Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
In 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?