Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 433, September 2, 2007

"Government itself consists of
nothing but brute force and fraud"


Of Rails and Liberty
by Daniel G. Jennings

Credit The Libertarian Enterprise

Once upon a time, America had an efficient, cost effective transportation system technology that adequately served the needs of virtually all citizens. This transportation system utilized cutting edge high technology and didn't run on imported energy sources like oil. Best of all this transportation was almost entirely owned and operated by private enterprise and developed without government money.

The year was 1910 and the transportation system was electric powered rail. Back in 1910 residents of most American urban areas could take an electric powered trolley car to work for about five cents. Private developers were expanding what we would call light rail networks to suburban and rural areas. Plans were even afoot for high speed electric powered trains that connected major cities similar to the Japanese and French bullet trains.

So what happened to this transportation system? Government and politicians got to work that's happened. The politicians didn't like rail because it was an efficient privately owned and operated transportation system that they couldn't control. So they looked around for an alternative and found one: the automobile.

If a committee of politicians designed their dream transportation system they would come up with the automobile. The automobile provides average people with the illusion of independence they have a personal vehicle, a vehicle that requires an expensive state owned and maintained support system: roads and highways, a system that gives them an excuse to raise taxes, create new bureaucracies, trash property rights and create lots of jobs.

Even with political favor there was no guarantee the automobile would win the transportation battle. If we got in a time machine and went back to 1910 and asked the average person on the street what he or she thought the vehicle of the future was they'd say "duh the trolley car."

The politicians stacked the deck in favor of the car. Then for good measure they deliberately and systematically screwed electric rail.

First they taxed and regulated rail, railroads and trolley companies had to pay property and income taxes. City councils forced them to set artificially low prices for tickets. If railroads wanted to raise rates to pay for improvements they had to appeal to the Interstate Commerce Commission. In 1910, the ICC ruled that railroads couldn't increase freight rates to pay for needed infrastructure because they could save money through "scientific management." Naturally scientific management wasn't explained it was just put forward as an argument. The genius behind this argument lawyer Louis Brandies was later appointed to the Supreme Court. There was no way these firms could turn an honest profit. Later on the ICC tried to keep railroads from hauling trailers on flatcars and building bigger cars because that would be unfair to their competition.

Second the federal treasury was put on the side of the car, the progressives the same wonderful people who gave us World War One, the FBI, racial segregation, prohibition and the income tax began spending federal funds on highway construction. Since the highways were owned and operated by the same state and local political machines that elected most Congressmen and Senators back in 1916 the real purpose was obvious: to buy votes using road construction. No money was available for local or state governments that wanted to build rail lines, lots of cash was there for those who wanted to build roads.

Third, anti trust laws were employed electrical utilities were prohibited from owning electric rail lines and visa versa. Utilities were forced to sell rail lines which were quickly bought up by bus companies (many owned by General Motors) that immediately started ripping them up.

The result was that America went from the nation with the most advanced and extensive rail transportation network in the world to one with one of the worst. In 1910 the average American could purchase transportation around his or home city or town for a nickel. He or she didn't need to buy an expensive vehicle for the privilege of getting around town. All they needed to do was flag down the street car or walk over to the subway and hand over a nickel. I might also add that in 1910 the only American military personnel in the Middle East were a few sailors on shore leave in Alexandria.

By 1950, the average American had to spend several hundred dollars on an automobile an expensive complex piece of machinery that required extensive maintenance for the same privilege. By 2000 the average American had to spend thousands of dollars to buy what his great grandfather had purchased for a nickel.

Our little tale is made worse by the final result, the politicians seeing their highway system in a shambles and oil fast disappearing are turning back to electric rail. Now that the urban freeways and rural Interstates are jammed by gridlock and falling to pieces to boot, and with $5 and $10 a gas an inevitability the politicians have a "solution:" electric powered rail. The same technology they tried so hard to kill for several generations.

Today the politicians knowing that more highways will create more gridlock mindlessly promote rail. To add insult to injury the politicians are now taxing Americans to fund the rebuilding of a system originally financed by private capital. The situation has gotten so bad that in my hometown of Denver our political leaders have a radical solution to our transportation "problem," privately owned and operated electric rail lines.

The story of electric rail should be a cautionary one. Even good, successful technologies that benefit the average person can be throttled by government and the scum that profit from it.


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