Saturday, July 26, 2014

Trains and Their Alternatives

By far, my favorite species of libertarian writing is the article which attacks a government spending project by articulating all the other spending projects -- also opposed by libertarians -- that could instead receive the money. This Reason article making fun of a new light rail project in downtown Detroit is a great example of the genre.

I don't know enough about the particulars of Detroit to know if the project makes sense or not. I do note that reviving urban cores via densification around light rail hubs has a very strong record of success and plays into the increasingly car-less preferences of the millennial generation. Given that this is pretty much the trend in urban revitalization, you'd think the article might mention it somewhere, but alas. Indeed, the article seems peculiarly attached to the thesis that "downtown" is a doomed concept which fell apart in 1967 and will never rise again -- a theory that seems to my ears to be, what, a decade out of date? At least? The trend in the United States has been towards restoring the central nature of "downtown" areas, as young professionals like being able to walk (or take a quick hop on public transportation) to their jobs, their favorite restaurants, or their after-work hangouts. So the idea that Detroit would benefit from following this path is hardly some sort of absurdist boondoggle.

The real joy though, comes in all the caveats that are snuck in throughout the article, much as a parent might hide vegetables under the mashed potatoes. "Detroit's light rail line could be written off as a typical government pork fest, if only a large share of the construction funds weren't coming from private sources." Uh-oh -- sometimes private benefactors make choices with their money that don't perfectly align with Reason's read on Rational Choice Theory? Say it ain't so! What about convenience? Well, obviously, the best way to think about that is their absurd hypothetical where a local business magnate uses his god-given right as a Free Market Maker issues some sort of decree to "mandate that his employees utilize the new light rail line in their daily commutes after it opens in 2016." The idea behind these light rail projects typically is that people move close to the train stations and don't drive anywhere, but that really basic concept is again nowhere to be seen.

And what about the "26 percent of Detroit households that don’t own cars"? Here, Reason suggests that further investment in the city's bus lines would be a better use of the money. And maybe so -- there are a lot of reasons to favor rapid-bus transit over train lines, greater flexibility being among the most prominent! But of course, if that was on the table it would be another government spending atrocity Reason would oppose on principled libertarian grounds. And even if Reason was remotely likely to offer its full-throated support to massive government subsidies to local bus lines -- which I don't think we'll see in any form except as a hypothetical counterplan to actual proposed projects -- the fact is one of these projects is on the table (thanks to private money, no less), and one isn't.

So yes, color me skeptical that their problem with the rail project stems either from Reason's deep understanding of contemporary urban redevelopment policy or their heartfelt commitment to bus service.

1 comment:

PG said...

This fits nicely with the previous post -- evidently it's employers' God-given right, per Ron Paul, to be able to fire people for being female, black, Jewish, gay, etc. But let someone be fired for expressing homophobic views or for refusing to take public transport, and the employees' rights have been infringed.