Traffic Socialism

Getting around New York City is rarely fun. It seems that however one chooses to navigate the Big Apple, one inevitably slams directly into the evil forces of ignorance or disdain. When riding a subway or bus, manned by the labor cartel know as the Transit Workers Union which blessed us with a brief strike last month, one frequently experiences glaring disdain from the cartel's representatives masquerading as productive workers. Asking for directions of a subway token clerk or just saying "good morning" to a bus driver elicits the same reaction one might expect if one of Angelina Jolie's groupies were to yell "I want to marry you" to her as she entered a red carpet movie premiere – little more than a glaring sneer and a derisive giggle. On the other hand, telling a cab driver your desired destination invariably brings one face to face with unmitigated ignorance when said destination is not a numbered street. While neither experience is pleasant or efficient, luckily they are usually mutually exclusive. If only we could be so lucky as to suffer merely one such inconvenience with the writers at The New York Times.

In The New York Times Magazine of January 8, 2006, Ann Hulbert breaks new ground in her article "Speed Bump" by being either disdainfully ignorant or ignorantly disdainful. I suggest you read the article to decide which. On second thought, don't bother reading the article as it will only enrage anyone with any knowledge of economics, basic fairness, or the current state of the American landscape. However for historians of the French Revolution, the article is prima facie evidence that Rousseau's thoughts on egalité are still thriving, to our utter detriment.

In her thankfully brief article, Hulbert points out that "the time that the average commuter spent stuck in traffic tripled between 1982 and 2002," clearly a problem, then annoyingly dismisses any sort of market solution while reminding us that she "sometimes succumbed to liberal indignation" about it. Most of us, when confronted with a problem try to solve it. New York Times writers prefer to kvetch since it is easier than thinking through all aspects of a problem and any possible solutions.

Hulbert has problems with simple economic solutions to ameliorate traffic tie-ups such as increased use of tolls and peak pricing. She is even more upset that "Americans are used to the idea that people can buy their way out of the crumbling public sphere and into gated communities, private schools, etc." How dare certain citizens try to better their lot in life when Jacobins like Hulbert are trying to drag us all down to the lowest common denominator where we can each suffer equally in the collective misery! Of course she makes no mention of the fact that these same individuals will still be paying taxes to fund her public boondoggles while at the same time using them less. Unless these elitists are sitting motionless in their land yachts on some completely clogged government "owned" road listening to NPR just like Hulbert, then she will remain irate.

Hulbert reminds us several times in her piece that while an "enlightened cure" is necessary, "influential specialists" have been unable to help Washington, D.C.'s "hoi polloi poke along." Here we get several fine examples of her "liberal indignation" but she forgot to add the part about limousines. Solving the nation's traffic problem hardly requires an "enlightened cure." While I don't doubt for a second that he was enlightened, Murray Rothbard dealt with the problem unequivocally in For a New Liberty which has been in print since 1973. Someone should FedEx Hulbert a copy as soon as possible, assuming that she understands the rudiments of supply and demand and has even heard of property rights. Her use of the phrase "influential specialists" without naming a single one belies her statist mentality that only someone who "specializes" in such intractable problems as traffic could possibly be technically qualified to solve them. Clearly a lowly economist and a silly idea like allocating a scarce resource (road space) to those most willing to pay for it will never work. Hulbert's entire article informs us that she knows better than to entertain the idea. And if any city's "hoi polloi" had to be stuck in traffic, well, it might as well be Washington D.C.'s since a higher proportion of them are the government functionaries who have a hand, however tangential, in bringing us the nationwide traffic mess in the first place.

By the end of the article, Hulbert tells us that Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution believes that traffic is a sign of economic health and something we should be happy about. She mentions that "where traffic is at a standstill, it generally means business is humming." I am not sure which business she is referring to but if she means the business of selling newspapers to frustrated motorists at busy intersections or vagrants washing windshields of gridlocked cars then, yes, business must be booming. However, eventually Yogi Berra's quip that a favorite place of his was "So crowded that no one goes there anymore" will eventually come to pass.

Economic actors respond to their environments; if traffic is impassable, drivers look for alternate routes. If one route requires a fee, some drivers will opt for it while others will prefer to keep their money and sit in traffic. Ann Hulbert, with her cries of egalité, would prefer that Americans not be given a choice that would eventually help all parties involved. Instead we must all enjoy the benefits of socialism equally.

January 11, 2006