Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Non-Information Superhighway

While obsessively reading a spat between the libertarians at Reason and some left-leaning types who really fucking hate libertarians at Sadly, No, I came across a frequently-heard argument in support of government that I’ve always found somewhat misguided curious. Inevitably, when these types of discussions occur, the point is made that “government has made lots of really valuable things, just look at the interstate highway system”. This piece of information is always assumed to make an unimpeachable case for government. However, there are two assumptions made when making this statement, both of which are suspect:

1) Why could the interstate highway system not possibly be created by private companies? Given that they’re pretty much all controlled-access highways, it would be relatively easy to make the interstates toll roads (many of them already are), which could create an incentive for private investors to build these roads. Surely, in the absence of interstate road-building by the federal government, someone would have take seen the demand for a high speed road between major US cities and tried to make some money off it. Yes, it may not be as extensive as the system we currently have, but that brings me to point #2…

2) Why is the interstate highway system automatically assumed by everyone to be a good thing? (and this is especially interesting for left wing/environmentalists types). The interstate highway system is basically a subsidy for private automobiles. When these people look to Europe as a model of urban form and public transportation, keep in mind that the interstate highway system has merely made trains, etc. less attractive and more expensive compared to cars for long distance travel. It has encouraged sprawl (which I personally believe to be a ‘problem’ that is greatly exaggerated , but it’s widely derided among those worried about Americans’ dependence on cars).

In sum: while I readily admit that I personally love the interstate highway system, I think it’s far from a slam dunk in terms of it being either uniquely provided by public institutions OR being a net benefit to the country. Without it, the country would definitely look different, but it’s a matter of opinion whether we would be better off. You’d think that people who spout off about how terrible cars are would realize that interstates have merely encouraged the use of private cars as a means of transportation by artificially lowering the marginal cost of travel. If you are going to defend public roads (particularly long-distance highways), you should at least be prepared to accept that they have created some distortions in the urban, suburban, and rural forms in this country, and perhaps not for the better – especially if you use some of the negative indicators on sprawl, public transit, etc. that are popular with the same people who are defending government using the interstate highways. Interstate highways are awesome, but they shouldn’t be paid for using tax dollars – use the government to plan them, sure, but these should be privately-operated, user-pay roads.

And whatever happened to the term “Information Superhighway”, anyway? There's some short-term nostalgia for you.


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