It’s time for another Friday edition of “Thank Government For Something.” Last month my wife and I spent a lot of time on interstate highways on our way to and from visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park (and National Parks are something else I thank the government for). The Interstate Highway System was authorized by Congress by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and while it certainly has its flaws, I am very thankful for its existence. The interstate provides a relatively low cost to traveling across our giant country, which increases mobility and opportunity for individuals, and trade and commerce between the states. Now there may be issues with the large costs of maintaining these highways and the incessant need for construction projects, and we have a growing road tax problem, but overall I think our transportation infrastructure is a public good.
Now this is pretty much heresy to libertarian dogma. There’s a long piece on Mises arguing vociferously (and quite predictably) that roads are not a public good and that every government intervention involving roads is obviously harmful to everyone. The Future of Freedom Foundation calls the Interstate Highway System “a public-works, government-owned boondoggle that was modeled after the National Socialist autobahn system in Germany.” Cafe Hayek is a little more sympathetic to the public goods argument, which claims that:
These roads and highways are, instead, just what the public wants and is willing to pay for in full — it’s just that the alleged public-goods nature of these goods means that they can be supplied in optimal quantities only by government.
And they do a good job summarizing the libertarian viewpoint against government provision of alleged public goods:
Now there are plenty of problems — theoretical and, especially, practical — with the classic theory of public goods. For example, it assumes too blithely that collective-decision-making procedures accurately discover the publics’ true demand for public goods; it overlooks the perverse incentives in the political arena that prompt government officials to act in ways that are inconsistent with the ‘public good’; and it turns a blind eye to the many creative ways that private persons have through the years organized themselves voluntarily to supply ‘public goods’ that, allegedly, would never be supplied privately.
Was the interstate highway system demanded by the public? It is said that the interstate highway system had less to do with becoming a general public good for transportation and more to do with Cold-War-era defense because “freeways would help people leave the city in the event of a nuclear attack.” Did government officials act in ways consistent with the “public good”? It is said that the highway system is a subsidization of the trucking industry that distorts resources away from more efficient railways. And as to the final argument, I certainly don’t want to fall prey to the lack of imagination that can befall proponents of government intervention. History is indeed full of “the many creative ways” that private persons have supplied things that one might theorize could never be provided without a government.
But fortunately or unfortunately, all we can do is speculate about what the United States would look like today if the federal government had never created the Interstate Highway System. It seems hard to imagine that a similar system would have sprung up from private parties since it spans so much land and jurisdiction and requires so many resources, yet my belief in the power of markets leads me to suspect that something unpredictable and wonderful would have somehow arisen in its stead. At the same time, libertarians can always point out the imperfections of the status quo and theorize how things would be better off without the government. My theory can always beat your reality. I agree with commenter Kevin on the Cafe Hayek post:
As with so many government provided utilities, the answer to the question about the effects of policy can only be speculative. We never had a chance to see the success or failure of private roads carrying thousands of cars every day from the suburbs to the city centers, and if I can speculate for a second, we never will.
So people with an axe to grind may as well ascribe blame or credit for suburbanization to road subsidies. It’s as verifiable as every other political assertion about how the world would look in a parallel universe.
So I look at the interstate highway system and conclude that, for all of its flaws and inefficiencies and distortions of investment and infringements on liberty, I still think it’s pretty fantastic that I can travel from here to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in a few hours, for only the cost of a few gallons of gas, with the majority of my journey simplified by three major highways that have plenty of rest stops and gas stations available at my slightest need.
Maybe the private world would have produced something better; maybe not. The interstate wiki referenced above claims that “About one-third of all miles driven in the country use the Interstate system.” I know a great majority of mine are. So it can’t be that bad, and that’s why I say, thank you, federal government, for the interstate highway system.