Seattle Transit Blog is officially a non-partisan publication, but it’s no secret that our favored policy positions tend to align with those on the progressive left. As someone with a libertarian streak, I want to make the case that pro-transit libertarianism has a strong ideological foundation, and in so doing, disabuse anyone of the notion that progressives monopolize the transit advocacy space.
Several years ago, I interviewed Bill Lind for a short piece on the conservative case for rail transit. Lind was a shining light among transportation thinkers, but he – like many fellow conservatives – disdained bus transit in favor of rail. Nonetheless, I found his insight to be refreshing among a cohort that has historically fought against transit.
Unfortunately, Lind’s views are largely a minority in the modern Republican and Libertarian Parties. Although ambivalence around transit is fairly pervasive at the federal level, local Republicans have historically lobbied hard against regional transit spending and initiatives.
I typically hear one of three arguments against transit among libertarians and conservatives:
- Few people use transit but we spend disproportionately on it
- Mobility = freedom and fixed transit is immobile
- Transit agencies are functions of big government and big government is bad
I’d like to reset how we think about applying classical liberal principles to these discussions and, in so doing, counter each of these points.
Libertarians tend to have a notorious tendency for wanting to privatize everything. Yet there are certain things that, from a functional standpoint, naturally resist privatization and are essentially a public good. I’d argue that transportation – more broadly infrastructure – is one such candidate. Firstly, private actors alone don’t have sufficient capital to build infrastructure without taking on substantial debt. Public agencies, on the other hand, mitigate this risk by selling bonds that are backed by taxing authority.
Secondly, infrastructure is a natural monopoly. As such, it isn’t conducive to competition, unlike commodities or consumer goods. For example, it makes little sense to let a bunch of private road builders build their own roads just to drive down prices. Physical restraints in the built environment, like land scarcity and property rights, form some pretty powerful deterrents that both progressives and libertarians can champion together.
The question of whether to spend now becomes a question of where to spend. More sincere conservatives concede that spending generously on transportation is inevitable, but that highways and roads are far more deserving recipients than transit. This is a common trope among local Republicans who like to market what they allege to be a glaring discrepancy between proportion of transit spending against transit mode share.
I’d contend that spending generously on transit is not only not contra-libertarian, it is actually pro-libertarian. For a natural monopoly like transportation, a libertarian-friendly government strategy would be to provision choices, price the commons accordingly, and competitively bid out projects. In practice, that means:
- Lifting restrictions on development, which artificially limit supply and drive up housing and transportation costs.
- Pricing resources to avoid the tragedy of the commons.
- Building capacity to absorb high demand through modes that scale really well (i.e., transit, walking, biking, etc.), in dense urban areas.
- Providing viable choices when priced resources are scarce. For example, tolling the hell out of a roadway when congestion is terrible doesn’t ameliorate someone’s need to get to where they need to go. Having dedicated transit helps satisfy that demand.
I’d principally highlight that these ideas aren’t progressive pipe dreams. They’re foundationally market-centric and help anchor a strong justification for robust transit investment. Recognizing the common points that can be championed by those on the left and right is a good way to cut through partisanship in the discussion.