George Will Says High Speed Rail is a Liberal Delusion. He's Dead Wrong


Photo Credit: bridgepix via Flickr/CC BY

Yesterday, George Will wrote a column in Newsweek purporting to explain why "liberals love high speed rail". In case you were curious, the real reason liberals love rail is not the idea of traveling comfortably, safely, and efficiently at high speeds while drastically reducing emissions -- it's because HSR helps progressives reach "their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism" and strips people of cars, which he describes as freedom-mobiles that dare fly in the face of liberal collectivism. Will says that building rail is a liberal delusion. But I say that thinking we can rely on oil-dependent transportation systems and maintaining a vast network of crumbling highways ad infinitum is the true delusion.Will's argument is essentially two-pronged. First, he argues that high speed rail is a waste of money, and that the Tea Party governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin who have rejected funding for the projects have made the wise decision -- he claims that the "three governors want to spare their states from paying the much larger sums likely to be required for construction-cost overruns and operating subsidies when ridership projections prove to be delusional." They were "elected to stop the nonsense" of indulging these big-spending projects, he writes.

Secondly, and more broadly, he argues that this fight isn't about rail at all -- it's about progressives' desire to mold the American public into compliant cogs, strip them of their individuality, and make all their decisions for them. I'm not kidding -- this is his actual reasoning:

So why is America's "win the future" administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism's aim is the modification of (other people's) behavior ... Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons ... [but] the real reason for progressives' passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.
This is an absolutely absurd argument, and a straw man argument at that. Forget about discussing the pros and cons of rail itself: Just beware! Liberals want to re-engineer society and control your mind! But even so, I'll refute it on Will's own terms.


Photo: MissChatter, CC

If investing high speed rail is indeed an attempt to herd everyone onto one mode of transportation, to 'pick a winner' and control Americans' behavior, then what do you call what we're doing now? We currently grant the oil industry around $60 billion in annual subsidies, most of which helps oil companies in their business of deliver gas to the nation's pumps.

Furthermore, billions of dollars are spent every year to subsidize the maintenance of the interstate system -- gas taxes cover some of that, but in most states, it's not enough. Combined, the amount spent on both towers over the amount spent on subsidizing current rail and the funds proposed budget for high speed projects. It seems that we already spend a good deal of money "controlling people's behavior" by making it all but certain that they'll buy cars and drive as a primary means of transportation.

As for ridership, Will scoffs at the notion that people will pay to use rail lines -- it's cheaper to fly, he says, and cheaper to drive. Maybe, right now. But oil prices have already begun to rise. And airlines will be the hardest hit industry as they continue to do so. How long does Will imagine air travel -- which itself receives healthy government subsidies -- to be viable for quick trips between LA and San Francisco? Between Tampa and Orlando? High speed rail is an investment in the future -- a future that will without a doubt see skyrocketing oil prices as demand grows and global supply shrinks.

Finally, the rail projects in those three states aren't merely profligate big government spending -- they're part of a much-needed continuing stimulus program to put Americans to work. Those rail lines would have created thousands of jobs -- lest Will forget, we're still in the throes of high, stagnant unemployment. I know it's become the line du jour to dismiss that pesky fact and harp about the deficit, but let's face it: there are millions of jobless Americans, many of whom are qualified, skilled workers who would eagerly accept those jobs.

All in all, Will's column ends up amounting to little more than florid, contrived propaganda about Big Government liberals who Hate Freedom -- stick to the real issues next time, George, and ditch the shtick of trotting out stereotyped boogeymen.

More on High Speed Rail
Is High Speed Rail Coming to a City Near You? A Guide to Obama's Plans
New Governors Kill $1.2 Billion High Speed Rail Lines in Ohio

Tags: Transportation | United States