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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Drip, Drip. Your Argument's Leaking.

A swimming pool in every back yard! Huey Long, eat your
heart out
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that every human being has freedom of movement (Article 13). I'm not even close to being an expert of any kind in international law. But I'm going to venture to say that this does not mean that we have a right to truck 18 wheelers around without paying tolls.

@TransportPVD Limiting the right to travel based on having a properly-approved purpose is heavily left-wing ideology. @JustinKatzRI

— Andrew Morse (@CAndrewMorse) November 9, 2015

To hear some Tea Party residents in this, The Bluest of All States*, truck tolling is an attack on freedom of movement. Agenda 21 strikes again!

In a less ridiculous way, some friends of mine on the left also see tolls as being regressive (Sam Bell of the Progressive Democrats is an example, though I think he means car tolls, rather than truck tolls).

It might make sense at first to think that the more of a commons you make everything, the more left you've gone, and that the less commons exist, the more rightward your politics have gone. And within a certain scope, that's true. But a commons is also most meaningful as a counterpoint to private property. To make everything common undermines the idea of the commons.

To pick an example: water. We all value and need water. Then, from this basic statement, can we surmise that the most progressive form of water management would be one that allows everyone complete access to water, unabated by any price concerns of any kind? 


We don't always know where government begins and the market
ends, but we get angry when someone tries to change the
(perceived) boundaries.
Clearly, at a minimum, one needs water for certain purposes. As a human being, if we accept the idea that capitalism isn't a life-and-death system, then a minimum allowance of water is the right of every human being. This is a social-democratic principle, really, and not a capitalist one, but capitalism has many forms, and most people would acknowledge that in order for the system to even exist, there have to be boundaries. We could debate about exactly where to draw the line, but all of us would agree to provision of free drinking water and water for basic hygiene to those who can't afford those for whatever reason.

Providing basic washing and drinking water for the poorest person is something akin to letting everyone bike and walk for free.

We might extend our expectations for basic water needs to include some recreational needs, and for that reason we might opt to provide public pools and so on. 

We know that providing public pools is more expensive than making sure that a homeless person can go to the bathroom or have water to drink and shower with, but we also know that we live in a society, and that having some things available for everyone is part and parcel of living in a society. Perhaps our public pool isn't free, but is very low cost, with a small fee for daily use. This is like the city bus.

Public pools are great. We wouldn't, though, try to provide personal pools in each and every backyard, would we? We can see why this wouldn't work. It would be absolutely environmentally disastrous. Sure, you're free to have one, if you want. But we're not going to pay for it with tax money. It would cost endless amounts of money. If we structured this the wrong way--say, by ignoring basic drinking and washing needs but providing everyone with a large enough yard their own pool--we could actually make things less equal, because only those with the ante-in of enough private space would get the pool subsidy, and those without it would face an inflated drinking price--no doubt made more expensive by our ridiculous universal pool law.

The pool example is what I would say we do with cars. We make it so that those who can afford a car get lots of added subsidies and public provisions, but of course some can't even do that, and those people are more likely to not even have the basic provisions of personal freedom of motion. It's bad enough here in Providence, where we know that RIDOT and the city are only beginning to feebly correct planning mistakes from decades of ignoring pedestrians or cyclists. But in some parts of the country this is even worse. The access that one has to basic freedom of motion in a poor section of Atlanta is as minimal for the poor as water access might be for someone in the slums of Mumbai. But those swimming pools sure are nice!
Can we admit that there are consequences to treating everything as an
unrestricted commons, to be used by big companies? Hoover Dam

If you challenged this arrangement, pointing out that poor people need drinking water, that overabundance of swimming pools is destroying the environment, etc., you'd be yelled down by angry homeowners with placards reading "Get your government hands off my swimming pool!" These folks wouldn't even feel the. . . water. . . all around them. Like goldfish, these people. 

But there's another level still to my metaphor. the equivalent of truck subsidies is more like the large-scale subsidy that agribusiness gets through state or federal provision of below market value irrigation (a truck does 10,000 times as much damage as, say, a Honda Accord, so our policy is effectively to give the trucking industry 10,000 backyard pools, and call it a day). A free swimming pool for each half-acre yard begins to look like a modest chicken in every pot compared to this. It all sounds very good, doesn't it? Ample water for the American farmer! Let's do it! But there are consequences. And, of course, while tangentially you could make the argument that driving is a kind of personal freedom, freight hauling is not. We've now gone beyond the basic level of a tragedy of the commons and moved on to full-scale corporate cronyism.

It's liberal Gov. Brown of California who outlawed tolls for pedestrians, but
does that mean that any kind of toll for any kind of use is un-progressive? And
what of the charge that tolls are a socialist plot?
Someone's going to yell "Hey! You can't charge farmers for water they use! That would just make food expensive!" But, of course, in a functional food system having a cost to water would mean that farmers used it more judiciously, so that's not really true. And it's also not really true for trucks. They have to compete with each other, and with other modes of freight. They'll only pass a cost if none of their competitors can out-compete them, and if that's the case, it was a cost that you as a consumer were destined to pay one way or another (you just paid it through taxes before).

We should believe in fairness. That's why a provision aiming to toll bikers and pedestrians in San Francisco failed. Where to draw the line beyond walking and biking is a debatable thing, just like what the exact basic amount of water a person needs to live a respectable life is debatable. But we know for sure that what a person needs in terms of water isn't enough to own and operate a giant mega-farm. And the same is true for movement. You don't have a right to truck things around at below cost (which is what the tolls are--they'd only bring trucks to the point where they'd pay $0.50 on the dollar, up from around $0.20). It's the tension between private property and the commons that gives the commons its meaning.


*Supposedly. Meh. 

1 comment:

  1. If trucks had to pay 10,000 times as much road repair fees as Hondas to use the roads, they'd load almost all truck trailers onto trains and drop them off locally. They also might design trucks to be 1/10 as rough on the roadways, but given Volkswagen's recent cheating on diesel fumes, that theoretical possibility remains to be seen.

    With specific trains dedicated to bulk transit of truck trailers across the country, total transit time for truck trailers might actually decrease because trains can roll 24/7. Also, to our knowledge trains don't get stuck in massive gridlock jams. Then again, without tractor trailers and gasoline trucks rolling over on the highways, perhaps our worst gridlock jams would rarely happen.

    Most of the tractor trailer versus Honda arguments might equally apply to Hondas versus bikes. Bikes would cause a ballpark factor of ten less damage to the roadbed than Hondas. In fact, the best way to make a road last 10% longer is to get 10% of the Hondas off the road by building an affordable bikeway. Now, which is cheaper, replacing an Iway through Providence for half a mile or building a bikeway?

    --Paul Klinkman