Public Infrastructure is not a “Progressive” Abomination
President Biden spent a surprising amount of time during his belated first press conference talking about infrastructure. Many of the points Biden made echoed remarks Trump has also made. Paraphrasing from the transcript, about 53 minutes into his press conference, Biden said:
“We are now ranked 85th in the world in infrastructure. The future rests on whether or not we have the best airports that are going to accommodate air travel. Ports that you can get in and out of quickly. What’s the first thing that business asked? What’s the closest access to an interstate highway? How far am I from a freight rail? Is there enough water available for me to conduct my business?”
Biden’s solutions won’t be ideal. If work is authorized by Congress, it will be padded with hundreds of billions going to the public bureaucracies and to the inevitable environmentalist litigants. The work itself will be done under project labor agreements that will also add hundreds of billions in costs. And additional hundreds of billions will be wasted on absurdities, such as “sequestration” projects to inject CO2 into underground caverns.
If Trump were able to manage federal investment in infrastructure in a 2nd term, he would have set more useful priorities. He would have prioritized airports, seaports, roads, rail, the power grid, and he would have fought the pet projects of environmentalists and their corporate allies. He would respect labor, but he’d be a tough negotiator, and he would have hammered on the construction contractors to keep prices down.
Trump also would have streamlined the expensive bureaucratic process, something he pursued throughout his first term. A key moment in that effort was a press conference in 2017 where he stood next to two piles of printed regulations. The first, four stacks of pages about a foot high, was labeled “1960.” The second, five stacks of pages about eight feet high, was labeled “Today.” This crippling level of bureaucracy is a big part of why American infrastructure has fallen so far behind.
When trying to define the optimal role of government and the threat posed by progressive ideology, public infrastructure is being unfairly attacked. A practical policy agenda for conservatives would be to enthusiastically support public investment in infrastructure, but at the same time, to fight inappropriate infrastructure and to fight the entire system that has developed to make infrastructure cost far more than it should.
An apt comparison to illustrate good vs bad infrastructure can be found, predictably enough, in California, where the cost effective public works of the 1950s and 1960s stand in stark contrast to the billions wasted today on projects that either have no practical benefit or spend decades in the planning and approval process and never get built.
In 1968, in a process that took only five years from concept to completion, the San Luis Reservoir went online in Central California. Constructed at a cost in today’s dollars of $2.3 billion, this massive off-stream reservoir has a capacity of 2.0 million acre feet. It is a vital storage link in the massive California Water Project, an engineering feat almost unrivaled anywhere on earth. Today, a proposed sister reservoir, of equal size and design, has been approved and in the concept stage for over a decade, with hundreds of millions already spent on “planning.” Facing additional years of litigation and bureaucratic inertia, it is currently projected for completion in the 2030s at a cost, undoubtedly underestimated, of $5.2 billion. It will probably never get built.
This transition is complete: Government getting public works were done on time and at a reasonable cost back in the 1960s, public works today are for the most part neglected. The projects that do get completed often offer little in practical benefit to society, at costs that are scandalously overblown. This transition from useful to useless is not restricted to water projects in California. It is a story that has been repeated across America.
The fight that needs to be waged is against the three headed monster that has stopped sensible public works in its tracks: out-of-control environmentalist litigants, a byzantine and contradictory array of crippling regulations distributed through countless regulatory agencies, and labor unions that have become unreasonable and often complicit in backing projects of marginal value.
Unfortunately, the movement that might be most effective in that fight for badly needed new infrastructure, America’s conservatives, faces withering ridicule and “principled” objections from libertarians. Today, according to many influential libertarians, if you favor appropriate public investment in infrastructure, you are a progressive.
This is ridiculous. Obviously there should be a vigorous debate over what sort of infrastructure justifies public investment. But at some point, the role of government is to socialize the costs of amenities that the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide. Freeways and water projects are examples where public investment at the least needs to supplement private investment, in order to prevent imposing a prohibitively high cost to the consumer.
The solution for libertarians, apparently, is for the private sector to build everything, including infrastructure. But how does this work, when someone attempting to build a freeway must negotiate with ten thousand separate private landowners? How can any ribbon of public infrastructure, whether it’s a freeway, a railroad, a pipeline or an aqueduct, possibly ever get built without recourse to eminent domain?
These concepts, public investment and eminent domain, are anathema to libertarians. But while conservatives should recognize the value of libertarian philosophy – limited government – the operative word is “limited” government, not “no” government. America’s infrastructure has been neglected for decades, and libertarians are not helping.
Moreover, this philosophical schism isn’t just about infrastructure. It’s about finding a balance between public and private ownership, while honestly confronting the inevitable fact that finding a perfect balance is impossible. Shall the government – allied with powerful corporate interests and billionaire “philanthropists” – set aside 30 percent of the land in America as protected wilderness? Because that’s what they’re trying to do, and most of us would consider that overkill. Conservatives should join with libertarians in opposition, not because some land shouldn’t be preserved in public trust, but because 30 percent of all land is way too much.
What conservatives must admit is that libertarian values may be a vital part of any governing philosophy, but they’re not the only value. Conservatives, who are accused of this all the time, should own up to their belief in a strong government. The critical, difficult question is for what, and how much? Libertarians, in their purity, largely avoid this meeting with reality.
Once you’ve gotten out of the way the delusion that conservatives don’t want a strong role for government, it’s easier to assess the true threat coming from progressives. In the case of infrastructure, progressives join with conservatives to want more of it, but what do they want? They want to continue to tie all development up in knots as part of their extremist positions on environmental and labor issues. They want development to include useless projects, or projects hopelessly skewed towards creating “equity,” and “environmental justice,” instead of projects that benefit the most people for the least amount of expense. But that’s just small element of the progressive threat.
The priority for progressives is directed at social issues, with “solutions” that require a grossly inappropriate expansion of government. Moreover, it is the role they envision for government that is of more concern than expansion per se. Progressives are attempting to divide the nation into groups separated by race and “gender,” they are attempting to train the individuals in these groups to resent members of other groups, they are promoting a narrative that taints America as an inherently racist and oppressive society, and their goal is to use the government to enforce equal outcomes, “equity,” across all identifiable groups, regardless of the cost.
This lunacy, being promoted by progressive activists and their opportunistic cohorts across nearly every American institution constitutes an existential threat to the liberty and prosperity that to-date we have taken for granted. It represents an expansion of government beyond the wildest nightmares of conservatives and libertarians alike.
Perhaps it is healthy for libertarians to urge conservatives to question public spending on infrastructure and other national priorities. And perhaps conservatives need to acknowledge libertarian concerns, while at the same time fighting hard for government spending on infrastructure that the nation badly needs, and fighting against useless projects and wasteful spending.
If supporting public funding for infrastructure is “progressive,” fine. In that context, libertarians may use that term to stigmatize conservatives. But the true progressive threat to America is far bigger than whether or not the federal government spends a trillion dollars on infrastructure. Along with powerful allies – who are using them – progressives are actively working to reduce the rights and freedoms of American citizens, along with their prosperity and their sovereignty. Right now, they’re winning.
For the first time in history, a huge cross section of America’s elites, using progressives as powerful pawns, are not working in the interests of the American people or the American nation. They have pledged their allegiance to international corporations and transnational institutions. The solution for conservatives that love their country is not to eliminate government. It is to take their government back, and use it to again represent the interests of the American people.
This article originally appeared on the website American Greatness.
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Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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