Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The failure of the state

Some transit advocates, urbanists and planners are uncomfortable with libertarian approaches to their fields of interest. I'm sympathetic, but I want to hear what their alternatives are.

As I've written many times, I'm not a libertarian. I don't believe that there's any such thing as a free market. Every economic transaction in human history has been influenced by the state. There are simply greater and lesser degrees of state control. Sometimes the state can run things with a relatively light hand, and the market will control costs and encourage investment in a relatively efficient way. Other times the absence of state control can lead to inequality and bullying.

I would love to see the world's transportation run by an enlightened, populist democracy. But as it stands now, even the local transportation system here in New York City is burdened by corruption, elitism and cronyism. The framing of various debates around congestion pricing, budgeting, the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, park-and-ride lots, "Moynihan Station" and snow removal have shown the challenges facing any statist approach to transportation management. What do you do when the decision-making functions of the state are corrupt or misinformed, and the chosen outcome is worse than the status quo?

Then there are the instances where the state simply won't provide. What do you do when the state forces middle-class people to choose between uncomfortable transit and comfortable cars? When it shuts down a subway but won't run a bus through a tunnel it owns? When it won't protect the majority of its citizens against a deadly threat?

Melissa Thomasson observes that markets foster innovation and control costs, but government is necessary to ensure universal access. That said, I'd be happy if we could accomplish our goals of reducing pollution and carnage, improving efficiency and access, and improving society, all through the heavy hand of the state. I think under some states it may be possible. But it's clearly not happening here and now, and I'd like to hear from people like Will Doig and Brendon Slotterback and Anthony Flint. Do you see these state failures? What can be done about them within your framework? What is your alternative to a market solution?


Brendon Slotterback said...

Clearly state failure is an issue in some places and circumstances, and one that some market solutions may be able to address. And I don't opposed market solutions as long as equity and access are addressed (probably through govt, as you point out). However, just saying things like "loosen zoning" isn't a market-oriented solution, it's an imagined future state. I think the tools to get there are not fully fleshed out.

nathan_h said...


neroden@gmail said...

There is no alternative to competent administration, certainly not when it comes to transportation.

The solution is not to look for an alternative, but to figure out how to *replace* the government with a competent government.

This is a *very* hard problem, but there's really no alternative.

Elsewhere, I've discussed my views that the US governmental system has generally failed entirely, thanks largely to the Republican Party's decision to actively oppose learning and thinking (this is actually part of the Texas Republican Party platform, opposition to teaching critical thinking), and its second decision to obstruct everything useful. This secondarily creates a circumstance where the Democratic Party doesn't need to be competent to stay in power, because "incompetent yet not a Republican" is better than the alternative.

I don't know how to fix our broken political system -- nonviolent revolution? -- but there is no alternative to actually fixing it. Anything else you try, the existing broken/sabotaged government will happily screw it up.