Adam Smith Versus the Libertarians

May 16, 2011 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Many libertarians think their founder was Adam Smith. In reality, it was Dr. Pangloss. So long as something is a free market outcome, it is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. That is true, according to libertarian ideology, even if it kills us.

Those libertarians who see Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as an automatic mechanism, one that functions regardless of any other circumstances (so long as government stays out of it), misread Smith. He knew that all aspects of society, including the economy, are dependent on sound morals. In his own view, his most important book was not The Wealth of Nations but A Theory of Moral Sentiments. The amoralism of many libertarians not only separates them from conservatives, it separates them from Adam Smith as well.

Libertarian ideology also departs from Adam Smith when it comes to infrastructure, including transportation and government’s role in providing it. Libertarians demand that everything be left to the free market. Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, wrote:

According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to . . . First, the duty of protecting the society from violence and invasion . . . secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it . . . and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit would never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.

That is a pretty good definition of infrastructure, including transportation infrastructure. In fact, Adam Smith goes on to discuss transportation infrastructure at some length. In his day, that meant roads, canals, and bridges.

In America, canals in particular, represented Smith’s view. Most were built with at least partial government funding. Other than the Erie Canal, few made a profit. But most of them repaid their state investors many times over. I often ride my bike on the towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal. When it opened, the price a farmer received for a barrel of flour in the area the canal served went from 50¢ to five dollars. The cost of transport fell so much that his flour could now be shipped cheaply to New York or Europe, where it commanded a far higher price than it did locally. Cleveland grew from a village into a city. The loss the state absorbed for building and operating the canal was more than repaid.

Adam Smith departed this world before the first train arrived. But it is not unreasonable to think that he might have seen passenger trains and public transportation as part of the public works the government should undertake. Smith did want those public works to pay for their own upkeep as much as possible. Again, in The Wealth of Nations, he wrote:

The greater part of such public works may easily be so managed as to afford a particular revenue for defraying their own expenses, without bringing any burden upon the general revenue of the society.

Conservatives agree with that, so long as the demand is made equally of all competitors. The libertarian transit critics like to apply it to trains and transit but not highways, which “particular revenues” at present cover just under 52% of their expenses.

And while many libertarians demand that all infrastructure be privatized, Smith wrote:

The tolls for the maintenance of a high road cannot with any safety be made the property of private persons.

In short, Adam Smith’s views accord more closely with those of conservatives than of libertarians. He saw society’s morals and culture as more important than a free market. He believed government had a role to play in providing infrastructure, without which commerce cannot flourish. And he thought some of that infrastructure would have to be owned by government. Conservatives views all, not ideological cant.

Why Republicans Will Soon Need Transit

May 3, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

It is rumored that, on Mars, legislators make decisions based on what is good for the planet. On earth, they make decisions and take positions based on what is good for their careers. While it is useful to present Republican legislators with the facts about public transportation, they are likely to revise their opposition to transit and passenger trains only when doing so will get them more votes.

Thanks to the rise in gas prices, that situation is imminent. As gas hits four dollars a gallon, with five or even six in prospect, Republicans’ constituents (along with everybody else) are looking for ways to use less gas. If the disorder in the Middle East spreads to the Persian Gulf, we may find gas is unobtainable at any price (remember 1973 and 1979?). At that point, everyone will need to get around by some means other than driving. Unless we are going to learn to use pogo sticks, we will all need public transportation, both within and between cities.

When this happens, which could be this summer, imagine that you are a Republican legislator who has always opposed transit. You crusaded against both high speed rail and light rail. You voted to de-fund Amtrak. You have given speech after speech saying no one wants to ride trains or other transit. You call for all subsidies (except those to highways) to be eliminated. What are you going to say to all those people in your state or district who are screaming that they cannot get to work, to school, or even to the grocery store? Let them eat cake?

At present, fully half of the American people have no public transportation of any kind available to them. Of the half that do, only half even rate it as “satisfactory.” The relatively few passenger trains, commuter trains, light rail vehicles and streetcars we have, and even the buses, will be full to bursting. Do you think your opponent at the next election is going to overlook the gift you have given him? He is going to remind the voters in every speech that it was you who voted to leave them high and dry when the gas ran out or became unaffordable.

Wise Republicans might want to start thinking about the politics of this scenario now, before they face outraged voters. You don’t have to take “liberal” positions in order to support public transportation, including passenger rail. On this website and in the books I co-authored with Paul Weyrich, Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation and The Next Conservatism, we outline a conservative approach to public transportation. Instead of high speed rail, which the country cannot afford, we call for higher speed rail, trains running on existing tracks that go fast enough to compete with the journey time by automobile, not by airplane. We recommend using proven technologies, existing rights-of-way and simplicity to keep costs down when building streetcars or light rail lines. Conservatives have a very important role to play as cost-conscious advocates of rail transit; at present, cots control has almost no voice in the debate.

Infrastructure cannot be built overnight. If the country is going to have public transportation infrastructure it needs to maintain mobility when people cannot afford or cannot get gas, politicians need to approve and advance projects now. Those who do so will have a record they can point to when the crisis hits. Those who don’t will have a record their opponent can and will point to. Which of those situations would Republicans rather be in?