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.


4 Responses

  1. Mark, the answer to your head line is, Yes!

    You said,”But I also don’t want to label any public investment in the future as socialism.” Why not, it is socialism.

    Maybe because socialism has a bad connotation due to the former Soviet Union. Maybe because you can see no market solutions capable of building huge networks of highways. But, many times in our history we have conquered similarly huge obstacles by mostly private means. Consider the internet, the transcontinental railroad, and airlines to name a few. True there was considerable help from the federal government, but mostly because they allowed business and commerce to do things the government regulated or prohibited in the past. In fact, Al Gore, through his political position, allowed the internet to occur, so now many, jokingly, suggest he invented it.

    It’s my belief, government is not the solution to most problems, but the obstacle to many of them. Further, as it gets bigger and acquires more and more control they become to “big to fail” and must take on these huge projects to justify their huge size and the pilfering of funds from the individual and private sector. Amazingly, their mismanagement of these funds is tolerated because it is for the common good.

    It is my opinion, collectivism and large central governments use arguments, like yours, to convince the people there is no other way to accomplish great feats that service the public. This simply is not true. The reason we have a great highway system is not because of Eisenhower or the government, but in spite of their tinkering in the affairs of private commerce. Private industry could have, and would have, built a highway system, where the user would pay directly for services they used more, fairly and according to need. But we may never know, because the folks in DC seem to be content in keeping the people ignorant of their own abilities and ingenuity. Perhaps, that’s why they find it necessary to provide public education to the masses. Another area where “we the people” have been convinced to accept a little socialism, even thou we know it’s a bad word.

  2. Eric,

    Sorry it took me a while to approve your comment. I’ve been out of town away from internet access. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I live in Canada. One of our biggest telephone companies in Western Canada is the Telus corporation. Until they changed their name, Telus used to be called AGT, which stood for “Alberta GOVERNMENT Telephones”. Telus started out as a Government company, or as you’d say, a SOCIALIST company. But, that company today has been privatized, and expanded their market into other provinces, that would be the size of about 5 or 6 states. What free-market capitalist cheerleaders want everyone to think, is that people need to look to private industry/corporations for answers — not the government.
    They would have everyone believe that government is incompetent, can’t provide solutions, and be shrunk as small as possible.
    The government is simply “the people”. What’s the problem?
    Of course, times have changed. Telus was privatized about 20 years ago. Something like a government venture into a telephone company happening again, are nil. Why not? Well, good question. Here’s my simple theory: People are less willing to pay for someone elses needs if they are too different from themselves, whether it be ethnicity, language, religion, class, etc. So, I would argue that societies that are more cohesive/the same would have a better chance of getting more “socialist” programs going, rather than a very diverse one, where everyone is fighting for a piece of the pie. It’s just my theory!

  4. There is nothing inherently wrong with socialism in a democratic society. Somehow, we forget that creating a government together, and working to provide infrastructure and services together is socialism, and that’s not a bad thing.

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