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.