Is Big Government Worth a Dam?

 

246-hoover-dam-bypass-4270In his monumental 1957 book Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, the historian Karl Wittfogel proposed the theory of hydraulic empire. He surmised that despotic governments and large-scale irrigation works arose in tandem because only a strong, centralizing power could compel the mass labor required to build and maintain these works. The surpluses of food and wealth resulting from successful irrigation projects conferred legitimacy upon absolute rulers; the mobilization of labor could also be directed toward monumental architecture, increasing their prestige.

Political progressives often cite the Hoover Dam as an example of government defined as “the things we do together” — projects so large that the private sector is incapable of undertaking them. The dam is a key icon of the mythology of the New Deal. In Canada, the Canadian-Pacific Railway holds a similar place in our founding myth. I believe both of these projects were public-private partnerships, but like the irrigation works of antiquity, they are now used to increase the legitimacy and prestige of a centralized, activist government — albeit not a very authoritarian one.

But there are two weaknesses inherent to big government’s efforts to gain legitimacy by completing large-scale public works. The first is our greater recognition of the unintended consequences that can accompany projects with a large scope (especially dams). The second is that our governments are becoming less effective at completing these projects.

We are very familiar with the environmental failings of communism. In one prominent example, the arbitrary quotas set by Moscow resulted in the shrinking of the Aral Sea. The rivers feeding it were over-tapped to grow cotton in Central Asia. Large-scale hydraulic works in the West haven’t failed so spectacularly, but there have still been unintended consequences. The over-allocation of the Colorado River is worsening the impact of the drought in California, for example, and there is a strong argument for moving toward trading systems for water rights to respond to the drought, rather than central planning in Sacramento or D.C.. Other unintended consequences from dams include silt deposition, downstream erosion, increased loss to evaporation, and declining fisheries due to impeded migration.

Second, it is getting harder to complete such large-scale public works (to say nothing of private infrastructure such as pipelines). To the extent that this is due to increased awareness of second-order impacts, this is not an entirely bad development, but it does call into question the utility of big governments that can’t get things done. Even relatively routine projects are subject to such a lengthy process of environmental review, public consultation, legal challenges, and permitting that there will frequently be new politicians in office before shovels ever break ground — politicians who may have other ideas and send the whole project back to the drawing board, to begin the cycle again. Once ground is broken, public works projects have a bad habit of going over time and over budget.

Consider these projects in this light. Seattle’s viaduct replacement was originally scheduled to be opened by the end of this year. The tunnel will now be completed by March 2018 at the earliest, if the tunnel boring machine is successfully repaired to resume digging this fall. It’s too soon to tell how the construction of California’s high-speed rail will go, but if it is anything like preliminaries, it could be an epic boondoggle. The Site C Dam on the Peace River in BC is currently at the legal challenge part of the process.

I see opportunities for conservatives here. If market-based approaches can be shown to provide what people want from their water supply, transportation, and similar projects — even as high-profile public works projects founder — might it be possible to transfer some of the perceived legitimacy of big government to the private sector?

Thoughts?

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  1. lesserson Member
    lesserson
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    The irony of course being that if someone attempted something like the Hoover dam now (public or private) they would be accused of raping the land.

    • #1
  2. Tenacious D Inactive
    Tenacious D
    @TenaciousD

    lesserson: The irony of course being that if someone attempted something like the Hoover dam now (public or private) they would be accused of raping the land.

    Exactly.

    • #2
  3. lesserson Member
    lesserson
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    Tenacious D:

    lesserson: The irony of course being that if someone attempted something like the Hoover dam now (public or private) they would be accused of raping the land.

    Exactly.

    “Look at this Progressive achievement!!!  It was awful.” Grumpy cat on politics.

    • #3
  4. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    The government and environmentalists have obstructed the building of reservoirs inCalifornia for the last Fourty years and now complain about drought.

    • #4
  5. lesserson Member
    lesserson
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    PHCheese:The government and environmentalists have obstructed the building of reservoirs inCalifornia for the last Fourty years and now complain about drought.

    Yep, without the slightest bit of self awareness.

    • #5
  6. CandE Inactive
    CandE
    @CandE

    Burt Folsom’s The Myth of the Robber Barons illustrates the fatuousness of the conceit that government can do projects the private sector by comparing the transcontinental railroad with James J Hill’s Great Northern Railway.  Although it took him longer, his was always profitable, which is not something that can be said for the Union/Central Pacific project.

    -E

    • #6
  7. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    FedEx/UPS vs. USPS

    Case closed.

    • #7
  8. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Hoover dam was built in five years in the middle of the depression, using 1930s technologies.

    In 1995, the visitor center at Hoover dam opened.  It was started in 1983.

    • #8
  9. John Penfold Member
    John Penfold
    @IWalton

    I think a Hayek’s take is probably closer to what really happened.  Successful societies grew in size and prosperity because the individuals within them gradually adopted notions, mores, morals, habits conducive to expanded trade, not by design but through an evolutionary process  that allowed spontaneous order to make them more successful than the communities that did not.   Big centralized governments either through conquest or because prosperous communities needed defense, eventually built large projects to gain even greater control, used the wealth for themselves, developed writing and numbers to keep track and then gradually strangled the thing, but not before leaving monuments to themselves in buildings, art and words so that our anthropologists could give the great regimes credit for building the civilization when in fact it was they who destroyed them .

    • #9
  10. Tenacious D Inactive
    Tenacious D
    @TenaciousD

    Some excellent examples.

    • #10
  11. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    Your title is a wonderful pun.  Thanks.

    Have you heard of the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) experience?  It was always controversial, massive government electrification of that valley.  Recently there seem to have been a highly undesirable ‘side-effect’:

    On December 22, 2008, an earthen dike at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant broke, spreading one billion gallons of wet coal ash across 300 acres (1.2 km2) of land and into the tributaries of the Tennessee River.[12] The non-profit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy plans on suing TVA for $165 million on behalf of residents in the area.[13] The Kentucky Sierra Club called the disaster the “worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl”.[14] While TVA’s culture at its fossil fuel plants was not the cause of the Kingston Spill, the culture contributed to the spill, as was appropriately noted in the TVA OIG’s (Office of the Inspector General) report

    Personally, I love subduing Nature to Man’s needs.  Wish we were doing more of it in the States, and long wondered what projects would make sense, and how private concerns could be induced to undertake them.  Peter Zeihan in his book “Accidental Superpower” argues that the US has been by far the most geographically blessed of all nations of the world, with our interior waterways running through large fertile lands.  I fantasize about how we can further exploit God’s Shedding His Grace on We.

    PS. Greatest “what might have been” in large projects is story (continued…)

    • #11
  12. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    (continued…) of The Imperial Valley project, nicely described in ”

    Great Projects: The Epic Story of the Building of America, from the Taming of the Mississippi to the Invention of the Internet Hardcover – September 25, 2001

    by James Tobin (Author)”

    (See:

    http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/PeriscopeSaltonSeaCh5-6.html

     for nice short account)

    Elsewhere (https://desertsearat.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/more-history-the-first-farmers/) we read:

    “The agricultural potential for the Salton Sink was imagined as soon as early surveyors witnessed Native Americans in the area successfully growing a variety of crops. Blake, our old geologist friend also concluded that the area would be suitable to fertile agriculture based on soil analysis there.

    “From the preceding facts it becomes evident that the alluvial soil of the desert is capable of sustaining a vigorous vegetation. The only apparent reason for its sterility is the absence of water, for wherever it is kept moist vegetation springs up.”

    What a splendid thought! Creating an Oasis of the Desert. This imagined fertile new hotspot would not only bring food and productivity to future settlers of the area, but massive wealth to those who would control the flow of this desert water. Blake was already getting ideas about possible plans for greening up the Salton Sink’s desert.

    The most meritorious irrigation projects in the country would be bringing together the land of the Colorado Desert and the water of the Colorodo River” (de buys)”…

    • #12
  13. Tenacious D Inactive
    Tenacious D
    @TenaciousD

    John Penfold: I think a Hayek’s take is probably closer to what really happened.  Successful societies grew in size and prosperity because the individuals within them gradually adopted notions, mores, morals, habits conducive to expanded trade, not by design but through an evolutionary process  that allowed spontaneous order to make them more successful than the communities that did not.

    John, do you have any suggested reading on Hayek’s take?

    • #13
  14. Tenacious D Inactive
    Tenacious D
    @TenaciousD

    Manfred, I’d never heard of that TVA spill, so thanks.

    Manfred Arcane: Peter Zeihan in his book “Accidental Superpower” argues that the US has been by far the most geographically blessed of all nations of the world, with our interior waterways running through large fertile lands.

    The Mississippi River is the sixth largest by flow in the world, but the second largest outside the tropics (beaten only by the Yangtze). It provides all the benefits to navigation and agriculture with a lot less risk of tropical disease.

    • #14
  15. John Penfold Member
    John Penfold
    @IWalton

    Tenacious D:

    John Penfold: I think a Hayek’s take is probably closer to what really happened. Successful societies grew in size and prosperity because the individuals within them gradually adopted notions, mores, morals, habits conducive to expanded trade, not by design but through an evolutionary process that allowed spontaneous order to make them more successful than the communities that did not.

    John, do you have any suggested reading on Hayek’s take?

    On this particular topic, “the fatal conceit”

    • #15
  16. John Penfold Member
    John Penfold
    @IWalton

    I’m old enough to have been around when the conservation movement started making progress.  They were sportsmen, trout fishermen, hunters, wilderness buffs and they took  on the Army engineers and the Bureau or Reclamation, Federal agencies that were destroying our rivers.   They didn’t win all the battles, but now we’re starting to undo some of the harm they did.   I remember a book we had in our house called, “Big Dam Foolishness”   This was all before the modern environmental  movement turned into an anti freedom, anti market, big government means for raising money for them and power for Washington.

    • #16
  17. SEnkey Inactive
    SEnkey
    @SEnkey

    In short, no. It’s not worth a dam!

    • #17
  18. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    Tenacious D:Manfred, I’d never heard of that TVA spill, so thanks.

    Manfred Arcane: Peter Zeihan in his book “Accidental Superpower” argues that the US has been by far the most geographically blessed of all nations of the world, with our interior waterways running through large fertile lands.

    The Mississippi River is the sixth largest by flow in the world, but the second largest outside the tropics (beaten only by the Yangtze). It provides all the benefits to navigation and agriculture with a lot less risk of tropical disease.

    And don’t forget the Ohio and other navigable rivers that connect to it.  The whole complex allows agricultural and other goods to travel at low costs to markets halfway around the country.  (although Tobin makes clear in his book above that clearing out the river hazards was a major, major effort – but one with immense payoff.)

    • #18
  19. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    PS. Great photo.  That new bridge is quite something isn’t it?

    • #19
  20. david foster Member
    david foster
    @DavidFoster

    The very term “infrastructure” has come to mean “government projects” in the minds of many if not most people.  In reality, of course, much critical infrastructure is privately built and maintained:  freight railroads, wired and wireless telecommunications networks, oil and gas pipelines, almost all electrical generation and distribution and much electrical transmission.

    • #20
  21. david foster Member
    david foster
    @DavidFoster

    Speaking of dams: in the 1930s, they were greatly admired and promoted by the Left, in the US, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere.  Today, they are viewed as instruments of the devil which should not be counted as renewable energy sources…even though in reality they are solar energy with integral storage.

    See frankly my dear I do need a dam and  dancing on the ruins

    • #21
  22. Del Mar Dave Member
    Del Mar Dave
    @DelMarDave

    Random thoughts on the issue:

    *  Kennedy Airport (nee Idlewild) was built on a swamp.  No way would that happen today.

    *  In New York, Robert Moses operated as a nearly independent dictator for years, ruining many neighborhoods in the process.

    *  Environmental laws, regs and impact statements would prohibit building the interstate highway system today.

    *  The Big Dig in Boston was a classic gummint boondoggle with cost overruns of monumental (as it were) proportions.

    *  The new VA hospital in Denver is trying to catch up.

    • #22
  23. Del Mar Dave Member
    Del Mar Dave
    @DelMarDave

    david foster: …Speaking of dams: in the 1930s, they were greatly admired and promoted by the Left, in the US…

    viz., one of my favorite songs on my iPod:

    “Well, the world has seven wonders that the trav’lers always tell,
    Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well,
    But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam’s fair land,
    It’s the big Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam…”

    ~ Woody Guthrie, 1941

    • #23
  24. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    Tenacious D:Manfred, I’d never heard of that TVA spill, so thanks.

    It won’t be long before no one has heard of the Animas River spill.

    • #24
  25. MLH Inactive
    MLH
    @MLH

    ref: DMD #22: who filled in Boston’s Back Bay?

    • #25
  26. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    david foster:The very term “infrastructure” has come to mean “government projects” in the minds of many if not most people. In reality, of course, much critical infrastructure is privately built and maintained: freight railroads, wired and wireless telecommunications networks, oil and gas pipelines, almost all electrical generation and distribution and much electrical transmission.

    The Virginia Beltway around Washington DC provides a new demonstration that private construction, maintenance and operation (basically complete ownership) of major roads works well.  A private firm has installed miles of parallel toll roads that work like a dream.  Only those who use the roads pay for them.  They were built quickly and function well.

    • #26
  27. Tenacious D Inactive
    Tenacious D
    @TenaciousD

    Manfred Arcane: PS. Great photo. That new bridge is quite something isn’t it?

    I wish I could take credit for that photo, but the editors kindly added it–and polished up the text nicely, too–when the post got moved to the main feed.

    • #27
  28. RyanFalcone Member
    RyanFalcone
    @RyanFalcone

    My idea for a t-shirt for the folks at Ricochet to sell.

    Government: Just another name for things we do together.

    Beaneth it, a picture of the Egyptian Pyramids.

    • #28
  29. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    The big reason projects like transcontinental railroads and hydroelectric dams can “only” be done by government is because they require a) the power to expropriate private property, and b) the power to waive environmental protection laws.

    • #29
  30. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    Apparently the next infrastructure project will be a yuuge wall underwritten by Mexico, which the EPA will absolutely greenlight post-haste.

    • #30

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