November 09, 2005
Lessons from the Monothingy Debacle
Posted by geoffrey manne

Lior Strahilevitz, blogging at the University of Chicago Law School Faculty Blog (has anyone come up with a cute shorthand yet like Co-op or the Glom?) has a post on Seattle voters' decision yesterday to scrap the city's plan to build a monorail.  The voters had several times approved monorail funding initiatives, and the city had so far spent $200 million with nothing to show for it.  The voters finally pulled the plug (for now, anyway).

Strahilevitz draws three lessons from the debacle:

  1. Mass transit innovation should be undertaken only with "substantial federal assistance."
  2. "Too much political process can be a bad thing" (with the implication that the program could have succeeded if the experts in the government had only solicited less input).
  3. "Direct democracy is a flawed approach for transportation planning," because "transportation planning is a technocratic exercise" which should be left to the experts.  I think this is substantially the same as number 2, but maybe I just don't get it.

Seriously?  Those are the lessons?  He must be joking.  Let me try:

  1. Mass transit innovation spending is a boondoggle for politicians and urban planners and it's a massive waste of money whether its done by the feds or a city.
  2. There will inevitably be political meddling in such projects -- it's precisely why we shouldn't get involved in them in the first place.  Just scrap these projects before they get off the ground, so there's nothing for the process to meddle with.
  3. Technocrats are just autocrats with engineering degrees. It was the technocrats who figured out how to consume $200 million dollars before the "political process" finally shut them down. The "experts" will fleece us if they have the chance, although they will do so expertly.  The voters may have enabled them, but there would have been nothing to enable if we didn't go in for these things in the first place.

To sum it all up, I have one word:  Amtrak.

In Strahilevitz' defense:  He did cite the Simpsons, though.

UPDATE:  Will Baude has more, much more.  His bottom line:   

So in the end I am unwilling to condemn all state involvement in public transportation. The network effects, public good problems, and so on are real. But we should wear our public-choice hats and remember that problems of government monopoly, confused public intervention and captured technocracy are very real, so a system that admits of lots of private competition with the public provision ought to be preferred to one that places all of our hands in one dubious basket.

"We should wear our public-choice hats."  Sounds like what Tyler Cowen would say.  Which is a good thing.

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