film it's about two rail workers who must solve a murder on a train before the next stop. I think it's more relevant to the topic.

  • Ted S.||

    Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express is much better.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Spoiler alert: The train did it.

  • Almanian||

    Why is Francis McDormand's picture from "Fargo" standing in for Eric Roberts pic on that poster?

  • ||

    I had the same reaction, Almanian. I thought "It's been a long time, but I don't remember her in that movie," and had to check the credits.

  • ||

    But if the government is going to provide fire departments and public sidewalks

    For the most part it is private developers who pay for and build public sidewalks.

  • robc||

    And volunteers who provide fire protection (although I still pay a fire district tax, but Im sure its less than in a salaried fire district), at least in real America.

  • ||

    Decisions about which modes of transportation the government should subsidize, and how, involve boring trade-offs between costs and benefits. There’s no reason libertarians, as such, should have a dog in the fight.

    Sure we should. As incremental steps toward reducing such subsidies, we should attack the worst ones first. Which means, trains.

    I love the way he refutes this:

    The problem is that large bureaucracies are inefficient, not that there's something uniquely bad about rail transportation.

    With this:

    More to the point, one of the big reasons train-based transit tends to perform poorly is that the government systematically discourages the kind of high-density development patterns that make trains economically viable.

    So, actually, given current development patterns, trains actually are uniquely bad.

    And the project of making them not uniquely bad is an invitation to yet another round of urban planning micromanagement, to create car-hostile environments. As we have seen.

  • T||

    Screw you and your car, RC.

    Which is, I think, the implicit motto of urban planners since at least the late 60s.

  • jtuf||

    While "screw you in your car" was the motto of young suburbanites at that time.

  • ||

    More to the point, one of the big reasons train-based transit tends to perform poorly is that the government systematically discourages the kind of high-density development patterns that make trains economically viable.

    Government discourages high density development?

    Then why in every smart growth region in the country are there so many regulations made to prevent sprawl?

  • ||

    Yeah, that struck me as well. In San Francisco, we don't have rules about "minimum parking," we have rules that limit the maximum number of parking spaces a new building can have, to make car ownership as difficult and expensive as possible.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Also causes lower density development elsewhere, when people decide to leave retarded cities like San Francisco. Governments discourage high density development, even when they think they aren't.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Government is hypocritical. Sure they make a half assed attempt to centrally plan high density development with "smart growth" policies, but then the government also has many regulations that do the opposite (zoning laws, property tax policies), and also encourages lower density development by subsidizing the infrastructure that it depends on.

  • hazeeran||

    Twice the headache- stimulus! Give a man a jawb!

  • ||

    The truth of it is actually more convoluted.

    smart growth Zoning laws meant to encourage density often encourage sprawl in fact.

    "So I cannot build dense development outside of an Urban Growth Area? I can only build low density development there?"

    "Yes. The UGA was established to prevent low density sprawl."

    Fucking brilliant.

  • jtuf||

    +1 to Joshua

  • Stephen Smith||

    lol. You and PapayaSF have clearly never read an average American city's zoning code. Did you know that it's illegal to build anywhere in Brooklyn – including downtown Brooklyn, which has better transit access than much of Lower Manhattan!!! – without parking? Or that even Philadelphia's zoning rewrite is still going to leave the minimums in place in Old City, Philadelphia? And that literally everywhere in the country outside of SF's core, NYC below Harlem, parts of Seattle, the very densest part of Philadelphia, and Chicago's Loop has parking minimums? Even places like North Jersey which have supposedly gone all "smart growth" have added maximums, but still keep the minimums in place.

    DC (at least the parks within 1/4 mile of rail stations) with the coming rewrite will be stripped of their parking minimums, and this will be the most radical parking minimum deregulation...ever. I'm pretty sure that all those supposedly-smart growth towns in Northern Virginia also still have minimums (though they may have maximums as well).

  • jtuf||

    +1 to Stephen Smith

  • ||

    + 1776 to Stephen Smith

  • ScottyB||

    I'm relatively new here at Reason.com. I love the articles, but often scratch my head at the comments sections. How much should I expect reasoned argument vs. playful banter vs. ideological feces-throwing? Seems about 20%, 30%, 50% to me. Thanks.

  • Warty||

    The arguments in the comments are never terribly reasoned. Call it 1%/25%/74%.

  • OO||

    Reasoned argument? Can someone assign a percentage to me that is less than 0%?

  • Warty||

    For a second I thought this was actually Orrin. I had a nice string of insults all typed out before I actually read the post. Dammit.

  • fish||

    Remember Warty his given name is Double Anus!

    (What's that doing for the feces throwing percentage?)

  • nobody||

    Like Somalia, the comments sections are pretty much unregulated.

  • ||

    Seems about 20%, 30%, 50% to me.

    No I think the actual numbers are 29%, 58%, and 62%. Sure, this doesn't add up to 100% but the reason comment board is kind of like an intellectual Man/Bear/Pig.

  • ||

    The comments depend on the article.

    Nick and Matt have been selling their book every day here for the past 2 months...

    So in those threads (like this one) the comments tend to be off subject and disinterested with the actual subject of the article.

  • hazeeran||

    So far it's been basically on topic, ironically except for the "20%, 30%, 50%" comment.

  • robc||

    Any thread with a certain pale minority goes to 0/0/100 quickly.

  • ||

    Personally, I wouldn't want to draw the line between playful banter and feces-throwing. De gustibus, etc.

  • ||

    Personally, I wouldn't want to draw the line between playful banter and feces-throwing.

    For me it is a physical impossibility.

  • ||

    The fact that "government systematically discourages the kind of high-density development patterns that make trains economically viable" is not an argument for building more government train projects, it's an argument for rolling back zoning restrictions. Which certainly costs a lot less.

    That is true as far as it goes. But even if they didn't, we would still have suburbs. Houston has no zoning laws. Yet it didn't develop into the type of high density city this guy is talking about.

    The vast majority of Americans want a house and a yard and a some space. They don't want to live in some version of Greenwich Village. I don't understand why so many people have such a hard time accepting that.

  • Warty||

    The same reason as everything else: control.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Without zoning laws and overbuilt public-funded roads, suburbs would probably develop more efficiently.

  • ||

    But they still wouldn't develop into high density apartment living. People don't want that.

  • ||

    YOU might not want that. A lot of people do.

  • Spoonman.||

    It's worth noting that Houston has high-rise buildings scattered pretty much throughout the developed area. I work in a 8-story building 16 miles from downtown.

  • ||

    True. And there are high density apartment complexes about everywhere too. But the overall density of the city is nothing compared to say Manhattan or center city Chicago, which is what this guy wants.

  • ||

    I blame Ford for creating a cheap(er) car that allows people to live in a house with a yard.

  • jtuf||

    Downtown Hackensack, NJ is the classic suburb of the 1920's. It developed right before restrictive zoning started. There's commercial buildings and residential buildings on the same blocks. Half the buildings are one or two-stories, the other half are three to five-stories, there's 2 six-story buildings, 1 seven-story building, and 1 twelve-story building. You won't find that combination often, because it's illegal in most neighborhoods today.

  • ||

    Houston's still young with relatively cheap land nearby. If it keeps growing & retains the relative zoning freedom, I expect the city center to evolve into denser development.

    Or not. That's why there should be freedom.

  • GSL||

    Um, yeah, you'd have to ignore a lot of what's gone on with the high-speed rail project in California to conclude that trains have nothing to do with liberty. For one thing, there's the sight of the state with the nation's most regressive taxes forcing its citizens to pay off billions in bonds to build trains in the middle of nowhere. For another, there are all those farmers in the Central Valley seeing prime farmland seized for the project through eminent domain. And for another, there are homeowners on the SF Peninsula wondering why they paid a fortune for their houses when HRSA is about to run obscenely ugly elevated track through their neighborhoods.

  • GrizzlyAdam||

    But with trains everyone arrives at the same place at the same time. Everyone travels the same route. Nobody deviates from course, or stops for coffee, or (gasp!) drives more than they "should". Everyone is safely tucked away in a perfectly controlled environment. Trains are a progressive wet dream.

  • ||

    I am surprised no one has ever pointed out that New York is an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

    The whole fucking place was either leafy tree old growth forest or a fresh water or salt water wetland. Do leafy tree old growth forests even exist anywhere anymore?

    And public trains helped destroy it!

  • jtuf||

    We've got one tract of old growth forest left in NJ. We keep it around for research purposes.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...not an argument for building more government train projects, it's an argument for rolling back zoning restrictions.

    It seems to be an argument for both.

  • Pip||

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Almost as good as Under Siege 3.

  • ||

    Needs more Nathan Storm.

  • Ted S.||

    I think The Cassandra Crossing might me more appropriate, since the dispatchers on the outside are deliberately trying to kill the passengers inside.

  • pmains||

    That's the jist gist of the question

  • ||

    Government also subsidized roads, they don't do that in Sweden where most roads are privately funded. Really I don't take all the anti-railroad comments seriously by people who aren't all up in arms about roads as well.

    Certainly once in awhile I read lipservice to what might be different if Ike didn't build the expressways, but it seems the arguments against railroads have nothing to do with libertarianism. If they did, all the same people would be out there fighting against public funding of road maintenance as well. But I don't see that, ever.

  • ||

    Government also subsidized roads, they don't do that in Sweden where most roads are privately funded. Really I don't take all the anti-railroad comments seriously by people who aren't all up in arms about roads as well.

    Certainly once in awhile I read lipservice to what might be different if Ike didn't build the expressways, but it seems the arguments against railroads have nothing to do with libertarianism. If they did, all the same people would be out there fighting against public funding of road maintenance as well. But I don't see that, ever.

  • ||

    I bring this up because I drive but also bike since I live close to work, and am constantly harranged by "we paid for the roads" but the truth is local roads are mostly paid for by general taxes not transportation related taxes. So the problems of who pays for roads and why comes up a lot.

  • ||

    I bring this up because I drive but also bike since I live close to work, and am constantly harranged by "we paid for the roads" but the truth is local roads are mostly paid for by general taxes not transportation related taxes. So the problems of who pays for roads and why comes up a lot.

  • ||

    constantly harranged by "we paid for the roads"

    I suggest the all-purpose riposte:

    "Fuck off, slaver."

  • hazeeran||

    Squirrels pounced you bad.

  • robc||

    And those employees will probably expect some health care and retirement benefits.

    They should stop that. If we libertarians had our way, they would just get a bunch of cash and they could by the health/retirement benefits they so chose. Employees wouldnt be involved at all.

  • ||

    I hope you mean EmployeRs wouldn't be involved at all.

  • ||

    The fact that "government systematically discourages the kind of high-density development patterns that make trains economically viable" is not an argument for building more government train projects, it's an argument for rolling back zoning restrictions. Which certainly costs a lot less.

    Actually, he's not making either of these arguments by bringing this up. What he is trying to say here is that rail projects are not necessarily the inherent boondoggles that you are making them out to be here, but are in fact often the victims of the aforementioned zoning restrictions, and that absent these restrictions, a lot of these projects may in fact be the better options, and perhaps may even the ones that "respect people's preferences rather than trying to change their behavior."

  • Montani Semper Liberi||

    I don't buy that argument. We only need to look at Europe for a real life example. Despite European cities being much denser than their American counterparts, the only HSR route that is able to cover operating expenses without government subsidies is the Paris-Lyon route, and trains have gradually been losing overall share of transportation miles to cars and motorcycles for years.

  • ||

    What he is trying to say here is that rail projects are not necessarily the inherent boondoggles that you are making them out to be here,

    In an alternate universe, maybe. In these United States circa 2011, uh, yes, they are.

    absent these restrictions, a lot of these projects may or may not in fact be the better options,

    Edited for clarity.

    So, essentially what he's saying is that, if the US looked completely different than it does, rail might be more viable in some places.

    Hard to argue with that, I guess. Of course, there's really nothing there to argue with, either.

  • Keith Relf's Electrified Harp||

  • ||

    Timothy B. Lee is a dimwit.

  • ||

    Really I don't take all the anti-railroad comments seriously by people who aren't all up in arms about roads as well.

    The roads are already here. We can still try to prevent more wasteful spending on railroads which do not yet exist. And some of us are fully in favor of privatizing highways.

  • ||

    And-

    Not all trains are bad. Trains are an excellent way to distribute freight.

  • Polevaulter Donkeyman||

    Can we have pictures of Bob Poole's awesome train set?

  • jtuf||

    More to the point, one of the big reasons train-based transit tends to perform poorly is that the government systematically discourages the kind of high-density development patterns that make trains economically viable. Trains are an efficient and popular mode of transportation in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and DC because there's a critical mass of people within walking distance of each stop.

    Bergen County had a street car system in the early 20th Century run by the Public Service Transportation Company even though it was rather rural back then. The company replaced it with buses in 1926. The buses left Hackensack every 15 minutes for the ferry ports to New York City. Today, the population density is over 3 times greater here, and the state run buses are less frequent. Anyone who takes the train can see grown over tracks from the train window, yet there is a push for a light rail line.

  • ||

    A Red Sox toy train set...

    yeah we all know what to get Matt for Christmas now.

  • Canman||

    The city where I live has a Metro bus that is painted like an old streetcar. It looks great, and seems to me to do everything a real streetcar does with a hell of a lot more flexibility.

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