High-Speed Rail in an Age of Ideology

In Budget Politics, California, Culture, Economic Planning, Economics, High-Speed Rail, Mass Transit, Political Ideology, Politics, Politics of Policy, Progressivism, Public Policy, Public Sector, Public Works, Social Democracy, Urbanism on January 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm


To many, the decisions of the recently-elected governors of New Jersey (to reject Federal money for a second New Jersey-New York rail tunnel), Wisconsin, and Ohio (pulling the plug on Federally-financed high-speed rail project) seem illogical. High-speed rail projects spur growth, create jobs and tax revenue, they’re environmentally sustainable, and the state doesn’t even have to pay (mostly)! So why kill them?

The truth is that we shouldn’t be surprised by these decisions – or treat them as irrational. We are living in an age of ideology, and high-speed rail is no less ideological than any other public policy. They’re still wrong to kill the projects, but on ideological grounds.


One of the bad habits of progressives – inherited from Enlightenment optimism and faith in science- is our tendency to look at public policy through the lens of scientific objectivity and to assume that all intelligent people will be lead by their reason to the same conclusions. This has often led us to believe that public policy is just about collecting the best data and making the most convincing rational argument – climate change being an excellent example of this habit, but the same thing happened during the health care debate – while neglecting the ideological side of governance.

As I’ve discussed before, government is not non-ideological. Just as there are progressive or conservative ways to fill a pothole, the same is true of all forms of public policy – one’s vision of how government should operate and what society should look like structures the way that an elected official does governance; even the most technical and non-controversial policy area will ultimately run into questions of priorities and values.

High-speed rail has ideological consequence.

The Ideological Content of HSR:

For all but those solely motivated by an aesthetic interest in trains, high-speed rail is ultimately not just a question of how to lay down the tracks and where to locate stations. It’s also a vision of economic development – and a vision of a “high road” to economic development. High-speed rail envisions high wage jobs that can’t be exported, it means high-density development with mixed-use zoning so that people can afford to live in a sustainable fashion, it means a high (albeit more sustainable) standard of living and a high tax base that can support the public goods and services needed to attract people into high-density urban living environments. Crucially, HSR is a vision of economic development where the government is at the center of economic life, the “investor of last resort” directing growth according to the public good, and where a collectively-consumed public service is the star of government policy. All of these things appeal to progressive ideology.

By contrast, they run contrary to conservative ideology and its own vision of economic development. The conservative vision is one of low prices (and high rates of profit) enabled by low labor costs. It also generally means low land prices, a speculative real-estate market where housing is valued according to low density (big suburban houses with big yards and few people), and a system of regulation that supports sprawl and penalizes high density. As it turns out, “laissez faire” actually requires a lot of behind the scenes government intervention. However, it’s a form of government intervention in which private actors (corporations, professional associations, property-owners groups, and other cartels) act as the “visible hand,” and in which the government is a passive legitimizer of a particular, supposedly traditional way of life and active only against the enemies of that lifestyle. Crucially, conservatives share a vision where privately- and individually-consumed commodities structure individualism and a particular idea of economic freedom.

HSR advocates will no doubt argue that high-speed rail makes sense for businesses. And that’s true, but it doesn’t solve the problem. The minimum wage and Social Security made sense for businessmen like Edward Filene in the 1930s, but he was a minority in his class. Businessmen have ideologies too, ideologies that go beyond pragmatic “business sense,” and while the progressive vision has historically resulted in stability and higher growth, the conservative vision offers higher profit rates and a degree of social deference – the idea that the government should honor and defer to men like them.

HSR As Politics:

As progressives, we shouldn’t avoid the ideological import of high-speed rail. Rather, we should champion HSR as a symbol of a better way of life, a vision that looks to a better life for more of us than the conservative vision does. That symbolism – HSR as part  of what a “Blue state way of life” can offer – should flow right out of the Acela express speed-up (it’s not an accident that progressivism is strong along the Northeast Corridor), the California San Fransisco-Los Angeles high-speed rail line, and other networks. In this fashion, the progressive movement can follow the flag of HSR and vice-versa.

The trick in my mind is to making regionalism a starting point to build out from, not a finishing line. Thus, the California line should expand out to embrace Washington, Oregon, Nevada and eventually New Mexico; the Illinois line should link up Missouri and Michigan and Minnesota; the Florida line might be able in time to link up with North Carolina and Virginia. Demonstrable success can be an ambassador – going over the heads of recently-elected Republican states to persuade the people of neighboring states like Ohio or Wisconsin that this is a better vision of economic development than the conservative mindset of Chris Christie, et al. With success, and hopefully with political success in 2012, we can expand this network to embrace the entirety of the West, Midwest, Northeast, and make inroads into the South.

– Steven Attewell

  1. […] we’ve seen in the case of high-speed rail, relying solely on state government has major drawbacks; likewise, we saw with the stimulus that […]

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