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On Ideology and infrastructure

Infrastructure is expensive. That’s the way of things.

Major infrastructure shifts are even more expensive. And the U.S. in general has lagged behind on major infrastructure developments for about 40 years now. Ever since the Reagan era, no one wants to commit public resources to providing better infrastructure here at home— we hear the cry of “socialism,” and “big government.” This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be very wary of socialism, or that big government isn’t a problem. But perhaps that shouldn’t push us away from being concerned about our infrastructure. We have spent more and more on wars and entitlements of various kinds, but with better infrastructure and better education, we wouldn’t need quite so many entitlements, and often, these wars are unnecessary, and products not of national defense, but flat-out imperialism.

Too many fight this perspective, it seems — and such is partially a problem tied to the intense U.S. cultural focus on localism and individual liberty.

Our public education systems are a messy patchwork, our national highway systems are incredibly expensive to maintain, and the need for road expansion just to have the parking for individual cars often exceeds our capacity, especially in the crowded Wasatch Front area of Utah where I live.

Limited government, and fiscal responsibility are important components to a nation that wishes to remain free. The road to serfdom is not only paved with entitlement, an ignorant public, a shrinking middle class, and corporate welfare, but also with inflexible ideology.

My experience and my instincts both tell me that ideology makes for bad policy — not because there aren’t effective and true ideologies out there. No — ideology itself, in its axiomatic inflexibility (not to mention the frequently inflammatory rhetoric so often intertwined in its presentation) is too simple to explain and account for the varieties of our reality.

Libertarianism, in all its anti-big-government glory, and its admiral wish to protect civil liberties above all else, can be blind to systemic societal problems. And the voluntaryism espoused by its adherents never can, by itself, make major dents in improving our quality of life. (And regardless of its effectiveness, voluntary is difficult to define– the definitions of “voluntary” and “coercion” are fuzzier than many Voluntaryists would like to admit.) The intense focus on individual liberties, and the disregard, disdain, or outright disapproval for any group action that encourages or enforces cultural norms — these negative reactions will destroy community, eventually.

Libertarianism, at its core, makes assumptions about human nature that treat individuals not simply as independent actors, but ones only minimally affected by the conditions of mortality, by psychology, by social conditioning. The zeal of Libertarians is infectious, and powerful, but too often, this zeal leads to blaming the poor for their circumstance — which may be fair at times — instead of finding systemic ways to lift them out of their condition — which doesn’t have to be fair or unfair to be wrong.

On the other end of the spectrum, Communism, and all of it’s Socialist cousins — are just as guilty, if not more so. Socialism, in it’s zealous desire to build a community that allows the individual to flourish without exploitation by the state or the corporation, does the inverse: it makes community meaningless — or simply annihilates it, because of assumptions about human nature that ignore or subvert any notion of a fundamental human nature, human roles or relationships. Socialism says: we can build new societies any way we want, and so of course we should. But this is dangerous when we perceive human beings to be more flexible than they really are — and here’s where it gets weird. Human beings aren’t a Tabula Rasa, or a blank slate — but this is the fundamental belief that socialist ideologies almost always purport — but individualists, including Libertarians, make this assumption too. This is why I’m drawn to conservatism as much as Libertarianism (although I will frequently agree with the latter group about civil liberty policies). I like conservatives because they believe in a fundamental order to the universe. But like a good anthropologist, I hesitate to believe in absolutes, and instead am more willing to accept that there are, generalities that will never fundamentally alter (I do not claim to be an anthropologist of any variety, but I do admire them at times). And like a good historian (which I do claim to be), I believe that context never vanishes, and that it always has significance.

Ideologies often focus on what human beings deserve, and I have big objections and problems with the very concept of desert (not a dry biome characterized by a lack of rainfall, but a social and moral concept revolving around notions about what ought or ought not to be given to certain people — or simply ought to be, period).

We have spent centuries studying both empirically and religiously, what people’s needs are. What we have never been able to do, is get any sort of real consensus on what people deserve. What people deserve can’t be studied empirically, because such study must rely on answering the is-ought question that philosophers have debated, politicians have assumed the answer to, religious leaders have conflicting messages over, and that business, and the general public, have too often ignored.

I don’t trust ideology. I don’t believe in Utopia (not of man’s making). And I hesitate to make drastic changes to society — such changes require intense study by experts and generalists, and should be made carefully and with precision and sensitivity.

But I do believe in progress. And from where I’m standing, it has been too long since American Republicans have believed in the same — too long since they’ve recognized what it means to truly be conservative.

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