Joe Biden spent a surprising amount of time during his belated first press conference talking about infrastructure. Many of the points Biden made echoed remarks Trump also made as president. About 53 minutes into his press conference, Biden said:
We are now ranked 85th in the world in infrastructure. The future rests on whether or not we have the best airports that are going to accommodate air travel. Ports that you can get in and out of quickly. What’s the first thing that business asked? What’s the closest access to an interstate highway? How far am I from a freight rail? Is there enough water available for me to conduct my business?
Biden’s solutions won’t be ideal. If Congress authorizes the work, it will be padded with hundreds of billions going to the public bureaucracies and to the inevitable environmentalist litigants. The work itself will be done under project labor agreements that will also add hundreds of billions in costs. And additional hundreds of billions will be wasted on absurdities, such as “sequestration” projects to inject carbon dioxide into underground caverns.
What Might Have Been
If Trump had been able to manage federal investment in infrastructure in a second term, he would have set more useful priorities. He likely would have prioritized airports, seaports, roads, rail, the power grid, and he would have fought against the pet projects of environmentalists and their corporate allies. He would have respected labor, but he’d be a tough negotiator, and he would have hammered on the construction contractors to keep prices down.
Trump also would have streamlined the expensive bureaucratic process, something he pursued throughout his first term.
A key moment in that effort was a press conference in 2017 where Trump stood next to two piles of printed regulations. The first, four stacks of pages about a foot high, was labeled “1960.” The second, five stacks of pages about eight feet high, was labeled “Today.” This crippling level of bureaucracy is a big part of why American infrastructure has fallen so far behind.
When trying to define the optimal role of government and the threat progressive ideology poses, conservatives tend to attack public infrastructure as the source of the problem. That’s unfair. In fact, a practical policy agenda for conservatives would be to enthusiastically support public investment in infrastructure, but at the same time, to fight inappropriate infrastructure and to fight the entire system that has developed to make infrastructure cost far more than it should.
An apt comparison to illustrate good versus bad infrastructure can be found, predictably enough, in California, where the cost-effective public works of the 1950s and 1960s stand in stark contrast to the billions wasted today on projects that either have no practical benefit or spend decades in the planning and approval process and never get built.
In 1968, in a process that took only five years from concept to completion, the San Luis Reservoir went online in Central California. Constructed at a cost in today’s dollars of $2.3 billion, this massive off-stream reservoir has a capacity of 2 million acre-feet. It is a vital storage link in the massive California Water Project, an engineering feat almost unrivaled anywhere on earth. Today, a proposed sister reservoir, of equal size and design, has been approved and in the concept stage for more than a decade, with millions already spent on “planning.” Facing additional years of litigation and bureaucratic inertia, the project is currently projected for completion sometime in the 2030s at a cost, undoubtedly underestimated, of $5.2 billion. It will probably never get built.
This transition is complete: Government used to get public works done on time and at a reasonable cost 50 years ago, while public works today are for the most part neglected. The projects that do get completed often offer little practical benefit to society, at costs that are scandalously overblown.
This transition from useful to useless is not restricted to water projects in California. It is a story that has been repeated across America and in many sectors.
The Libertarian Objects
The fight that needs to be waged is against the three-headed monster that has stopped sensible public works in its tracks: out-of-control environmentalist litigants, a byzantine and contradictory array of crippling regulations distributed through countless regulatory agencies, and labor unions that have become unreasonable and often complicit in backing projects of marginal value.
Unfortunately, the group that might be most effective in that fight for badly needed new infrastructure—America’s conservatives—faces withering ridicule and “principled” objections from libertarians. Today, according to many influential libertarians, if you favor appropriate public investment in infrastructure, you are a progressive.
This is ridiculous. Obviously, there should be a vigorous debate over what sort of infrastructure justifies public investment. But, at some point, the role of government is to socialize the costs of amenities that the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide. Freeways and water projects are examples where public investment at the least needs to supplement private investment, in order to prevent imposing prohibitively high costs to the consumer.
The solution for libertarians, apparently, is for the private sector to build everything, including infrastructure. But how does this work, when someone attempting to build a freeway must negotiate with 10,000 separate private landowners? How can any ribbon of public infrastructure, whether it be a freeway, a railroad, a pipeline or an aqueduct, possibly ever get built without recourse to eminent domain?
These concepts—public investment and eminent domain—are anathema to libertarians. But while conservatives should recognize the value of libertarian philosophy—limited government—the operative word is “limited” government, not “zero” government. America’s infrastructure has been neglected for decades, and libertarians are not helping.
Moreover, this philosophical schism isn’t just about infrastructure. It’s about finding a balance between public and private ownership, while honestly confronting the inevitable fact that finding a perfect balance is impossible.
Should the government—allied with powerful corporate interests and billionaire “philanthropists”—set aside 30 percent of the land in America as protected wilderness? Because that’s what federal authorities are trying to do, and most of us would consider that overkill. Conservatives should join with libertarians in opposition, not because some land shouldn’t be preserved in public trust, but because 30 percent of all land is way too much.
What conservatives must assert is that libertarian values may be a vital part of any governing philosophy, but they’re not the only value. Conservatives, who are accused by libertarians of being fans of strong government all the time, should own up to it. The critical, difficult question is strong for what, and how much? Libertarians, in their purity, largely avoid this meeting with reality.
The Progressive Threat
Once you’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s easier to assess the true threat coming from progressives. In the case of infrastructure, progressives join with conservatives to want more of it, but what do they want? They want to continue to tie all development up in knots as part of their extremist positions on environmental and labor issues. They want development to include useless projects or projects hopelessly skewed towards creating “equity” and “environmental justice,” instead of projects that benefit the most people for the least amount of expense.
But that’s just a small element of the progressive threat.
The priority for progressives is directed at social issues, with “solutions” that require a grossly inappropriate expansion of government. Moreover, it is the role they envision for government that is of more concern than expansion per se. Progressives are attempting to divide the nation into groups separated by race and “gender,” they are attempting to train the individuals in these groups to resent members of other groups, and they are promoting a narrative that taints America as an inherently racist and oppressive society. Their goal is to use the government to enforce equal outcomes, “equity,” across all identifiable groups, regardless of the cost.
This lunacy, being promoted by progressive activists and their opportunistic cohorts across nearly every American institution constitutes an existential threat to the liberty and prosperity that, to date, we have taken for granted. It represents an expansion of government beyond the wildest nightmares of conservatives and libertarians alike.
Government for the Good of the American People
Perhaps it is healthy for libertarians to urge conservatives to question public spending on infrastructure and other national priorities. And perhaps conservatives need to acknowledge libertarian concerns, while at the same time fighting hard for government spending on infrastructure that the nation badly needs, and fighting against useless projects and wasteful spending.
If supporting public funding for infrastructure is “progressive,” fine. In that context, libertarians may use that term to stigmatize conservatives. But the true progressive threat to America is far bigger than whether or not the federal government spends $1 trillion on infrastructure. Along with powerful allies—who are using them—progressives are actively working to reduce the rights and freedoms of all American citizens, along with their prosperity and their sovereignty. And right now, they’re winning.
For the first time in history, a huge cross-section of America’s elites, using progressives as powerful pawns, are not working in the interests of the American people or the American nation. They have pledged their allegiance to international corporations and transnational institutions. The solution for conservatives who love their country is not to eliminate government. It is to take their government back, and use it to represent the interests of the American people once again.