Sunday, May 23, 2010

On "Free"ways and Interstates

A recent reader comment regarding air travel and its subsides and true costs got me thinking about the Interstate Highway System.  The 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, championed the creation of a country-wide system of interconnected multi-lane highways for cars and trucks to get around the country with ease and speed in the mid nineteen fifties, at the height of the car culture boom. 

I have traveled across the country a few times and primarily used these highways as a means of travel.  It is slick.  Fast, strait, bizarrely safe, and seemingly efficient.  But this idea of true costs brings up some points I will address here.

First of all, from a property rights perspective, the creation of this system was atrocious.  Quite a bit of private land was essentially stolen from the owners through the use of Eminent Domain. This is where the government decides that your property is worth more to the group than it is to you, whether it be productive farmland or pristine swampland.

Secondly, and most importantly as far as I am concerned, is the fact that we have essentially subsidized the long haul trucking and oil industry with these highways, which are still federally and state funded.  As a result of these "free" highways, it is more economically efficient for businesses to ship goods with tractor trailer trucks instead of trains.  Trains are astronomically more efficient in terms of energy consumption than individual trucks are at moving tons of material over long distances.  So, instead of letting the market figure out the most efficient way to move goods, the government did, and in doing so, has essentially given trillions of dollars to both the trucking industry and the more insidious oil industry.

Of course it is in the favor of "big oil" to have a system that uses a lot more oil, like big rig trucks, than one that does not, like trains.  I think this is just another example of corporatist government interventions into the decisions of the market which have resulted in the hiding of countless "true costs."

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