Blogs > Liberty and Power > Why Do Progressives Love Trains?

Aug 16, 2009 11:05 am

Why Do Progressives Love Trains?

The headline reads “Obama’s Rail Plan Speeds Ahead,” and the article explains that President Obama has “unveiled his plan to develop a high-speed passenger rail (HSR) system in the United States.” These “specifics” are evidently not actually very specific, however, because reporter Bruce Watson tells us only that the plan is three-fold: “initially, it will pour investment into infrastructure upgrades that have been approved but not yet funded. Later, it will fund high-speed rail planning and, subsequently, construction. In the process, it will also seek to improve rail service along existing lines, increasing the quality of current rail service and laying the track (as it were) for faster, more efficient rail in the future.”

Watson spends the rest of his article rhapsodizing about the glorious possibility that the Obama administration will succeed in “changing American patterns of behavior,” not simply by improving rail transportation, but also, along the same lines, by establishing “a strong moral counterbalance to the ‘greed is good’ ethos that has ruled much of the last 28 years.” You would have trouble making up this stuff.

What are progressives thinking? If I prefer automobile transportation to taking a train, they condemn me for my greed. Their preference for taxing people and pouring the money into economically wasteful expenditures for rail facilities, however, they laud as the very heart and soul of public-spiritedness.

AMTRAK lives on subsidies; always has, always will. Americans have limited demand for passenger-train services. Nearly everyone prefers to use a personal automobile, for all sorts of good reasons, including privacy, flexibility, and convenience. None of this is news. Transportation economists have been documenting it in study after study for decades.

Yet the leftists of this country at some point — I’m not sure exactly when it happened — fell head over heels in ideological love with trains. I lived for many years in the Seattle area, where traditional religion does not rank very high with the bulk of the population, but devotion to “light rail” serves as a perfect substitute for belief in a higher power. For decades, the Seattle leftists worked to gain voter approval of their beloved light rail system. Finally they succeeded, and the people of Seattle are now getting the “benefits” of this democratic boondoggle good and hard.

Republicans dish out subsidies for perfectly understandable reasons: they wish to enrich their pals in the corporate sector at public expense. Although I do not rule out similar motives among Democrats, a substantial contingent of Democrats seems to love passenger-rail subsidies for reasons that have little or nothing to do with pork for their friends. As the article I quoted earlier suggests, they view rail-over-road as a religious matter: car = evil; train = virtuous. Reasoning with them is as futile as reasoning with any religious zealot. They simply know they are on the side of the angels.

I suspect that someone has written a book about this curious linkage of ideology and technology. If someone hasn’t written such a book, plenty of material surely awaits its interpreter. A cultural anthropologist might be best qualified for the task.

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Roderick T. Long - 4/24/2009

A: Because they're all such big fans of Atlas Shrugged.

Keith Halderman - 4/23/2009

And, of course as Jane Jacobs taught us this desire for perfectly planned communities is not practicable and often results in blight.

S.P. Gass - 4/22/2009

I think the answer is that trains (and transit in general) fits in with their desire to develop urbanized walkable communities where people live without cars. This also serves as part of their solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Kevin Carson - 4/22/2009

I suspect things will only get worse, what with the combined effects of Peak Oil and the "fiscal crisis of the state." It's in the nature of state-subsidized inputs (like subsidized long-distance shipping) that they generate demand exponentially, while the state can only arithmetically appropriate money to satisfy the demand. So the state capitalist/corporate sector's demand outstrips the supply, until you have a centralized Stalinist highway system clogged with congestion. And you have existing roads decaying at three or four times the rate money is being appropriated to fix them.

The problem is only intensified by Peak Oil, because of the inflated cost of asphalt.

And as Jim Kunstler points out, only a few years' neglect will render a highway completely unusable for heavy trucks, as potholes reach axle-breaking proportions. So the state will likely regroup and retrench, leaving an increasingly large group of "non-essential" highways to de facto abandonment, while concentrating its dwindling resources on maintaining a shrinking group of "essential" highways.

We've had an experiment of over a century in a centralized corporate economy, created almost entirely by the state, that's now coming to an end because of a "perfect storm" of terminal crises: the inability of a fiscally exhausted state to provide subsidized inputs at the required levels; the inability of a likewise bankrupt state to absorb surplus output and capital to a sufficient degree; the inability of corporate enterprise to capture value from a growing part of the new networked economy, thanks to the unenforceability of IP laws; and a singularity in the productivity of the informal, household and p2p economies (the desktop revolution bringing the basic capital equipment for music, publishing, software design, etc., within the range of individual afforability; a revolution in desktop machine tool technology; etc.).

The bureaucratic collectivism of the USSR is about to be joined on the ashheap of history by American-style corporate state capitalism; the latter just took a couple more decades to reach its crisis of unsustainability.

Kevin Carson - 4/22/2009

Of course our "national security" interests were seen after by the best of all possible stewards: GM's Charlie Wilson at DOD, and major GM stockholder Francis DuPont administering the Interstate project.

William Marina - 4/22/2009

A major interest group behind the Interstate System was, as you suggest, the truckers.
Interestingly, one argument they used, still in vogue in the GWOT, is that the "System' was essential in case we were attacked by the Commies in the Cold War.

Artfldgr - 4/22/2009

I will not provide my real name in a world where people smash windows visit houses and act like rohms SA while spouting peace and love. if that means that i am not allowed to be heard, so be it. but either way, they win silencing commentary. after my home was visited upon, i never again posted with my name.

while i would love to participate here and add somethign to the conversation, i will not endanger my home and family to do so.

its not PC, but maybe they can see all the jobs that a return to pullman would bring...

Moussolini made the trains run on time, so the love of socialists to trains is the same love of steel and force. power and control.

they are in love with it for the same reason socialists last century were in love with various forms of totalitarian control (stalinism, nazism, all socialist. watch schindlers list, it was a capitalist who saved those jews from the socialists)

cars are individual freedom and even with EZ pass and such, afford little opportunity for the state to check if your in compliance.

trains make traveling papers invisable, as the papers and tracking are inherent in the travel.

totalitarians LOVE central planning and control. and trains offer central planning and control of people, without the messy problem of checkpoints alerting them to the fact that they are being monitored, and their belongings between points are being searched.

before i get railed at. many of my family is buried in a mass grave outside of Riga, other family members are in other places. some of them were killed by nazis, some of them were killed by soviets.


Kevin Carson - 4/22/2009

Perhaps the question should be why right-leaning libertarians are so fond of cars, when the automobile-highway complex is the product of a state capitalist social engineering project as massive as that which created the national railroad system.

To turn it around the other way, the railroad land grants were a massive state capitalist project.

But today, aside from Amtrak, the railroad system is forced to fund its own capital investments while the trucking industry (which causes virtually all roadbed damage on the interstate but pays only about half the incoming revenue) externalizes its costs on the taxpayer, and while the real estate interests that control local government gobble up highway pork as fast as they can grab it.

If the Interstate was funded by weight-based tolls on trucks, the railroads would be reopening old routes as fast as they could lay new track on abandoned rights-of-way.

I'm aware of the existence of private roads, and I'd like to see the Interstates and urban freeway grids funded entirely by user-fees on those who impose costs on the system.

But I'm skeptical that this would mean cheaper highway access for everybody. No matter how inefficiently the state runs them, it's hard to beat FREE. While the overall cost may be greater, that doesn't matter to those whose business models depend on subsidized highways. If highways were unable to expand beyond existing rights of way without buying the land from willing parties, and had to fund their maintenance entirely on those (mostly the heavy trucks) who wore them out, much of current long-distance shipping would become prohibitively costly.

Subsidies to a particular production input are subsidies, disproportionately, to firms whose business model relies most intensively on that input, at the expense of those which do not rely as intensively on it. Subsidies to long distance transportation are subsidies to firms with the largest market areas, making them artificially competitive at the expense of those producing for local markets. Subsidies to long-distance shipping, therefore, promote artificially large market area and firm size.

I'd like to press a "Reset" button myself, and undo the railroad land grants. If the railroad companies had had to buy rights of way from willing individuals, and fund the initial capital outlays entirely with their own money, we'd probably have had hundreds of local railroad networks of Lewis Mumford's counterfactual speculation, with whatever regional and national interlinkages eventually developed being much smaller in capacity than the national system we actually got. As a result, we'd never have developed the kind of centralized mass-production economy celebrated by people like Alfred Chandler and John Kenneth Galbraith. We'd likely have industrialized, instead, as a nation of a hundred Emilia-Romagna regions: integrating general-purpose power machinery into craft production, with small batches and frequent switches between products, on a just-in-time basis.

Robert Higgs - 4/21/2009

Hi Chris,

Nice to hear from you, if only indirectly. Considerable time has passsed since we worked together on the Alaska pollock fishery. Hope all is well. Write to me offlist (via and tell me how you are.

chris riley - 4/21/2009

As a former student of professor Higgs', it gives me some pleasure to take one of his tests again after all these years. the answer is ....So they can have an opportunity to make them run on time.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/21/2009

Actually, what progressives love is mass transit, because it's a way the people get around. Specifically, we love trains more than buses because the buses are linked, in our minds, with the corporate attack on streetcars and subways. (Plus, have you ever taken a long-distance bus trip? I have: I prefer trains) If they are used heavily, trains are more fuel efficient than buses per person-mile. Also, buses are small, and at the moment we're trying to spend a lot of money quickly.

UNRR - 4/21/2009

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 4/21/2009, at The Unreligious Right

William Marina - 4/20/2009

Both American roads and railroads are in a deplorable shape.
On a recent trip to Oakland, I found I-880 in terrible need of repair, a number of lanes almost like washboards. Much of this is due to trucks, which pay taxes, but as Reason magazine showed many years ago, not nearly enough compared to the wear which they inflict compared to cars.
We will omit the other damages both make with respect to air pollution.
Our passenger trains are a joke compared to many lines in Asia and Europe. All of this, as Bob Higgs suggests, needs a historical perspective going back almost two centuries.
Our bankrupt empire is not apt to deal with much of this in the near future.

Robert Higgs - 4/20/2009

Stephen Smith makes reference to "this road which was acquired, paved, and maintained with private money." But, Smith's seeming point notwithstanding, the "public" roads have indeed been acquired, paved, and maintained with private money. The politicians didn't pay for them out of their own pockets. They passed laws putting themselves and their police in a position to say to me: hand over your money (in the form of various income, property, gasoline excise, and other taxes and user fees) or go to prison. I chose to submit to this extortion in order to stay out of prison. Should I now feel like a hypocrite for doing so?

On this group blog, of course, we historians are well aware that hundreds of roads were built and operated in this country by private firms. We even speak of a "turnpike era" in U.S. transportation history. A few roads in use today have been privately built and are being privately maintained and operated, and more such roads seem to be on the way. Given the shoddy manner in which the various levels of government have built, maintained, and (mis)priced the roads, this return to private roads cannot come too soon.

Stephen Smith - 4/20/2009

Right on! Now, to hop into my car and drive on this road which was acquired, paved, and maintained with private money.

...oh, right...

RL - 4/20/2009

It's good to know Obama will make the trains run on time...