19 January 2005

Dark Age Ahead

"Not TV or illegal drugs, but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities ... One can drive today for miles through American suburbs and never glimpse a human being on foot in a public space, a human being outside a car or a truck ... While people possess a community, they usually understand that they can't afford to lose it; but after it is lost, gradually even the memory of what was lost is lost. In miniature, this is the malady of Dark Ages." Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead, Random House, New York, 2004.

Whenever I argue against car driving, motorists are quick to say that it represents market forces and freedom of choice. It doesn’t. The enthronement of the car in our societies is a result of government making decisions for us. The very high social and environmental costs of motoring are not paid by drivers. Oil extraction, refining and transport also exact a heavy environmental toll. Roads are built with taxpayer funds. Some argue that the funds extracted from road users exceed the costs of building and maintaining highways. Even if this were true, it ignores indirect costs. But the bigger point is that government, influenced by powerful corporate interests, has chosen to build roads; in doing so it has determined the type of society we live in. If we then find it impossible to live without roads, and too expensive or dangerous to travel in any other way, that is a result of government’s favouring a particular form of development. It is the essence of the anti-market approach. If people really want roads they should build them on their own initiative and negotiate compensation with those who suffer as a result of their preference.

What has all this to do with Social Policy Bonds? A bond regime would be entirely outcome-focused. It would aim to achieve outcomes that are meaningful to real people, as against corporate bodies. For natural persons, more transport is not an end in itself but a means to an end. As Jane Jacobs points out, many of the things that do matter to people are destroyed by road transport. Genuine markets, arising from the wishes and concerns of real people, would assign them more significance than the current consortium of big business and government.


Anonymous said...

Roads have always had state backing ( http://www.gbcnet.com/ushighways/history.html) but US had a special impetus in Truman (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/origin.htm) and its open road culture.
From an economic perspective, roads enable labor mobility with resulting growth due to East/West Coast relocation.
However, the social fragmentation of family ties is an unknown factor in calculating negative externalities. So who judges the tradeoff between economic growth and social cohesion?
Perhaps a social bond could be constructed to accelerate the introduction of cleaner fuel cells? And structured that it is only efficient for compact wheelcheel or golfcart vehicles combined with high speed rail transit? I certainly worry about the elderly being left out in isolated communities due to housing costs of urban centres.

Ronnie Horesh said...

Thanks for your comment. Economic growth and labour mobility are, I believe, means rather than ends. People ought to be able to make their own trade-offs between them and social cohesion. Building roads with taxpayer funds was a top-down, irreversible, decision made by handful of politicians and corporate interests some decades ago. The physical infrastructure they have imposed on us has greatly strengthened big, global business at the expense of small, local business and natural persons. Its effect on our political infrastructure has paralleled its impact on our physical infrastructure. It has entrenched the power of corporates and government agencies. It is unlikely that people in pre-car communities would have opted for a transport system that destroys those communities, kills millions, seriously injures many more millions, depends absolutely on imported oil, and wreaks havoc on the enviornment. But it is possible. My point is that they were not given the choice.