Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Why conservatives hate trains

Via Paul Krugman, I come across this George Will column purporting to expose the "real" reason why many liberals support rail transport:
So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads...? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior...
Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.
Time was, the progressive cry was “Workers of the world unite!” or “Power to the people!” Now it is less resonant: “All aboard!”
This is not a claim you often hear spoken aloud, but it seems to be part of conservatives' tacit understanding of the world. Three questions suggest themselves. In decreasing order of deference to the conservative worldview, these are: 1. Do trains reduce individual liberty? 2. Do progressives support rail for this reason? 3. Why do conservatives hate trains so much?

Do trains reduce freedom of movement? Not if you live in a city, they don't! If you try driving your car in a big city, you'll find yourself doing a lot of A) driving around looking for parking, as well as B) walking to and from your parking spot. If you have to use street parking, you'll find yourself temporally constrained as well, constantly checking your watch to see if there's still time on the meter. And that's all before taking traffic into account.

Contrast this with trains. I lived for over two years in a country with one of the world's best rail systems (Japan), and I relished the freedom that it gave me -any time I liked, I could walk to a train station, wait no more than a few minutes for a train to arrive, and be sure that I'd reach my destination in a set amount of time. Not only this, but any time I liked I could hop on a bullet train to another city and travel around that city in exactly the same manner. 

Now, if you live in the suburbs or the country, you need a car (or some equivalent). No government infrastructure program will ever be able to change that. But in the places where trains are feasible - and in the places where progressives want to build them - rail increases personal freedom of movement.

What about Will's contention that progressives want trains in order to reduce individual freedom? Rather unlikely. The fact is, government-subsidized rail mainly benefits the poor (since there are big overhead costs to owning a car). It also mainly benefits urban residents. Progressives, for the most part, are urban residents who are concerned with providing government services to the poor. Why should they need additional, sinister, hidden reasons to support something that's so obviously in their interest?

Finally, two can play at Will's game. I could easily claim that conservatives hate trains not because of a love of freedom, but because of racism. Cars are the main enabler of white flight; without trains and walkable streets, white suburbanites need never see a black person from close up. Conservatives, I could argue, are throwing a thin and shoddy veneer of libertarianism over the thick, unshakable bedrock of racial nationalism that is the true heart of their movement. Trains threaten their comfortable status quo of voluntary apartheid.

Do I claim this? Well, I think it is a part of what's going on. A bigger part, I'm sure, than hate for freedom plays in progressives' support for trains. But at the end of the day, I think that most of conservative opposition to rail is just plain old economics - trains tax the rich to benefit the poor. It's one more reflection of the sad fact that too many of America's policy debates these days are about how to divide the shrinking pie, and not about how to grow that pie.

As for George Will, I think it's sad that the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks have made it impossible for a thoughtful conservative to get noticed. Will has pretty clearly been forced to appear ever more reactionary, and to say ever sillier things, in a doomed attempt to shore up his declining relevance to the conservative movement.

Update: As a commenter notes, I had been forgotten to add that the conservative movement is heavily bankrolled by the petroleum industry, which is opposed to train use for obvious reasons. This is another central reason for conservative anti-train animus. 

Update 2: Paul Krugman is of a like mind on this subject. 

Update 3: If you think trains are a thing of the past, you're betting against Warren Buffet

Update 4: A commenter writes:
if progressives hate cars because they don't like people to have so much freedom, then why do progressives love bikes so much. You can take a bike nearly anywhere a car can go...and so many more places as well. Plus any bike problem can easily be fixed by an individual with basic tools, while many car problems require highly trained individuals with expensive machinery. When it comes to independence, a bike is far more liberating. 
In a word: Yes. So why do conservatives hate bikes? Is it because bikes are cheap, and bike transport therefore creates fewer rich/poor divisions? Or is it because bikes don't give you a bubble with which to keep out undesirable people? 

Update 5: Looks like George Will was all for high-speed rail a few years back. Left hand, meet right. 

Update 6: Someone makes the eminently sensible point that trains make drivers more free, since they reduce traffic. How did I miss such an obvious point? But it hardly matters, as George Will's thesis has by now been beaten to a bloody death from every angle imaginable.


  1. Add to the southern strategy aspect of US conservatism is the racketeering that is part and parcel of the fuel, auto, real estate and highway construction industries.

    These industries pay the salaries of the George Wills of this world. They also, along with finance, own Congress and legislatures.

    There is also tens of trillions of sunk capital invested (wasted) on highway- centered infrastructure. Pimps like Will are necessary to make the suckers feel better about their 'investments'.

    Don't worry. Conservatives or no, the trains are coming to a town near you. So says Mr Peak Oil.

  2. Anonymous9:36 AM

    I never thought much of George Will and I am in no way bankrolled by the petroleum industry and Warren Buffett and everyone else in the nation can do what they want with their personal money.

    The issue with government funded rail, which causes me to oppose it, and which your post does not address (as your post has no numbers), is that it does not pay for itself anywhere in America. It doesn't even cover its operating costs. It does not much benefit the poor as you say except perhaps for the subways in three or four of our cities. The poor take Greyhound. Or private sector vans. Or use government supplied buses which are cheaper than rail. Trains cost too much even with subsidies and even so they don't cover their costs.

    These points have been heavily documented by the relevant federal agencies.

  3. Mark (anonymous):

    First of all, trains may lose money under some conditions and not under others. Building trains to or in spread-out cities like Houston is probably a money-losing proposition. But in dense areas like New Jersey, the SF Bay Area, or parts of LA, it makes sense. And high-speed rail can be a cost-effective competitor to short-hop airplanes.

    Also, trains reduce environemental externalities that are not reflected in headline costs.

    Which is not to say I think trains are always and everywhere awesome, but that the categorical arguments typically employed against rail are basically spurious.

  4. Anonymous is against rail supposedly because it doesn't pay for itself. But if that's the criteria, then you must also be against cars, planes, and every other form of travel...even walking on sidewalks depends on government subsidy. Planes and cars receives tens of billions in federal subsidies...with the same level of subsidy for train travel we could have a rail network that is the envy of the world and far more convenient than passenger cars.

    And I have to wonder regarding the original post...if progressives hate cars because they don't like people to have so much freedom, then why do progressives love bikes so much. You can take a bike nearly anywhere a car can go...and so many more places as well. Plus any bike problem can easily be fixed by an individual with basic tools, while many car problems require highly trained individuals with expensive machinery. When it comes to independence, a bike is far more liberating.

  5. Anonymous2:14 PM

    You are correct about those metro areas. They are the ones I adverted to. But even those do not cover their costs from operating revenue. And the high speed rail projects being proposed now do not come close to providing the utility of those cities' systems because of the lack of comparable population density in the targeted areas.

    Rail to Fresno? What do you do when you get off? Taxi? Rail between the Orlando airport and Disney World? If that made sense you'd think Disney could write that check. Intrastate rail in Texas - again, why should blue state taxpayers give Texans money for that? Let them build their own.

    My opposition is not categorical although George Will's may be. As I said before I think of him as a bit of a fop although even fops are right from time to time. Probably as often as Mark Zandi which isn't saying much. My opposition is analytical , evidenced and largely quantitative. I totally love the concept of mass transit, and I've used it all my life on principle. But rail is not efficient for transporting people nor is it particularly equitable compared to alternative forms of mass transit. As far as the environmental bennies, a carbon tax would have more benefit there.

    And just one Warren Buffett note from his Squawk interview today:
    "Warren Buffett tells CNBC he thinks the government should reduce its efforts to stimulate the U.S. economy now that the recovery is gradually picking up steam."

  6. Anonymous2:38 PM

    Your comment about Buffett and trains is kind of misleading. Conservatives aren't opposed to freight rail, just subsidized passenger rail on the east (liberal) coast.

    Buffett bought that rail company in order to ship his coal to his power plants.

  7. urban legend5:10 PM

    I'm not sure all of these logical explanations aren't missing the real point. The right-wing today has no policy answers for anything -- nothing whatsoever. Therefore, its end-all and be-all is to oppose whatever progressives like.

    I have a car. I like to drive my car. I can feel the romance of the open road just as much as any Texan. I loved my cross-country road trip last summer. I like to fly sometimes, too, although it's becoming a real pain-in-the-ass sometimes, too.

    But I don't like much to drive my car in rush hour in a big city, or to pay $30 to park in the heart of a city after spending $30 just to drive back-and-forth from my suburban location (gasoline, tolls, wear-and-tear). Rush hour on an expressway is awful, and a busy expressway between cities at other than extreme off-hours is hardly relaxing.

    So, yes, the idea of having the option to go from Chicago to St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit or Minneapolis in 2.5 hours (less than half the time it takes to drive, and actually considerably less in total than flying) is quite appealing. LA to San Francisco in 3 hours, Portland to Seattle in just over 1 hour, New York to DC on an improved high-speed route in 1 3/4 hours, Dallas to Austin to San Antonio in 2.25 -- those all sound nice, too. Getting anywhere in a big city in 20 minutes is great, too.

    I never realized it was an ideological thing to prefer to get places faster and in more comfort. But I guess because (1) it's "public" transportation -- where we-the-people through our government, in the interest of improving the quality of life of we-the-people, at the request of the majority of we-the-people, might bear the cost of the necessary infrastructure and operating start-up -- and (2) reduced energy consumption is one of the arguments in favor of better rail transit, that marks it as, God forbid, an objective of "progressives."

    The bottom line is, anything progressives want right-wingers hate for that simple reason. That's really as far as you have to go.

  8. This just in" Obama announces that breathing air is good" approximately 3 1/2 minutes later, half of nation passes out and turns blue. That pretty much sums it up outside of major cities in the south in my experience, and especially Georgia

  9. "But even those do not cover their costs from operating revenue."

    I wonder how highways cover their costs?

  10. At the risk of responding to nothing anyone has said so far, I'd like to just say that I ride the metro every day (DC) because it's convenient. I have no ideology about it - I just absolutely couldn't stand driving into DC every day, paying for parking and gas, sitting in traffic jams constantly, etc. People who think that liking trains is about wanting everyone to be a collective hive mind have obviously never commuted in and out of a city.

  11. Will George Will think the new Atlas Shrugged movie is a commie socialist plot, then?

  12. Thanks for the spotlight, Noah. I think you're assuming too much rational thinking when you look for motives for conservatives to hate bikes. I think the main reason is actually more tied up in the sentiment expressed by Bill Murray above (hilarious, btw). Conservatives don't usually like bikes for the same reason they don't usually like trains...because progressives and liberals usually do like them. It's really that simple.

    This makes me think there's actually a very simple strategy to ensure defeat of conservative candidates and agendas: Liberals, progressives, and especially President Obama, need to talk loudly and often about how great voting is.

  13. Anonymous: "The issue with government funded rail, which causes me to oppose it, and which your post does not address (as your post has no numbers), is that it does not pay for itself anywhere in America. It doesn't even cover its operating costs."

    Are you unaware that road-building is heavily subsidized?

  14. Anonymous3:13 AM

    "The issue with government funded rail, which causes me to oppose it, and which your post does not address (as your post has no numbers), is that it does not pay for itself anywhere in America. It doesn't even cover its operating costs."

    Ditto Barry, and in addition, though there are few studies that have attempted to compare the performance of gas-tax funded highways and user-fee/government subsidy funded railways, those studies that do exist have found rail to be more economically sound than highways. I've slept since then, so the numbers are fuzzy, but I believe the gas tax pays down on average 10% of highway costs in America, while with rail the average is more like 30%? Neither of these are great numbers, but I would say we'd need to look at what that 90% and 70% are paying for before we try and say that rail and highways should pay for themselves. Raising transportation and logistics costs for everyone from Wal-Mart to Joe Schmoe does *not* seem like a smart way to spur economic recovery, or growth of any kind.

  15. Our conservative State government over here in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, like trains.

    a) they were elected with a mandate to make public transport better.
    b) surely facilitating the movement of people to and from work makes economic sense, and it's well-known that with road building supply drives demand
    c) our conservatives are mostly non-ideological (lucky us)

    Oh also, off topic, but - I'm sure you know this already, but if you want a case study in how Keynesian stimulus saves countries from recession, have a look at Australia. We didn't even have a recession here. Probably the biggest problem with this approach has been that the Commonwealth (aka Federal) gov't has been the victim of its own success; people actually don't quite believe (certainly don't feel) that there was a global economic crisis ('what crisis?') and think that the spending programs were hence unjustified.

  16. Don't a lot of conservatives dislike trains because they allow railway unions to hold the economy to ransom?

    There's a reason why Bob Crow was the one of a very small number of truly successful union bosses in post-Thatcher Britain...