Road to Nowhere

The filing for bankruptcy by the South Bay Expressway underscores a fundamental flaw in the “government as business” crowd’s political philosophy.  Simply stated, the “private property” model, in many if not most cases, has serious difficulties providing “public goods.” Which is why, for the last, oh, I don’t know—just how old is civilization?  Six thousand or so years?—the private sector has continuously failed to displace the public sector from key areas of human life.

Human beings form civilizations to collectively provide the things which humans need to survive and prosper but can not efficiently provide on their own.  Things like collective security (cops and troops).  Things like public works (roads, bridges, dams).  Things that cost any individual too much to produce.  Ever try to pay for your own private army or bridge?  A few wealthy—really wealthy, like Kingly  of Gatesian wealthy—people might be able to do so on a small scale but most can not do so at all and no-one can do so on a scale that supports a modern industrial economy.  By collectivizing labor, either through the direct contribution of labor “in kind” or indirectly through taxation–which is simple a monetarization and reallocation of labor—the community can produce the things we all need but can not or will not produce for ourselves.

Road and other infrastructure construction has been  a function of the state since ancient times.  When the great Western civilization of antiquity collapsed, so did such construction.  The result was the dark ages.  Not a lot of new road building then by private or public entities.  A handful of toll roads replaced the great Roman road network. The rest was Medieval history.

Over the last 500 years resurgent civilization (Some call it “big government– I call it what it is: Civilization.) began harnessing collective energies to produce public works again. The result was the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.  Recent efforts to privatize essentially  public goods in the names of an exaggerated conceptualization of the free market have typically gone the fate of the South Bay toll road.  The private entity that takes over providing the public good for private profit either becomes heavily subsidized by the state to meet its bottom line (private prisons come to mind) charge an incredibly inflated price to provide formerly  publically provided services (vocational training by community colleges being replaced by  for-profit technical institutes and colleges like the University of Phoenix and its nursing program)  or simply fail and go bankrupt (like the Toll Road crew.)

Except they can’t just fail and go away like any other business.  Mervyn’s can close its doors forever.  A toll road that is now a major artery along which homes and businesses have sprung can not be plowed under and forgotten. Government will have to step in and take over the operation and funding though at potentially higher costs than if government had simply controlled the project from the onset.

Candidates for public office, from local city council to statewide positions who proclaim how government should operate like a business and that  the private sector can pretty much do anything the public sector does cheaper and more efficiently should keep the fate of the South Bay Toll Road firmly in mind.    There are simply some things government does better.  That’s why government and civilization have evolved together for millennia.  Of course, I don’t expect ideologues driven by their visions of Utopian free markets to be swayed by such simple appeals to history and logic.  I would wish they would at least remember what is becoming my favorite phrase these days:

The Government that  governs least is Somalia.


6 Responses to “Road to Nowhere”

  1. Erik Says:

    It just goes on and on. We live in an irrigated desert where, in the first decade of the 20th. century, various individuals and corporate entities struggled with water projects, all of which were abject failures. It turned out , as John Wesley Powell predicted until he was run out of public life for telling people the truth, that only government had the resources and constancy of purpose to pull together successful water projects, even though the proponents of rugged individualism fought against it tooth and nail. Of course once those projects were completed they were enthusiastic in using the water to get rich.

    I’m not so sure though that recent (Reagan-Bush) leadership really believes deep down that private enterprise delivers public services more efficiently, or that they just say they do, the better to shovel more juicy graft to their cronies in the private sector who are part of the revolving door circulation of public figures between the world of “Masters of the universe” and “public service”.

    So now we have some chick who ran Ebay aspiring to get in on running California like a business. That would be interesting now. Maybe she could sell off the state parks to entrepreneurs who would turn them into stocked big game hunting preserves where Blackwater/Xi executives could go to relax and take home that mounted Black Rhino head they’d always wanted for that empty space over the fireplace.

  2. crewlj Says:

    That’s fairly stupid. Government has just about a 100% track record of screwing things up, but the moment private enterprise does then it justifies why we need government to really screw things up?

    Where do they come up with these jackasses?

  3. Erik Says:


    Parsing your comment, one’s most charitable thought is you were drunk when you wrote it.


  4. refriedgringo Says:

    Forgive my sarcasm, but you are proposing that some construction company came in and built a toll road in order to profit from it. That’s not exactly what happened, Carl. SR 125 had been planned since 1959. The reason it was never built with public funds? Your government that simply does things better decided to spend all of their money, err, wait, OUR money, on other things. Had that section of concrete not been privately funded, it would still not be built.

    The Romans did not build roads for their armies, nor for the plebeian enjoyment of vacations to the South of France. Trade built those roads. The private sector, the very business you seem to feel is less competent than government, is responsible for the great civilization you seem to credit to government.

    This is the same government, I remind you, that embraces the economic philosophies of Keynes, in economic crisis. Hire the unemployed to dig holes, and then rehire the unemployed to fill holes. Meanwhile, there is no funding for projects like SR125. But hey, at least those holes are filled!

  5. Carl Luna Says:

    Hi Refried,

    Long time, amigo. Yes, you are right. Government had better things to do for the last 50 years then spend money on SR125 because for most of that time the area was rural and thinly populated and a multilane expressway unnecessary. Meanwhile the State of California was building the thousands of miles of state roads and highways—not to mention vastly expanding the UC and Cal State Systems, community colleges, primary and secondary schools, state parks, etc., etc., etc. Unfortunately, for the last several decades (pretty much since ‘ol Prop 13 passed) state, county and local jurisdictions have continuously approved the expansion of residential and commercial building projects pushing more and more people further and further out of urban cores without either charging the developers and/or new residents the true cost of extending state services to accommodate this growth or raising revenues in other ways to do so. As a result, as population pressure in the inland South Bay grew placing strains on the existing road grid finding available public funds for SR 125 was problematic. So yes, without the private-public partnership the road wouldn’t have been built—at least not in 2007. Do note though that the only reason that stretch of toll road had any worth at all was because public funds were used to construct its linkage to Route 52 without which it served little function. With adequate public funding streams the only alternative to projected growth on the SR 125 corridor was to go the public/private route. (Again, the state and county could have leveraged the revenues in part from the developers and home buyers in the area under a “hey, you build it and live in it you have to pay for it or forget it and get a condo downtown” bet the better way would be to share the cost state wide out of bonds and general fund revenues—except those are maxed out as it.) So I’ll concede the partnership was the least worst case scenario. A better scenario would have been not to authorized building out there until funds were available to build the public roads to get residents out there in the first place. (Route 56 and subsequent development in the I-5-I-15 corridor as an example.) Inevitably, though, such partnerships for highways just don’t seem to work very long in the long term. The private partner can always bail; the state can not.

    Your comment on the Roman Roads is, of course, either disingenuous or ill-informed. I can not find a credible history that gives credence to your claim that free market forces built those roads. They were built by the Roman state to serve the power of the Roman state through taxes and, indeed, commanded tribute precisely to serve the military (and, after that, economic) power of the Republic and, later, the empire. If you can show me the historical record to the contrary I’d consider it a favor so I can revise my faulty understanding of Roman history. Oh, by the way, while the ancient world had its share of market place economies ancient economies at best rose to a proto-capitalist level but were almost entirely, in those cases, what we would refer to today as “state capitalist” or, perhaps, mercantilist. Most ancient economies were tribal or feudal in practice and organization.

    And yes, this is the same Keynesian government except the “holes” you are talking about dug and refilled during the New Deal included over 40,000 bridges, 7,000 miles of roads, 197 dams including the Bonneville, Grand Coulee and Hoover dams as well as all those TVA projects that brought power to much of what is now Red State America and even the Griffin Park Observatory. Or maybe you’re talking about all those holes American GIs dug with government money in Europe and Asia defeating Germany and Japan? In any of those cases, most rational people would consider it money well spent. Don’t you?

    Good to hear from you, in any event, as always.

  6. Carl Luna Says:

    And Erik: Spot on.

    Meanwhile Crewlj: What Erik said.

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