Responding to Andrew’s Readers Again, This Time On Highways

by Reihan Salam

This is fun. One of Andrew’s readers asks:

But, come on, is Reihan really knocking public infrastructure investment in rail? Would Fung Wah have been able to achieve this level of success without President Eisenhower’s championing of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 and the trillions we have invested in upgrading and maintaining the system in the decades since?

As it happens, I’ve written about precisely this question:


A shockingly large number of people, including Obama, seem to believe that had the federal government not stepped up to the plate in the postwar era and invested vast sums in highways and putting a man on the moon, the United States would have wound up an economic backwater. But perhaps not building a huge network of highways would have kept American families in more compact, walkable neighborhoods. Instead of sprawling suburbs and SUVs, we’d have more high-rises and bike lanes. The Interstate Highways helped supersize America’s government, by centralizing authority in D.C., and our waistlines, by encouraging us to drive and to fatten up on fast food. It’s not obvious to me that we’re better off as a nation plagued by high taxes and heart disease.

As for Sputnik, it led to a huge increase in federal funding for scientific research and K-12 education. Had we allowed the Russians to beat us to the moon, American families and firms might have kept more of their own money. Our state universities might have devoted themselves to churning out job-ready graduates instead of chasing federal grants. While the Soviets built enormous cities on the moon and Mars, financed by forced labor, we’d have devoted ourselves to becoming a richer, freer, more creative country. I love Neil Armstrong as much as the next guy, but I’d take that trade in a heartbeat.

I enthusiastically support public investment in certain limited contexts. But let’s try to be rigorous. The mere fact that history took one path doesn’t mean there were no other paths available. As for rail, I’ve covered the issue extensively in this space. My basic verdict is that intrametropolitan transportation — i.e., mass transit, etc. — merits support more than intercity passenger rail. And I also think that we should emphasize freight rail over passenger rail, as it delivers far bigger environmental and economic benefits.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.