Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When critiques of libertarianism fail

Salon's Will Doig has written one of the strangest critiques of libertarianism one is likely to ever come across. Entitled "When Libertarianism Fails," Doig discusses the issue of lightly regulated intercity bus transport, but then spends most of his time highlighting all of the great benefits it has produced. Here are some excerpts:
It’s hard to overstate the impact these buses have had. Unsubsidized and barely regulated, a handful of immigrant entrepreneurs changed the way we move through the country’s busiest corridor. “The sector’s spectacular growth has been a wakeup call for the enormous possibilities of motor coach travel in urban life,” says Joe Schwieterman, a professor at Chicago’s DePaul University who studies intercity bus service. 
...The Chinatown buses seem to have worked a miracle, and not all of them were found to be delinquent (the stalwart Fung Wah is still honorably up and running). Even more important, they sparked an intercity busing renaissance that now includes Megabus and BoltBus, upscale carriers that have created a whole new clientele of people who had never used the bus. These lines offer Wi-Fi and comfy seats, charge a comparable price to the ones that were shut down, and manage to operate within the confines of good labor and safety standards. 
According to Schwieterman, these new corporate operators are helping the curbside bus industry balloon by at least 33 percent a year, and move into less transit-oriented cities like Pittsburgh, Atlanta and New Orleans. “It’s been pretty much unabated growth for six years,” he says — the fastest expanding mode of transportation in America. “What’s extraordinary is how the sector can grow without bumping up against any roadblocks.”
And this is from his concluding paragraph:
A more libertarian attitude toward transit makes sense, to a point. That kind of attitude spawned something incredible: the resurgence of intercity busing, a mode of transportation that was nearly left for dead half a century ago. By taking cars off the road, curbside intercity buses are now reducing America’s fuel consumption by 11 million gallons annually. Even more amazing, they’re prompting us to travel more than we used to — Schwieterman’s research found that 20 percent of curbside intercity bus trips would never have happened at all if the service didn’t exist. That, in and of itself, is a revolution.
So let's see: a transportation revolution that is environmentally friendly, provides cheap fares and has enabled more people to travel to more places -- and this is meant as an illustration of the dangers of libertarianism!

In fairness, Doig does attempt to offer some actual criticism:
The Chinatown buses were frequently hailed as a smart new transit model and an example of urban ingenuity. But last week’s crackdown and several recent crashes complicate that picture, illustrating that a $15 bus ticket can be like a $3 steak — you don’t necessarily want to know why it’s so cheap. Many of these bus lines were shameful by any normal transportation standards: unlicensed drivers, deadly safety records, a disregard for the streets they drove on. Much of what made them “innovative” was good old-fashioned corner-cutting. 
...Transit systems, in particular, are fragile, intricate ecosystems that rightly receive a healthy degree of government protection from invasive species. So, for instance, while it’s tempting to argue, as the Atlantic recently did, in favor of legalizing dollar vans, those developing-world-style jitneys that pick up passengers for cheaper than the bus, the many problems with this are usually played down. Dollar vans poach riders from the already cash-strapped bus system. They put transit in the hands of low-paid, non-union drivers. Those low-paid drivers are more often involved in crashes than higher-paid ones.  
And most important, it’s been tried before — not just in New York, but in many cities — with miserable results. “There was this expectation that these vans would be a perfect substitute for conventional transit,” says Columbia University assistant professor of urban planning David King. But, “There are a lot of real problems when you try to formalize informal transit." 
...The Chinatown buses are as much a warning against deregulation as they are an endorsement of it. Cheaper and faster, at any expense, isn’t always better.
In other words, the only real criticism offered is that regulations have been broken by some bus companies and crashes have taken place (although the supplied hyperlinks for the recent crashes do not appear to work). We are not provided with any data regarding the safety records of the bus companies, so this criticism is difficult to evaluate. After all, literally all methods of transportation, from bicycles to the space shuttle, experience crashes, so the fact that they occur proves nothing. 

The fact remains that tens of thousands of people have performed their own cost-benefit analysis and decided that the cheap fares are worth the risk. Furthermore, the vigorous competition within this sector ensures that if consumers dislike the safety record of one company that they can opt for others. Or, for those who really prize safety, there's always the airlines. 

Doig's criticisms of dollar vans are similarly weak. What does it matter if vans take customers from (presumably government-run) bus systems? Shouldn't the ire be directed at the bus system for providing a worse service at a higher price? And why should anyone care if drivers are unionized or not? Do transport methods exist to provide union jobs or get people from point A to point B? No evidence, meanwhile, is provided to support the claim that lower-paid drivers are involved more frequently in crashes, and the bit about deregulated transport producing "miserable results" in many cities is a similarly unsupported assertion.

Doig was able to come up with a catchy headline. What he wasn't able to do is come up with much in the way of an actual critique.

No comments: