Progressives and socialists seem to take a great deal of pride in pointing to roads and highways as an achievement of raw central planning. As a matter of fact, the necessity of public funding for the construction of roads is usually the argument of last resort when anyone is critical of government intervention. Putting aside the ridiculous notion that no one figured out that flat and smooth was an optimal surface for transportation before some bureaucrat came up with it, do they have a point? Surely the U.S. government has brought vast amounts of resources to bear and built great amounts of infrastructure that we use every day. So expansive is that infrastructure that it seems like every year, the federal government is asking us to pony up a few billion more to repair our “crumbling roads and bridges”. But is this fact really an argument for the superiority of state planning over free markets as they might suggest?
First, this line of argument generally misreads the position of free markets advocates. We don’t argue that the government can't plan major projects like roads and bridges, we argue that they shouldn't.
It's an unquestionable fact that even the most terrible and inefficient government has the ability to build all sorts of great things. Sometimes they even do it well (That statue of Saddam in Baghdad was so sturdy! Right?!). What we do argue is that when the government plans and executes major projects like these, it tends to do so in an inefficient and wasteful way. While the government may have planned and built thousands of miles of roads and suspension bridges, it has also overpaid for most of them.
Take the so called Big Dig in Boston, a major infrastructure project intended to ease traffic congestion in the city. The project included the building of a tunnel, a bridge, and miles of new roadway. In 1982 the estimated cost of the project was 2.8 billion dollars. The Boston Globe projects that, ultimately, the project will have cost 22 billion dollars.
But this phenomenon exists outside of the realm of infrastructure as well. No one would have argued that the government was unable to carry out the GSA conference in Las Vegas. However, when they did they burned through $823,000 worth of taxpayer dollars. If the pictures are any indication, its opulence would have made Imelda Marcos jealous. A kick-ass conference? Yes. Wasteful? You bet.
Next, when the government builds their overly expensive roads and bridges, they tend to allow politics to dictate their locations instead of demand. While one location might be ideal for a certain project, market forces take a back seat to political forces. This is why a bridge like the Tappan Zee in New York, which connects two major commercial and residential areas, falls in disrepair, while Gravina Island in Alaska gets a 25 million dollar highway and almost got a 398 million dollar bridge.
Let’s illustrate this in a way that might be more accessible to fans of central planning. A new bronze statue of Lenin would look really great in the town square of Zernograd. However, the members of the appropriations committee in the Politburo are mostly from Gusinoozyorsk. I'd bet my bottom Ruble that the workers of Gusinoozyorsk are going to be enjoying a monument to comrade Lenin before the workers of Zernograd.
Finally, the building of roads by municipalities, states, or the federal government is rarely an act of collectivist benevolence and is more often an act of crony capitalism. While the money that funds it comes from the public, the work is generally farmed out to private contractors and businesses that have cozy relationships with politicians and party bosses. Far from being the triumph for economic planners, all too often it's a triumph for grifters and lobbyists.
Yes, even the most dedicated of free marketeers are likely to admit that the government should be called upon from time to time to execute projects that might otherwise be difficult for the market (a debate we’ll leave for another time.) Our founders were even nice enough include a provision in the constitution that would enable them to do so under some circumstances. But this admission is hardly an acquiescence to the idea that government should be empowered to insert its will into every industry and market.
Besides, if pouring and smoothing asphalt is the most you can hope for from your political ideology, you’re doing it wrong.