Blog

Rail: Neither Right Nor Left, But Forward

By David Rosenfeld
Executive Director

My colleague Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group has an brilliant response to George Will's asinine Newsweek column on high speed rail. Read more here. My favorite part is his attempt to understand what kind of thinking is truly behind the rail-hating crowd:

"The notion that our current transportation/land-use system is a free market outcome is patently absurd, and the need to defend that idea leads libertarian outfits such as the Reason Institute down some pretty ridiculous intellectual paths, such as their ardent defense of the biggest government-run infrastructure program of all time – the Interstate Highway System – and their continued argument, in the presence of concrete evidence to the contrary, that roads somehow “pay for themselves.”

There’s something else going on here, and it is this: anti-rail libertarians have come to see the ability to go anywhere at any time – especially, if not exclusively, by car – as the supreme American freedom, which must be defended at every turn and at virtually any cost to the rest of society. Will’s piece validates this notion. He writes:

Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Riding a bus, in Will’s view, is just one step away from submitting to government mind control. It reminds me of former Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes’ claim that a Denver bike-sharing program was a United Nations plot that could “threaten our personal freedoms.”

The dangers of this kind of thinking are pretty profound, since it leads to viewing transportation decisions not as questions of how to move people and goods most efficiently at the lowest cost to society – now and in the future – but rather as questions of how to best breed freedom-loving citizens. Perhaps this ideologically based view of transportation is why some libertarians elevate personal mobility above virtually every other societal value – including the efficient expenditure of public resources, the preservation of healthy, safe and vibrant communities, environmental protection, or even national security. To this crowd, any public policy that fails to bow obsequiously to the primacy of the automobile – say, by diverting even a token amount of resources to transit or rail or slowing down vehicular travel for even a millisecond (witness the libertarian jihad against livability metrics, bike lanes and “traffic calming”) – is immediately suspect.

Tony concludes with this:

Pieces like George Will’s anti-rail rant actually give me a bit of hope. They underscore the weakness of the factual case and the intellectual arguments of the all-roads-everywhere-all-the-time crowd. With such a weak hand to play, their only refuge is to make support for rail an ideological issue – something it clearly is not.

Let’s hope that thoughtful conservatives will continue to push back against the demonization of rail by folks such as George Will, and work together with those from across the political spectrum seeking to address America’s real transportation challenges.

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