There is a popular notion at large, part of a sort of phantom “bi-partisan” centrist conviction, that the degradation of American infrastructure, exemplified by the backwardness of our trains and airports, too, is a failure of the American political system. We all should know that it is bad to have our trains crowded and wildly inefficient—as Michael Tomasky points out, fifty years ago, the train from New York to Washington was much faster than it is now—but we lack the political means or will to cure the problem. In fact, this is a triumph of our political system, for what is politics but a way of enforcing ideological values over merely rational ones? If we all agreed on common economic welfare and pursued it logically, we would not need politics at all: we could outsource our problems to a sort of Saint-Simonian managerial class, which would do the job for us.
What an ideology does is give you reasons not to pursue your own apparent rational interest—and this cuts both ways, including both wealthy people in New York who, out of social conviction, vote for politicians who are more likely to raise their taxes, and poor people in the South who vote for those devoted to cutting taxes on incomes they can never hope to earn. There is no such thing as false consciousness. There are simply beliefs that make us sacrifice one piece of self-evident interest for some other, larger principle.
What we have, uniquely in America, is a political class, and an entire political party, devoted to the idea that any money spent on public goods is money misplaced, not because the state goods might not be good but because they would distract us from the larger principle that no ultimate good can be found in the state. Ride a fast train to Washington today and you’ll start thinking about national health insurance tomorrow.
The ideology of individual autonomy is, for good or ill, so powerful that it demands cars where trains would save lives, just as it places assault weapons in private hands, despite the toll they take in human lives. Trains have to be resisted, even if it means more pollution and massive inefficiency and falling ever further behind in the amenities of life—what Olmsted called our “commonplace civilization.”
Part of this, of course, is the ancient—and yet, for most Americans, oddly beclouded—reality that the constitutional system is rigged for rural interests over urban ones. The Senate was designed to make this happen, even before we had big cities, and no matter how many people they contain or what efficient engines of prosperity they are. Mass transit goes begging while farm subsidies flourish.
But the bias against the common good goes deeper, into the very cortex of the imagination. This was exemplified by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision, a few short years ago, to cancel the planned train tunnel under the Hudson. No good reason could be found for this—most of the money would have been supplied by the federal government, it was obviously in the long-term interests of the people of New Jersey, and it was exactly the kind of wise thing that, a hundred years ago, allowed the region to blossom. Christie was making what was purely a gesture toward the national Republican Party, in the same spirit as supporting a right-to-life amendment. We won’t build a tunnel for trains we obviously need because, if we did, people would use it and then think better of the people who built it. That is the logic in a nutshell, and logic it seems to be, until you get to its end, when it becomes an absurdity. As Paul Krugman wrote, correctly, about the rail-tunnel follies, “in general, the politicians who make the loudest noise about taking care of future generations, taking the long view, etc., are the ones who are in fact most irresponsible about public investments.”