Politics & Policy

Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Then-California Governor Jerry Brown (center) signs a railroad rail during a groundbreaking ceremony for the California High Speed Rail project in Fresno, Calif., January 6, 2015. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
California’s bullet train was (and is) the Green New Deal in miniature.

The bullet train is dead.

Mostly.

California’s new governor, the prim and grim Gavin Newsom, announced that the project would be taken off its $650-million-a-month life-support apparatus and euthanized. The end of the project leaves Californians with no way to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco except a 90-minute, $149 flight.

(Or driving.)

For perspective, if you went to Starbucks 35 times for a venti latte, you’d spend more money — and more time — than you would on round-trip air travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This is the “problem” that California has tried to solve with a $77 billion boondoggle.

At the time of its demise, the bullet train was years behind schedule, had spent more than seven times its originally allocated budget, and, of course, carried no passengers.

Governor Newsom — and this is the truly hilarious part — apparently intends to finish up the little bit of the project that already has been started, meaning that there will be a high-speed bullet train connecting Bakersfield with Merced, 100 miles away. This will come at a cost that is simply astonishing.

The same people who brought you this ingenious plan want to take over the majority of the U.S. economy — agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, utilities, and more — and put those commanding heights under political discipline deployed in exactly the same immeasurably stupid way for exactly the same immeasurably stupid reasons. They are calling it the “Green New Deal” this time around.

But it has been called many other things. Sing along if you know the words:

“We’re at war with the Germans!”

The government must take over the economy!

“There’s a Great Depression!”

The government must take over the economy!

“We’re at war with the Germans again!”

The government must take over the economy!

“Stagflation!”

The government must take over the economy!

“Some people make a lot more money than others!”

The government must take over the economy!

“Global warming?”

The government must take over the economy!

“I have this weird pain in my right shoulder. I think it may be the rotator cuff, but I’m not entirely sure. Makes a funny clicking noise when I do bench presses.”

The government must take over the economy!

“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously!”

The government must take over the economy!

Etc.

Progressives love trains. They hate cars. There’s a reason for that.

The fundamental progressive idea is central planning. In the progressive imagination, society is a puzzle to be solved, a grand Rubik’s Cube that can be adjusted and readjusted and experimented with until — perfection! The progressive looks at society the same way a child looks at a model railroad set or an ant farm — which is to say, from a point of view that is effectively godlike. Human beings, their families, their desires, their pleasures, their dreams, their businesses, their associations, their communities — all of these are only chessmen to be moved around in pursuit of utopia.

A car can go basically anywhere its driver wants. A train can go only where the central planners have preordained. It is for this reason that trains have long been at the center of the progressive vision. And not only the progressive vision: Such modern utopians as Ayn Rand find in the railroad the model of the kind of society they desire: a society that is designed, that proceeds according to plan. Whose plan? Preferably one of their own, of course, but they’ll get on board for almost any old plan if the alternative is no plan at all.

There is another vision of society: that it is organic, that many of its best and more effective institutions are spontaneous orders, that all sorts of magnificent and enriching things are the result of systems that have no one in charge of them at all. That isn’t a manifesto for anarchism, but for what conservatives call “well-ordered liberty.” What is that? Aren’t ordered and liberty mutually exclusive? As conservatives understand things, the purpose of government is to govern: enforcing contracts and protecting property, rights, and liberty, which provides the security that is necessary for spontaneous orders to thrive.

Progressives sometimes point out — correctly — that many of these rules and protocols appear to be fundamentally arbitrary. Some of you probably know the story (which is not the whole story) of how the capacity of a compact disc (kids, ask your parents) originally was determined: a Sony executive wanted a single CD to be able to handle all of Beethoven’s glorious Ninth Symphony, specifically the leisurely version of it recorded at Bayreuther Festspiele in 1951 under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler. It mattered less what provided the standard for CDs than that there was a standard, which enabled any ordinary CD to be played in any ordinary CD player. Picking a different piece of music might have yielded different dimensions or a different sample rate (44.1 kHz was not ordained by any deity) or other technical differences. A different set of rules for intellectual property would have changed the way Silicon Valley technology companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers are organized. This or that change in the way labor markets are organized and regulated would result in different wage distributions.

From that, progressives conclude — also correctly — that these institutions are subject to change and renegotiation. But human beings and their relationships are not infinitely plastic, and even arbitrary standards and procedures may provide great value by simple virtue of the fact that they enable social cooperation. There is no existential mandate that gasoline pumps in Amarillo are in form and operation identical to those in Boston, but it does making filling the car up easier. American Express and Visa help to simplify complicated legal and financial issues related to doing commerce across national borders. These things develop over time, with input from many different people and institutions (no single person or entity invented the CD or the internal-combustion engine); sometimes, government is one of those institutions.

A healthy society with an intelligent politics never falls for the illusion of Year Zero, that we rational and enlightened moderns — each generation of which always imagines itself to be the first of its kind — can begin anew, building from the foundations up. Under the auspices of the Green New Deal, a group of ordinary people with no special knowledge or ability believes that it can deputize itself to radically overhaul — from first principles of its own distillation — everything from the way soybeans are grown to how people get from New York to Los Angeles. That they couldn’t even figure out how to get people from Los Angeles to San Francisco while burning through $77 billion — an amount that exceeds by many billion dollars the market capitalization of BlackRock, Inc., a financial behemoth that is — take note, here — the world’s largest asset manager.

Ordinary market processes (in air travel, a heavily regulated industry) created the system by which anybody who wants to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco can do so in less than two hours for the cost of a few dozen cups of coffee. The central planners failed to create an alternative even with enormous sums of money at their disposal and enormous power to command.

With the state of California and all its splendid glories as their model-train set, they couldn’t even best Alaska Airlines.

Put these po-faced generalissimos in charge of reinventing the U.S. economy from the ground up?

Hard pass.

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