Saturday, May 17, 2008

Vulgar Libertarianism in Pittsburgh

I often wonder if libertarianism has a built in preference for getting around. Why do I wonder? Because it shouldn't. But that is how conversations about transport and libertarianism start out in this country. Basically most libertarians (I say most because there are some that understand history) use their libertarianism to declare that transit does not work. "Let the free market work" they say, without discussing the massive amount of subsidies that turned the United States into its car loving, wealth transferring, big business loving self.

In fact during the time at which most transit was built, it was during the most free market period in the history of this country and it was about the development of land. That development opportunity disappeared with the invention of the automobile and the road funding by the government. By that time zoning was implemented and separate districts mostly single family were created like they were on an assembly line.

So I'm not surprised when the assistant editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune started his column out like this without historical context:
It was no place for a lone libertarian. And it was certainly no friendly place for anyone who thinks wasteful government transportation monopolies like the Port Authority of Allegheny County are proof that America's 40-year-old experiment in socialized urban mass transit is a failure.
Just jump right into it Bill, leave no history forgetting opinion out. Then the preference issue:
In fact, anyone who openly prefers cars to buses would have found himself feeling very alone during a salon dinner discussion on "The Future of Urban Growth and Transportation" Tuesday night at the upscale restaurant Eleven in the Strip District.
Why is it that you prefer cars? Is it because we've made cars and oil pretty much the only game in town? This brings me to Vulgar Libertarianism. The Mutualist Blog lays it out:
The defining feature of vulgar political economy, as Marx described it, was that it had ceased to be an attempt at the scientific explication of the laws of economics, and had become a hired prize-fighter on behalf of plutocratic interests.
Interests like the automobile, at the cost of every other mode. But Japan can have free market transit! Why not be like them?

When the lone libertarian finally found the nerve, he did his uncomfortable best to politely shame his fellow salon-goers for their blind acceptance of our obviously third-rate mass-transit industrial complex. He pointed out that Tokyo's gargantuan transit system -- arguably the world's best -- was about 90 percent private and mostly profitable.

He tried to point out that in progressive Europe, governments are decentralizing control and funding of mass transit or privatizing its bus and rail lines, as Stockholm and London have done.

Remember earlier when we talked about land and our zoning. Well Japan's railroad owns land and that's where it makes most of its money. We don't let transit agencies become real estate companies either in this country. If we do, we often get into the whole eminent domain mess, which libertarians hate. In addition, London's privatization has been seen as a money sucking failure and the government in Denmark provides the best bike infrastructure in the world by which 24% of total trips are made.

So all of this points to hypocrisy and a misunderstanding of the past(or even the present) by the libertarian faction, one in which we subsidized cars and trucks so much, it killed the private railroads, passenger and freight. Now when are we going to talk about how much money we're sending overseas to fuel those cars? Is that the free market at work?


Justin said...

Libertarianism seems more like a religion to me. People follow it blindly without question, or thought. TO me, that is extremely scary. I fear for the US, if Ron Paul, or any Libertarian ever got real power,

snogglethorpe said...

Note that is isn't true that "Well Japan's railroad owns land and that's where it makes most of its money".

While it's true that most Japanese private railways use real-estate and retail as a fundamental part of their business model, in the cases I'm aware of, e.g. Tokyu, the rail lines are profitable by themselves, no part of the group is really subsidizing another, and no part dominates profit/income. [In Tokyu's case, the rail and real-estate divisions are roughly equal in profitability and income, and the retail operations are somewhat behind.]

I guess it's best described as a symbiotic relationship: good quality rail service attracts people to the area, and thus makes the real-estate and retail operations more profitable, and good quality real-estate/retail brings people, and so increases ridership on the railway (and of course good quality retail attracts people to housing, people living in the housing supplies shoppers for the retail, etc, etc).