Government and Collapsed Bridges (Mises Institute)
Tuesday May 28th, 2013
The recent collapse of a small commuter bridge in Washington has brought back memories of Minnesota. Back in August of 2007, the I-35W Mississippi bridge connecting the Downtown East and Marcy-Holmes neighborhoods plummeted to the river below like a Chinese-made sofa. Thirteen individuals lost their lives while 145 escaped with injury. The suddenness of the debacle was met with the blunt response system of the state. That is, politicians in Minnesota and elsewhere went before the public to decry the deteriorating condition of government infrastructure across the country. A flurry of taxpayer money dedicated to overhauling the nation's bridges followed. Five years after millions in tax dollars were fleeced, allocated, and distributed to this new urgency, less than two dozen of the state's 172 "structurally deficient" bridges have been made whole.
The total failure to provide safe infrastructure, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy, would be comical if it were not so representative of the ineptness of state action. If there is one thing government officials are good at, it's going forth with failed plans while convincing themselves, and voters, that this time will be different. Following the Interstate 5 bridge collapse in Washington, the same calls to action are being issued in spite of a non-failure in the bridge design itself. Former yes-man and advisor to the President David Axelrod attempted to blame Republicans in Congress for a reluctance to spend on infrastructure investment – as if the second half of the statist party coin ever harbored a desire to tame the District's portly appetite for wasting tax revenue. Axelrod, being a professional opportunist, was not going to let a good crisis go to political waste; a tactic he undoubtedly learned from his White House comrade in debauchery Rahm Emanuel.
Proponents of sprawling public work projects such as bridges have been apt to cite to latest scorecard from the American Society of Civilian Engineers – a report which always happens to portray the country's infrastructure as nearing a communist-like collapse. The latest inspection in 2012 revealed the U.S. is home to least 150,000 structurally deficient bridges. In the few years I have followed the ASCE's annual checkup, I have yet to see bright and optimistic grading. The diagnosis consistently falls somewhere between neglectful euthanasia and deliberate homicide. The string of bridge collapses plays right into the hand of the century old association. It's never a point of suspicion for liberals that the professional body's membership, who are predominantly employed constructing or fixing government infrastructure, would have a vested interest in wringing more money from susceptible politicians. The ASCE's siren call is filled with everything repugnant to the Progressive mindset: profit motive, corruption, undermining of public trust. That's all dismissed with contemplation of tangible benefits provided by government funding.
Talk of public infrastructure projects ignites the thoughts of state apologists who dedicate their career to advancing a creeping despotism. The effect on the rest of the public is much lesser. Bridges, roads, sewer systems, and the like are accepted functions of the state. But therein lies the rub: little praise is given for an expected service. The foundational elements of civilized and commercial society remain hidden, in a sense, to greater recognizability. In other words, we expect our toilets to remove waste and electricity to come with the flick of a switch. Except in the absence of function, attention is diverted elsewhere. The core component of democracy that` makes it workable political philosophy is wrong – voters are not considerate or far-thinking. They demand instant gratification. That helps explain why politicians, in their capacity as crowd charmers, dedicate little time and even fewer resources to keeping government infrastructure in pristine shape. As former New York City mayor Ed Koch liked to say, "It’s hard to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new sewer line."
Even with the less-than-glorifying esteem that comes with respooling electrical wire, the state maintains an iron-tight grip on commercial infrastructure for a reason. Monopoly control equates to societal power – nothing more or less. The free, voluntary transactions of individuals is without a doubt the best means to ensure an efficient use of resources. Ports, roadways, drainage systems, and bridges have all been provided for by the private economy. In government form, they provide a benefit; one which comes at the expense of an undetermined number of wrongs. As essayist Frank Chodorov wrote, "If we get anything for the taxes we pay it is not because we want it; it is forced on us."
It can't be said for sure if the I-35W Mississippi bridge was left in private hands, maintenance and upkeep would have been performed more regularly. I would wager my money on the profit spell, acting as a driving force to preserve quality. The theory of collectivism relies on the unsteady moral conscience of leadership. Capitalism rests only on the material desire for more. The former requiring more virtue than the latter, it would be wiser to put one's faith in that which does not demand the all-knowing hubris of central planners.
In any service, the government has achieved the perfect deal. When a private entity fails at meeting consumer desire (or its negligence results in death), a drop in income and market share follows. When the faultiness of a state product is revealed, more money is requested to atone for the deficiency. Success for failure is a perverse incentive – all the more fitting for the government's wheelhouse of inconsistencies such as "destroy to save" or "fascism to save the free market."
Being the state iconoclast that I am, I find myself split between admiration for industrial feats and loathing for the dank, unscrupulous actions which cemented the wonder on fertile ground. It can be captivating to gaze upon a bridge spanning the length of a tumultuous river – a demonstration of man's capacity to overcome the Earth's obstacles and create his own future. Witnessing mammoths of concrete, steel, and calculated texture is humbling. The intricacies of meticulously crafted metal enveloped among stalactitic, concrete protrusions make for a web of human engineering that cannot begin to be understood by the layman. The knowledge necessary to erect such a structure has been kept and passed down for centuries. Its dissemination is a human achievement ranking among the great architectural undertakings.
The bridge is really a connector of civilization. Without it, the flourishing of the division of labor would be heavily constrained. The wilderness in remote parts of the Earth would remain untamed. It is certainly true that industrial structures that cultivate mobility have been used for campaigns of aggression and invasion, namely by militaries. But I have never been a fan of laying blame on technological innovation for enrapturing the destructive tendencies of man. Responsibility flows from human free will. The objects created by the employment of mind and labor are incapable of volition, and thus outside the bounds of being moral agents.
Indispensability is all the more reason to remove the state's unprofitable hand from infrastructure investment such as bridge building. Enough economists have brought attention to the inability of government bureaucrats to utilize pricing signals in an effective manner. Public works projects often serve to enrich well-connected interest groups, with actual serviceability being a secondary concern. Here's hoping to the quick rehabilitating of the Interstate 5 bridge in Washington, and to the broadspread realization of the perversion government has on such endeavors.
James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. Send him mail