Does Using the Interstate Highways Make Me a Socialist?

Last weekend I went on a road trip with some of my fellow faculty and students.  We enjoyed passing through parts of six states on the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system.  I was about five months old when the Republican president from Abilene signed the bill that made the interstate highway system possible.

Was it socialism?  If socialism means centralized planning, massive public (i.e., taxpayer) investment, and government control–then the interstate highways were absolutely an experiment in socialism.

Think of how the private economy could have built a highway system.  Landowners could have built roads on their own property and chosen whether to retain the exclusive use or to lease or sell access.  They could have negotiated agreements with their neighbors.

Or corporations could have attempted to buy up long contiguous strips of land and build private highways.  They could then sell access for a profit.

When you think through all the ramifications, it is hard to think of any practical way that private initiative and private funding could have built the kind of highway system we have today.

A little more than fifty years ago our president and congress made the decision to provide every citizen with universal access to travel in every state. They even have interstate highways in Hawaii–think about that!

Acquiring the land did require federal seizure of private property.  Therefore, building the Interstate Highway System was promoted as a military necessity.  The main impact, however, has been economic rather than military.

The internate highway system was a massive project in social engineering, involving a massive public investment of funds–and it has been a massive financial success.  Nearly all of the growth in prosperity in the past fifty years has been directly or indirectly related to the interstate highways.

But now it is time for a new economy not based on the automobile.  Is it time for a new investment in the future?

Money that is wasted by short-sided politicians will certainly be a drain on my grandchildren.  But wise investment in the future could lead to increased prosperity for the next generations.

A year ago I visited the decaying ruins of state socialism in countries formerly dominated by the Soviet Union.  I don’t want any part of that.  But I also don’t want to label any public investment in the future as socialism.  Someone has to rebuild the infrastructure, fund education, and prepare the way for the economy of the future.