As we at CAGW have been pointing out for years, government-funded high-speed rail (HSR) is a really bad idea. It’s wasteful, it does very little to improve traffic congestion, its environmental benefits are negligible at best, and its projected costs are typically very conservative. Politicians love it, since they get huge, impressive-looking projects to take credit for and great photo opportunities. The 2009 Stimulus Package included $8 billion for HSR in California, Wisconsin, and Florida, President Obama has pledged $53 billion for HSR in the coming years, and Vice President Biden has stated that “We cannot compromise” on HSR spending. Left-of-center Despite their enthusiasm, HSR is destined to be a colossal failure if its hugely-subsidized development ever takes off in America. Don’t take my word for it, though – just look at China, darling of HSR enthusiasts for its glittering trains and commitment to public inter-city mass transit. According to this story from the Washington Post, HSR in China is, in a word, a disaster:
Rather than demonstrating the advantages of centrally planned long-term investment, as its foreign admirers sometimes suggested, China’s bullet-train experience shows what can go wrong when an unelected elite, influenced by corrupt opportunists, gives orders that all must follow — without the robust public discussion we would have in the states.
If anyone is going to make HSR a success, it’s China. Their government is famous for eminent domain abuse and ignoring NIMBY complaints. Since HSR requires long, straight tracks, authoritarian governments are much better situated to enforce their construction than governments in countries where people have – you know – rights. So you would expect that if anyone could do HSR efficiently, it would be China.
You would be wrong. According to the Post, trains in China are dangerous, over-budget, and too expensive for most Chinese to ride. Liu Zhijun, China’s minister of railways, was sacked in February of this year after embezzling tens of millions of dollars and putting his ministry $271 billion in debt. The United States would do well to take note. Over at Forbes online, Warren Meyer wonders why people fall for this stuff every time:
What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects? Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.
I would add NASA, publicly-funded sports stadiums, and, on a related note, every modern Olympics to Meyer’s list. All of these items are big, shiny, impressive feats of engineering. They are, to the untrained eye, a “free lunch,” because they invest in worthwhile projects and create jobs. To oppose them is often to be cast as an insane person, one who stands in illogical opposition to the progress of humankind. But HSR is not progress, it’s waste. It is an enormously expensive undertaking that produces less value to consumers than it costs to create, which is the opposite of progress. It is what Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, would call “cargo cult” economics: huge investments in the symptoms of prosperity, like HSR today or steel 50 years ago, rather than its causes. Caplan explains:
During the Great Leap Forward, the result was a system where hundreds of millions of peasants were forced to throw their perfectly serviceable iron utensils and tools into backyard furnaces to make worthless pseudo-steel sludge. Who needs knives? Modern countries have steel!
We should not praise countries that prevent their citizens from spending their own money the way they would like, all for the ego of a few bureaucrats. The $300 billion that China has already blown on HSR is money that cannot be spent by private individuals on food, clean water, CDs, blue jeans, and health care. We should lament the fact that such a poor country was forced to invest in cool-looking trains instead, and avoid making the same mistake.
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