Saturday, October 9, 2010

The failure of the right

The current craziness that has come out of Chris Christie's office recently, and the future craziness promised by New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, have shown that the American right is not a reliable source support for transit. It doesn't have to be this way, but it is.

I'm not a conservative, but I think there's a coherent ideological argument for transit on conservative and libertarian principles, and I appreciate this argument. It goes something like this:

In the past, private companies ran the trains, interurbans, trolleys and buses. They were usually able to make a profit providing freedom and personal mobility to people of all ages and income levels. Then the government interfered in the market, forcing operators to charge fares that were too low, and subsidizing roads, garages and oil so that private cars had an unfair advantage. The private operators went out of business, and since then a skeleton transit system has been operated by the government at great public expense.

Government subsidy of driving has also destroyed our traditional small towns and cities, leaving hard-working families with a difficult choice between long drives and a gentrified urban lifestyle surrounded by intellectuals and criminals.

A conservative solution would gradually phase out driving subsidies and allow entrepreneurs to start new bus and train services. As publicly-owned transit routes become more profitable, they could be sold off to the highest bidder.

Some routes will have great difficulty becoming profitable, but they could eventually be run by charity nonprofits, for those conservatives who are completely opposed to public transit. Some will suffer, but the usual libertarian-conservative arguments apply.

There are many libertarians and conservatives who think along those lines. They tend to have difficulty finding conservative politicians who share these leanings, though. Most conservatives tend to defend their big-government agendas with one of the following lies:

1. The Wendell Cox Closed System. Roads are all paid for by drivers, in the form of "user fees" like gas taxes and tolls. Not many people will actually discover the number of local and state roads that are paid for with general property, sales or income taxes.

2. The Joel Kotkin Real Americans. It's okay for government to spend money on things Real Americans want, and they want roads, cars and sprawl. This conveniently ignores the fact that "Real Americans" often change what they want depending on what they think will bring them the most happiness. It also ignores the frequent adjustment of the category of "Real Americans" to exclude those who decide they don't want roads, cars or sprawl. This is a special case of the more general Real Americans argument beloved by conservatives, notably Sarah Palin.

3. The Randal O'Toole Transit Socialism. Transit involves people getting close to each other, which is against American rugged individualism, and therefore it is an appropriate use of government funds to defend us against the commies. Somehow this is not a problem when people get close to each other on airplanes, in spectator sports arenas, or in shopping malls. Getting around on foot or by bicycle also somehow doesn't make you a rugged individualist, just a weirdo.

These patently false excuses for not supporting transit make it clear that these conservatives are more interested in defending their unsustainable transportation and living habits than in doing the best to ensure that their descendants will live in health and comfort.


Stephen Smith said...

Are you coming out of the closet as a market urbanist??? I wrote about your post here. Also I should add that although it's very kind of you to identify our position as "a coherent ideological argument," it is unfortunately something not shared with the vast majority of conservatives, or even libertarians (especially libertarians?). Cato and Reason are dominated by the Cox/Kotkin/O'Toole types, and we're really fighting an uphill battle here. Trying like hell, but most of our readership seems to come from urban planning types, not libertarians. It's odd considering how liberal most urban planners and urbanism devotees are, but libertarians in my experience are much more hostile to our arguments than liberals.

- Stephen Smith, Market Urbanism

Alon Levy said...

Cap'n: honestly, I don't see much of a difference between Cox, O'Toole, and Kotkin (or Utt, or Poole...). Kotkin may be a little more suburb-focused than car-focused and is not a paid industry shill, but they all embody part of the same suburbanist mindset. I'll grant you that Kotkin argues in a somewhat different style, though, more business-class conservative (with supporting opinions on immigration and the future of the US) than auto industry apparatchik. But I honestly can't find a systemic difference between Cox and O'Toole.

Stephen: perhaps the reason liberals are more amenable to what you say than libertarians is the effect of ideology. People usually pick an ideology based on their positions on major issues and themes, and then realign their positions on minor issues based on what like-minded ideologues say. Liberals read environmentalist organizations and Michael Moore and Europhiles and come with the conclusion that cars are bad and need to be replaced with transit and walking and biking. Conservatives and libertarians read Reason as well as react against environmentalism and conclude that cars are awesome.

A related reason is voting patterns. In most developed countries, inner cities are much more liberal than their suburbs; in the US, not only is this true, but also rural whites are exceptionally conservative. People on all sides then develop views of who's superior to whom based on these voting patterns.

jazumah said...

NJ is broke. Borrowing for THE Tunnel overruns might have knocked out NJ's borrowing capacity for the next 2-3 years (assuming that no more overruns occurred after that). You can't build things just because they are a good idea if it cannot be paid for.

There are a lot of things wrong with the right, but this isn't one of them. Chris Christie has had to restructure numerous things in NJ that were essentially unfunded with his bondholders looking over his shoulder. Now, everyone gets the message. If you want to do something in NJ, stick to your budget.

John Grego said...

In my opinion, the biggest problem the right has with mass transit is that government funded, sponsored & controlled transit is the only solution ever discussed. The right would be a lot more receptive if private solutions were given at least lip service. Even a public/private partnership would be a good compromise. Virginia is using such a model to construct roads (e.g., the Dulles Greenway). Why not mass transit? If profitable solutions for private companies could be found, there would be a lot more mass transit.

In addition, if you want to wean the right (and the left for that matter) away from cars, stop hiding the taxes used to support roads in property taxes, sales taxes, etc. Throw up tolls *everywhere* with *all* the money going to road maintenance and let people see what the cost of sprawl really is.

Matt S. said...

I think your analysis is pretty good, and probably on the mark. It seems odd to me that republicans often condemn high taxes, unless of course the taxes support roads, big oil, and other earmarked interests. If it would bring the right onboard to public transit (pun intended), I wouldn't totally scoff at privatizing... but it still needs to be affordable and truly competitive, and don't forget about safe. Contracting public services to private providers can be a nightmare for oversight and accountability--I'd hate to see transit go downhill like that due to a bad contractor.

EngineerScotty said...

One other thought:

Roads have lower operational costs associated with them which are borne by the public. The cost of drivers and vehicle maintenance is borne by the motorists themselves, off the public dime--the biggest public cost is maintenance.

And a big part of the Right Wing Project is union-busting--and public transit is a place where unions often predominate.

Part of this is for the purpose undermining the Democrats, by crippling a key constituency. And part of this is undermining American labor altogether, which is one big reason why the GOP hearts China so much these days....

Urbanis said...

"Government subsidy of driving has also destroyed our traditional small towns and cities, leaving hard-working families with a difficult choice between long drives and a gentrified urban lifestyle surrounded by intellectuals and criminals."

Yes, it must be so difficult for those hard-working families to live in an environment surrounded by dangerous intellectuals who might (gasp!) force them to learn something new. Better the children stay in the suburbs, safely chained to the boob tube.

Cap'n Transit said...

Urbanis, let me clarify that I don't feel that way, and it was my attempt to convey an argument that conservatives might make. I apologize if any conservatives feel that it's an inaccurate characterization of their feelings.

Stephen, thanks for your post; I'm not sold on market solutions for everything, but if the state fails I'm more than willing to let the market have a try.

Unknown said...

In your brief mention of general taxes that fund roads, you left out the Federal level - the Highway Fund bailouts that are sporadic but gigantic. Here is a link to the GAO report showing that every state but Texas got back more Fed road funding than they paid in gas taxes:

Also it specifies that Congress has paid $30 billion from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund.

Matt Fisher said...

If I applied this to actual conservatives, I would put Sean Hannity in Category #2 with Kotkin, and possibly Bill O'Reilly (although he could belong in Category #3). Glenn Beck would most certainly belong in Category #3 for what he says.