George Will thinks high-speed trains are a collectivist plot to control your brain — March 2, 2011

George Will thinks high-speed trains are a collectivist plot to control your brain

See Grist, Krugman, Yglesias. The money quote:

> So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.
>
> Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons — to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

There are many obvious things to say about this, and many good things that the esteemed gentlemen above have written. Here’s what I’ll add: the problem with cars is that they offer the illusion of freedom even while they demonstrate collective insanity. They are a perfect illustration of what can go wrong in markets.

Obvious observation: what does a traffic jam have to do with freedom? You and a few hundred of your closest friends, each in your automobile, are each enjoying your own freedom, sitting in traffic for hours at a time. I hope you enjoy that freedom.

The point that Yglesias has been making forever is that, if we watched a video of Soviet citizens lining up for their free bread, the shelves empty and the lines stretching for blocks, we would know right away what the problem is: the price of bread has been set incorrectly. We see — we *live!* — traffic jams and we don’t immediately think, “pricing problem,” when that’s *precisely* what we should think.

Driving imposes costs on others around us. Think of your decision to drive into Manhattan at rush hour: your extra car makes traffic just a little bit worse for everyone around you. In particular, one fellow estimates that each additional car on a weekday imposes a total of more than 3 hours of delays on everyone else.

From here, George Will then has two options available: either 1) insist that car drivers be made to pay the full cost of their effects on those around them, both in terms of ecological damage (the smoke that belches into the atmosphere while you’re idling in traffic) and in terms of time wasted by others, or 2) somehow insist that people have a right to impose costs on others for free.

Republicans’ habitual support for option 2) has mystified Yglesias for a long time. By what libertarian theory do people have a right not to pay for the damage that they cause?

One potential response is that we cannot trust the state to properly estimate the damage we cause others. And even assuming we *can* trust the state to do that, we cannot trust it to tax the people properly. Maybe the state will have every incentive to overtax, for instance. Or maybe the state will cater to certain interest groups: focus on the needs of train riders or car drivers to the exclusion of everyone else, for instance.

That’s just the point: the state *already* massively favors car drivers, for the reasons listed in my review of [book: Triumph of the City]. If George Will wants to get into a debate about the proper role of the state, I’d be happy to do that; but his first step will have to be answering the question: do people have a right to cause harm to those around them without paying for it? His second step will have to be to admit that the state already plays a massive role in Americans’ use of automobiles. The first is a principle that I hope everyone can agree on; the second is a blindingly obvious observation about the world around us. If he’s not willing to do these things, then it’s not a good-faith debate.

It’s perfectly legitimate to ask why we should want state involvement in transportation policy at all, given what a hash the government has made of things already. Gas taxes are perennially off the table, because politicians expect that they won’t sell; why should we expect that the government will *ever* properly tax people for the damage they do to the people and environment around them?

Again, this is a fine, legitimate question, and I’d be glad to discuss this with George Will. In particular, I’m more than willing to ask him if he has a free-market solution to the problem of people imposing costs on those around them. If there is such a solution, I’d love to hear it. But Will should know that the idea of taxing people for the damage they cause has been utterly mainstream in economics since the early part of the 20th century.

It feels a little silly to treat Will’s ideas with this sort of respect, and to invite him into a polite debate. Will’s job is to carry water for the Republican Party. He wears a bowtie and has a Ph.D. in political science; he’s the intellectually respectable face of the party, even when what he writes (as in this case) is utter garbage. I’m not going to be intellectually generous or gracious to Will; for whatever reason, he’s chosen not to offer that kind of generosity to my side.

To the contrary. What I’m arguing is that, if we actually had a fair debate, Will would be forced — this is not controversial in the least — to start from some premises about state intervention that he would hate. State intervention in the market is inevitable, if people are going to pay for the messes they make. Will wants that, doesn’t he?