Monday, June 04, 2012

Libertarians embracing public goods, Tim Lee edition

Is America waking from its long libertarian daydream? For years, many of our brightest intellectuals embraced the simplistic idea that "government is the problem". This attitude required denying the existence of public goods, i.e. areas where government activity complements private markets rather than replacing them. As a result, we neglected roads and other infrastructure, and partially privatized prisons and the army.

However, there are clear signs that libertarians - by which I mean the intellectual vanguard of the movement, not the Ron Paul goonballs - are, as a group, reconsidering the simplistic 1970s worldview. Here's Peter Thiel calling for all sorts of public goods. Here's Alex Tabarrok doing the same. Will Wilkinson, a Cato alum, has explicitly made the argument that public goods provision by the government can enhance personal freedom (a point I've tried to make as well). And now we have Tim Lee, a Forbes writer and former Cato dude, declaring "We're all infrastructure socialists now":
Socialism means government ownership of the means of production, and governments necessarily own the land on which roads are constructed. Therefore, governments are always going to be involved in the provision of roads; the only question is what role the government should play... 
We’re all “infrastructure socialists” to some extent, the question is what kind of infrastructure socialism will give us the most efficient and
First, allow me to quibble with Tim's terminology (because hey, this is Blogs). "Socialism", to me, doesn't quite mean "government ownership of the means of production". Instead, it means, as Wikipedia puts it, "an economic system characterized by [government] ownership and/or control of the means of production" (emphasis mine). I think the two are very different things. A system in which the government attempts only to do those things that complement private markets does not seem like a system that is characterized by government production. Instead, it seems like one that is characterized by private production, since in such a system government activity is constructed with the intent to maximize the efficiency of the private production system, not vice versa. So let's not call public goods "socialism".

OK, quibble aside, Tim has a good point, though of course it's not necessarily true that govt. owns the land that roads are built on. Instead, it's typically the case that govt. solves a coordination problem by invoking eminent domain in order to get the roads built, or by coordinating among a large number of land owners. The larger point is that there are things that are much much much easier for government to do than private actors, and that these things often improve the efficiency of markets, and that infrastructure is a prime example.

Here's a follow-up column by Tim on the subject of subways.

This is, in my opinion, a wonderful trend. Alexander Hamilton, the father of our nation's economic system, basically made public goods (then called "internal improvements") his baby. Friedrich Hayek, the consummate libertarian of the early 20th century, supported government provision of infrastructure (as Tim Lee points out). But many American libertarians of the 70s onward scoffed at infrastructure, viewing it as pork or waste. Of course this can happen (witness Japan in the 1990s), but neither is it true that infrastructure is optimally provided by the private sector. To get the right amount of infrastructure, our only hope is to make government work optimally rather than getting government "out of the way". That America's libertarians are returning to this view is, in my opinion, the most positive intellectual trend happening today.

So, all together now, let's repair the roads!


  1. ...public goods provision by the government can enhance personal freedom (a point I've tried to make as well)

    Interesting perspective... can you provide a link to the post(s) you reference?

    1. Sure here's one where I make the national defense argument:

      But the basic idea doesn't even need Tamerlane. Suppose I'm an apple seller. The freedom to sell my apples is a basic economic freedom. And if the government comes in and says "No you can't sell your apples", it's obviously a restriction of my freedom; this is what libertarians are usually thinking of, and they're right as far as this goes.

      But suppose there's no road between my orchard and the town, so I can't get to town to sell my apples to the very willing customers there. (Private landowners won't build a road because it wouldn't profit them or because there are too many estates in the way and they can't all agree.) So basically, my freedom to sell my apples is curtailed by nature. Sure, no one's violated my natural rights, but the lack of a road inhibits me from engaging in market activity just as surely as a government regulation. So if the government comes in and builds a road, I can sell and my customers can buy. That's an increase in freedom not in the John Locke natural-rights sense, but in the common-usage sense. From the point of view of the apple merchant, freedom and ability are in this case basically the same thing.

      Of course, if you want to argue that public goods enhance freedom in the natural rights sense, you have to invoke Tamerlane or some other threat that can be countered by a robust economy.

      Either way, the idea that public goods raise GDP is key.

  2. It goes even beyond the point of ownership and coordination.
    There are goods and services with positive externalities, such as education, research and infrastructure (including roads). Of course, those goods and services have diminishing returns, so that at some level government spending would not be welcome, but up to that level, government spending is required in order to reach the optimal amount of investment. Even non-keynesians have to admit that government spending can foster long-term growth (by raising the ability to sell apples).
    Then there a few but significant markets for which market freedom leads to sub-optimal equilibrium. This is typically the case of insurance, dominated by moral hazard and asymmetry of information (other look questionable too: housing, banking, healthcare, etc.). Such markets require either regulation or nationalization.
    Those public and regulated goods are paid for by taxes, mortgage and premiums and account for the bigger share of most households income.
    This does however not mean we live in socialist economies. The fact that "free-market" goods account for a small share of our expenses is a consequence of their cost-efficient production.
    True libertarians recognize this, others are lobbyists.

  3. Here is all there is to say about either the simplistic idea that "government is the problem," anything Hayek ever said or wrote, or anything libertarian.

    Right now, Europe is coming to realize it needs more government, lots, more government, not less, it if is to survive.

    Europe mulls major step toward "fiscal union"

    George Soros says three months to save the euro

    That means only three months to do the intellectual work and all the rest of the work that took Alexander Hamilton 10 years in a far simpler time more than 200 years ago. The process of moving from the Articles to the Constitution was fiscal union plus, was the first step in moving from small ineffective government to bigger, more effective government.

    Who would argue that, in 225 years, the need to move past Hamilton's work hasn't arrived?

    The United States, needs more national government, a better, and more effective national government.

    It really is all about information.

    Government collects information, then acts on the information collected. Its effective depends first, upon collecting as much information as possible. Second, on organizing, sorting, and analyzing that information, and third on being able to act first, within a Boyd ooda loop.

    Given the rate of growth of information, government has to grow exponentially.

    At the same time, we have the great insights of Munger, Drucker, and others, all on the importance of incentives. What is the problem is not the size of government but our failure and refusal to attack the incentives of gov't workers and bureaucrats and of Congress. A principal flaw is that, we have siloed everything.

    What business could survive if it was siloed to the extent that its treasury office was as siloed as the Federal Reserve?

    In sum, as they say on the streets, Cash Rules Everything Around Me. Meaning, if anyone thinks smaller government is the answer, show me the money. Show me the intellectual foundation for how you deal with complexity by getting smaller. If that were true, why are we building super computers? Show me the studies that show that a smaller government works---their are none. (And don't throw up either Laffer or some study about transfer payments, that is not the core aspect of government of which I am writing)

  4. If you want to think of socialism as "an economic system characterized by [government] ownership and/or control of the means of production", we live in a system that meets that requirement. After all, the entire market system is a sandbox produced by government for capitalism to play in. And at times, government demonstrates its ownership very clearly: for example the national control of industry for production of war materials during WWII. At most, we create a realistic illusion of private ownership. Real private ownership has been out of fashion since feudalism.

    I don't view socialism as an alternative to capitalism. I view socialism and capitalism as some of the dimensions in which various parts of our society operate.

    If anything, I welcome libertarians recognizing and positively affirming socialism. The more in touch with reality they get, the further they might depart from harmful ideology. I suspect we agree here.

    1. "...the entire market system is a sandbox produced by government for capitalism to play in"

      Correct. Power constrains economic outcomes, markets merely optimize within those constraints.

      Power is essential to a causal account of economic behavior, yet academic economics systematically shoves questions of power off-stage as "exogenous variables" and stops thinking about them. This makes economists sound like Dr. Pangloss saying everything works out for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire invented Pangloss to parody the 18th century vogue for 'optimism' -- a naive generalization of the principle of least action from mathematical physics to human affairs. It's the same misunderstanding now as it was back then. Economists may have forgotten the principle of least action by that name, but Arrow-Debreu is effectively a reformulation of the same idea.

  5. this is pretty funnt on socialism: starts at about 1:00, and starting around 5:00 (Romney).

  6. If true or sustainable, this trend toward understanding the proper role of government as a vital public adjunct to private enterprise is welcome. Now if we can apply this to healthcare!

  7. "For years, many of our brightest intellectuals embraced the simplistic idea that 'government is the problem'."

    You are confusing being glib with being smart. These guys were useful idiots in the employ of extremely wealthy men. Their actual intelligence was limited. They could not understand the complexities of a modern society.

    If they truly believed the nonsense they have been spouting they would have gone off to Somalia or some other appropriate place and established their Libertarian paradise rather than collecting a modest salary from wealthy patrons.

    The best line about the Libertarians comes courtesy of Paul Krugman:

    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

    1. Anonymous4:59 PM

      Amen, brother!

    2. Seconding - Noah, you are living and working in the rubble of the oh-so-bright economists' delusions. Please accept that.

  8. Let's hope so, but let's be realistic. I constantly see people trying to appease libertarians, and this might be a pretty dismal approach, without hope for much. Realistically, you may do far more good by just saying we disagree. We're not willing to have immense suffering, loss, and decreased growth and scientific advancement to avoid losing even a micron of personal freedom. We just disagree and we're going to try to make clear the ramifications of your ideology to the public so we can outvote you, even with the undemocraticness in out system.

    I mean, fine, a two pronged approach may yield some results, but in the past we've gotten the great progress with confrontation, not appeasement, and showing the public. For example, FDR and the New Deal, and JBJ and Medicare/Medicaid. High social return government investment can be successfully widely sold to the general population of economists and educated laypeople, and from there the general public. That approach can be very effective without constantly trying to appease extreme libertarians.

    Of course, if you could do both that's better, and I wish you luck, but let's be carefully of expending too much time and effort given the likelihood of success.

    1. And I think one of the dangers of this constant appeasement is that it's not just an additional prong on top of confrontation; it starts to become instead of confrontation. It starts to become we're timid to confront this ideology and point out the monumental suffering and loss and decreased growth in wealth and science it would bring to avoid giving up even small amounts of personal freedom.

      Now, it's, oh, we're sorry, we really aren't causing any loss of personal freedom. You play their game and the country really suffers as a result. You don't just stand up and say, yes, Medicare and Social Security is a loss of some economic freedom; you have to pay the taxes whether you want to or not, but we don't want to live in a world where seniors live and die in the street. Yes, having the government tax to pay for basic medical and scientific research is a loss of some personal freedom, but we don't want massive inefficiency and slow growth in science and medicine; we want a far brighter future for our children and grandchildren.

      That's the danger of these attempts at appeasement (see also Robert Frank's new book). They can become instead of standing up to extreme libertarians and exposing the dire ramifications of their ideology to the public. Again FDR and LBJ confronted and exposed; they didn't appease.

      I'm not saying what you're doing can't be valuable; just that we have to be careful of this stuff and the passive attitude that can go with it.

    2. Hey, I'm not going to appease anyone.

      But you may be overestimating the degree to which I actually disagree with libertarians in the first place. I agree with the basic idea that personal liberty is a good thing in and of itself, not just a means to an end. And I think libertarians have good instincts on many issues, from immigration to the drug war to torture and executive detention. And about things like regulation and taxes, sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong.

      So I don't see libertarians as an enemy army to be vanquished.

      What I think happened is this: America has a deep-seated cultural and intellectual respect for personal liberty. So what certain rich conservatives did is to come along and basically trick a bunch of people into believing that taxes, spending and regulation are the greatest threat to personal liberty. They did this by paying some shills (think tanks) to simply say this over and over. A generation of American intellectuals, who had much the same moral instincts as me starting out, came to believe this bullshit, and joined what the rich conservatives, in a victory for Orwellian doublespeak, labeled the "libertarian movement".

      What I want to do is to show these intellectuals that taxes, spending and regulation are not always detrimental to liberty...but many of the policies and groups supported by the backers of the astroturfed "libertarian" faux-movement are, in fact, big threats to liberty. This, hopefully, will bring libertarian thinkers around to my point of view.

      But fundamentally, a lot of the libertarians out there share my values. So I don't want to confront and defeat them.

    3. "So I don't want to confront and defeat them."

      They are paid mercenaries without souls. You crush them or they crush you. There is no room for compromise. They cannot compromise with you and still collect their pieces of silver.

    4. Allright, but it is a battle at the ballot box, whether you want it to be one or not. One side wins we get the Ryan Budget; the other side wins, and pretty much all citizens get health insurance they can always count on. Or if the extreme libertarians really win, we end Social Security, Medicare, any and all government paid for schooling for children of any kind -- kids go to school only if their parent's pay, and to the extent they pay, all government basic science and medicine, any unemployment insurance at all, public vaccination, public infrastructure,... It's a battle for them, and that's what they're fighting for. The less you fight back, the more they win, and we've gotten our biggest progress when we've decided to fight hard.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. And, of course, I value personal liberty too, but it's this extreme imbalance, where you're not willing to sacrifice even the tiniest bit to avoid even monumental suffering and loss that I oppose. I oppose where you won't give up even one micron of personal freedom for a vastly better, wealthier, more scientifically advanced world, especially for future generations with greatly increased growth (as opposed to the horrendous decay their ideology would bring). It's the terrible imbalance of anything else, no matter how precious, no matter how vast, being worthless compared to even the tiniest spec of personal freedom, that I oppose.

    7. @Absalon:

      They are paid mercenaries without souls. You crush them or they crush you. There is no room for compromise.

      I imagine "O Fortuna" playing while you deliver this speech...


      Well, I think America has some people who are causing much, much bigger problems than the libertarians...I am speaking, of course, of the Zombie Confederacy.

    8. All joking aside (and I will rent that movie), extreme libertarians aren't just out there at the fringe anymore. Economically, they've taken over one of our two major parties, have strong influence in academic economics, and have moved the Overton Window waaaay to the right.

    9. I imagine "O Fortuna" playing while you deliver this speech...

      Good choice.

      (And I agree with Alexander Hamilton down the page. You should look up Col. Boyd's "OODA loop" when you have some time to spare from working on your thesis.)

    10. All joking aside (and I will rent that movie), extreme libertarians aren't just out there at the fringe anymore. Economically, they've taken over one of our two major parties, have strong influence in academic economics, and have moved the Overton Window waaaay to the right.

      Actually, I don't think you're right. What I think happened, in a nutshell, was that rich people managed to convince the Zombie Confederates that all taxes came out of the pockets of white people (Zombie Confederates think of themselves as just "white people") and all govt. spending was handouts to black people. This point of view is readily apparent to anyone who spends half an hour listening to any right-wing pundit or media person or casual discussion.

      Basically, I think libertarians were a side story to this basic narrative. People like the Cato Institute had basically zero impact on the grassroots dialogue (which is all about race and identity). What I think they did is to provide an intellectual distraction for liberals to fight against.

      Look, it's easy to show libertarians are wrong about stuff. As Will Wilkinson says, someone sporting the libertarian label basically signals that their IQ is 15 points lower by doing so. Libertarianism is an intellectual muscle suit strapped on by A) paid hacks, and B) idealistic wet-behind-the-ears kids who like the idea of a self-consistent moral system based on individuality and have not yet realized that their system is just some silliness cooked up by (A). It's fun for liberals to smack libertarians down; it lets us feel smart. But it's really just a distraction from what we ought to be doing, which is finding ways to create an effective liberalism that works as a national policy strategy, and finding ways to sell this liberalism to the average American.

      In other words, instead of winning, we're having fun punching the tar baby of libertarianism. Which is fine, fun is good, but we have bigger fish to fry.

    11. I don’t think we disagree much, maybe not even at all on anything here. It’s just imprecise language and communication is making it look like we do. As a comic example, by confederate zombies I thought you were referring to this:

      And I, at least by and large, agree with all you said above; this is primarily fueled by tons of money from the rich; it’s not an expansion of Cato, etc. But the right has largely used the economic arguments of libertarians, and these arguments have to be confronted and exposed to the public, because sadly they can be effective. They’re simple and easy, soundbites, and few people know what externalities, the backward bending labor supply curve, etc. are.

      And I would add, libertarians and libertarian leaners are disproportionately represented in academic economics and among the VSP’s, and these people have a lot of influence. Look, for example, at all of the successful intentional misleading and confusion that can be created by people like John Taylor, Greg Mankiw, and Edward Prescott, with the titles and prestige they have. Krugman talks about this in his book Peddling Prosperity.

    12. It may take a lot of back and forth to get our communication clear, and both of us have little time, but again, I think in the end we would see there's little if any real disagreement. I'll add just a little more (Then I'll try to zip it up!):

      Most people who support or fall for some libertarian ideas and claims just don't know about, or haven't really thought about, things like externalities, the zero marginal cost of ideas, the income and substitution effects,... Plus, people are ridiculously wrong about how government spends money, what waste there is (and compared to the private sector), the percentage of government spending that's on the poor (especially the undeserving poor), etc.

      So, there's a big confronting and exposing job to be done, especially for opinion leaders, VSPs, and many economists (who may know their narrow specialty, but not lots of other things). It's not just having fun with libertarians; it's exposing it for what it is to lots of people, a big important job.

      Then, there are economists like Taylor and Mankiw, who know full well the horrendous, monumental costs of libertarianism, but they'd rather have that than give up even relatively small amounts of personal freedom. They're true libertarians, not libertarians only because they fall for a fantasy that it creates more total societal utility. These people are especially dangerous because they have titles and prestige, and will use them to grossly intentionally mislead and confuse for the libertarian cause. A very interesting book is the China Study, by famed Cornell Nutritional scientist Colin Campbell. He talks about how long it took for it to be widely accepted in the public that smoking was very harmful, and part of the reason was that you had some doctors and people with prestigious titles who could be quoted saying smoking wasn't harmful.

    13. Libertarianism is an intellectual muscle suit strapped on by A) paid hacks, and B) idealistic wet-behind-the-ears kids ... their system is just some silliness cooked up by (A). It's fun for liberals to smack libertarians down; ... But it's really just a distraction from what we ought to be doing

      Tell me again why you think it is worth your while to engage with these folks?

  9. Anonymous5:57 PM

    You wrote, "For years, many of our brightest intellectuals embraced the simplistic idea that "government is the problem," and I was forced to ask: Do we no longer teach economics students basic economic history?

    Noah, simple question: Was reading Chernow's biography on Hamilton a part of your education?

  10. Noah, you are very mistaken to think libertarians have good instincts on many issues, regardless of whether the issue is immigration, the drug war, or torture and executive detention.

    Someone has suggested to you to read my biography.

    At the same time you should read everything you can by Col. John Boyd. You wholly fail to understand people, conflict, and, most importantly, the moral component of conflict. You do not show people; you marginalize and destroy them by direct, confrontational moral assaults. It has been shown over and over and over that very few people have the capacity to admit either that they are wrong or that they do not know. Today, only three public figures have the strength of character and minds up to that task: Munger, Buffett, and Soros.

    In no way should you read the foregoing as a defense of Obama. It is simply to point out to you that libertarians have nothing to contribute toward thinking about any problem, economic or political.

  11. ArgosyJones9:57 PM

    "What I think happened is this: America has a deep-seated cultural and intellectual respect for personal liberty. So what certain rich conservatives did is to come along and basically trick a bunch of people into believing that taxes, spending and regulation are the greatest threat to personal liberty. They did this by paying some shills (think tanks) to simply say this over and over."

    That sounds about right.

    1. If we ignore Manifest Destiny, slavery, rich people happily buying the laws and force that they found convenient, and massive government bailouts.

  12. I'm afraid I agree strongly with Alexander Hamilton above.

    I've spent almost 20 years "showing" libertarians better ways of understanding where they go wrong at Critiques Of Libertarianism. The result is that occasionally I get email from somebody who says I helped them escape libertarianism.

    I worked directly with the authors of the Political Compass, to explain why it was distorted. The result was they made cosmetic changes and wrote a FAQ to defend their propaganda.

    As AH says, very few people can change their outlook short of drastic infringements on their liberties. The only solution is to work against their recruitment and marginalize their arguments in the eyes of onlookers. If even hard sciences like physics have to wait for the old generation to die out, what hope do softer sciences and politics have?

    1. Mike, did you click on any of the links in my post? Read what Tim Lee, Alex Tabarrok, and Peter Thiel are saying about infrastructure, research, and public goods in general. Read it! How can you think this is not a good thing??

    2. Why, yes, I did follow each of those links. And they have all the significance of the Koch brothers supporting ballet, the old Soviet Union having extensive human rights built into its constitution, and a host of other lip service aimed at establishing credibility.

      When they split from libertarianism over this, when they denounce the libertarians who will not recognize this, then I might take them seriously.

      There's a famous definition of diplomacy: saying "nice doggie" until you can find a stick. That's what they're doing. It's tactical political bullshit: they don't really care if they are right or wrong, as long as they get people to think they are good guys.

      Listen to what the people who dealt with Friedman and Hayek for decades had to say about them. I think you will evolve the same attitudes.

  13. Mike Huben and Alexander Hamilton are correct. The only times libertarians have 'good' views is when their ridiculous ideology happens to overlap with what is actually sensible.

    For example, most people on the left would agree that the war on drugs, as it stands, is a bad thing. It has created massive black markets, health problems, costs a lot of money and makes little sense seeing as alcohol and smoking are legal.

    However, the left also agree that legalisation from where we are now could surely cause problems, and that it would need to be carefully thought through and debated before implemented.

    Libertarians, on the other hands, say 'SO WUT I WANT 2 TAKE DRUGS GUVNTMENT IN TEH WAY REMOVE ALL RESTRICTIONS!!!'

    There is no thought. It is an ideology that does not require thought - at the very most, you have to paraphrase Milton Friedman.

  14. Anonymous3:42 PM

    You have misquoted Wikipedia, it actually says "Socialism is an economic system characterised by *social* ownership and/or control of the means of production". The clue is in the name, accepting the difference may be a concept that does not compute for a professional economist.


  15. Using gov't force to construct infrastructure that is then made available for public use is, throughout the 20th century, the activities with the highest GDP positive rate of return.

    Money invested is far less than increase in economic activity; your apple raising & selling is a great example.

    Nevertheless, most road construction required the use of force against private property owners who were otherwise unwilling to sell, i.e. the price was too low. Had the price paid by the gov't for the land risen to the level that a private road builder would have had to pay, that return on investment would be much less positive.

    The limits of what peaceful capitalism can do are based on what prices induce individuals to act in the various ways desired by the social engineers.

    The successful, wealth creating US capitalist system has been based on strong private property rights, which do require gov't force to protect.

    I usually support using limited gov't force for public infrastructure -- but the use of gov't force to provide public goods has been perverted into the provision of private goods.

    Social Security should have been a forced savings, of your money for your benefit. Like in Chile.
    It is not. It is forcefully paying now, for benefits to those retired now, with the promise of gov't forcing others later, to pay for your benefits later.
    Most SS recipients have gotten more back than they paid in. Current college graduates with jobs are unlikely to get such a good deal -- for them it's a gov't program with a negative return.

    The Libertarian critique of gov't is based on two main pillars:
    a) the gov't programs mostly have a negative rate of return, and
    b) all gov't actions involve force, for which it is morally problematic to use against peaceful, honest people.

    Naturally, socialists and fascists are willing to use immoral force against free people for what they, perhaps reading Krugman, call "good" reasons. Too many, according to most Libertarians, and to me.

  16. Hi Noah.

    I don't think that you can discuss the decline in production and quality (which is somewhat different than just spending on) public goods and infrastructure since the start of the 1970s without discussing the National Environmental Policy Act, signed in January 1970.

    It's not libertarians who made the review process timeline for infrastructure increase so that "a survey of projects by the
    Federal Highway Administration found that the average time
    it took to complete an EIS in 2011 had grown to 8.1 years, com-
    pared with 2.2 years in the 1970s." (This is from a document supporting NEPA but saying that the process shouldn't take that long, that the law doesn't require the length and breadth of documents that they get.) Consider that the requirement for an EIS for federal dollars only dates to 1970.

    There may indeed be great reasons to have imposed NEPA, and it certainly prevents (and was in response to) some of the infrastructure projects that ignore local desires, especially those desires of the poor. (The Power Broker by Robert Caro, about Robert Moses, comes to mind.) But it's certainly true that it massively increased the cost of infrastructure projects. It's unsurprising that the political equilibrium would shift in the direction of fewer infrastructure projects and using money for other things.

    Note that Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians continually call for easing NEPA requirements, such as Sen. Barrasso's (R-WY) amendment to force EISes for ARRA projects to take no longer than what the planning organization document I cited before took. Obviously liberals and Democrats don't trust that, which I understand.

    I think it's a huge thing to leave out. Well-intentioned policy (and perhaps simply good policy) has made infrastructure much more expensive since 1970. It's hard to answer the question of how much more infrastructure we'd have without those changes, but I feel certain it would affect the equilibrium.

    1. I prefer to avoid conspiracy theories and dark questions of motives, Noah. I think that a simpler explanation is that several things, including NEPA, made it significantly more expensive (in time, money, effort, etc.) to build infrastructure, and as a result the new political equilibrium is that we got less of it.

      I understand that liberals want to say that since these regulations were worth it, the polity should be willing to simply be willing to pay the higher costs but still purchase as many public goods as before. But we shouldn't be surprised at a shift towards goods that didn't have such a large cost increase.

    2. Infrastructure spending, and highway spending, has continued to increase, according to the CBO. Republicans continually, as they did today, frustrate Heritage, the Club for Growth, Cato, Reason, etc. by voting in favor of highway projects because of perfectly Keynesian reasons like "jobs." (Republicans also helped override a Reagan veto of a highway bill.) The "Zombie Confederates" who hate spending that they think is aimed just at black people don't feel that way about roads.

      Indeed, it's a commonplace pointed out elsewhere that Republican voters (and Independent and Americans in general), while they hate taxes and often claim to hate spending and deficits in general, want to spare nearly all the spending that exists. The things that they want to cut (which, yes, are things aimed at foreigners and the poor) take up much less of the budget than they like. Contrary to your assertion, the voting of Republican politicians bear that out. While there is a wing that votes against the Export-Import Bank, the highway bill, flood insurance, agricultural subsidies, and everything else, the vast majority of settled "infrastructure" and "investment" programs are passed on a bipartisan basis, even the more dubious ones.

      Programs seen as more transformative of society do tend to be rejected by Republicans, but surely that's irrelevant if you're trying to claim that the pre-1970s situation is what we should aspire to.

      And even pre-1970s, I suggest you look at books like "Party Loyalty among Congressmen: The Differences between Democrats and Republicans 1947-1962" by David Mayhew, to see that it was the same back then. As he shows, Republicans voted against farms, urban renewal programs, and water programs, except when those issues matched local interests. Democrats in general voted in favor of all those issues, even when it didn't affect their local districts, except that Southern Democrats didn't care for urban renewal programs (again, the Zombie Confederate issue you mention), though they were glad to support farm programs.

      All the issues and attitudes you mention, therefore, existed pre 1970s. NEPA, however, did not. So if something changed starting in the 1970s, it was the cost increase that NEPA brought about.