The Liberal Error

Fred Clark, the irreplaceable slacktivist, is an uncommonly intelligent, thoughtful, and well-read man. And yet he fails to properly comprehend economics and politics. In a recent post titled Smaller government, smaller dreams, smaller people he discusses a Weather Channel documentary about Galveston, and speaks approvingly of their response to the catastrophic hurricane of 1900.

the account of the city’s audacious plan to rebuild and the execution of that plan… is inspiring and depressing.

It’s inspiring because they did this — real people really did this. They built a 17-foot-tall seawall along the Gulf side of the island.

And then they raised the entire city.

More than 500 city blocks. They raised it 17 feet higher nearest the seawall, gradually sloping downward from their all the way to the other side of the island. This involved jacking up every building in the city — mostly by hand. That included a massive stone church, which they lifted with mulepower. Then, with hundreds of buildings raised up to the proper height according to their location in the slope, they pumped in more than 16 million cubic yards of sand and slurry from the shipping channel in the Gulf.

This was an amazing feat of engineering and muscle, accomplished more than 100 years ago with hardly any of the technology we would employ if we were ever to attempt such a thing today.

And that’s the depressing part. We would never attempt such a thing today. We’re no longer capable of pulling it off. We’re no longer capable of even trying.

We seem to have become a small-minded people obsessed with smaller government, smaller visions, smaller aspirations — a crimped, cramped people from whom it seems unimaginable to expect or ask for this kind of hard work and investment and long-term foresight.

Notice what questions are never asked.

  1. Who paid for this? Should everyone be taxed so that some don’t have to make wiser choices about where to live? Is it just (and the slacktivist cares about justice) to require some people to subsidize the foolishness or obstinacy
    of others?
  2. How much did this cost? Was it a wise investment? Would it have been a better investment to abandon the city, or at least to reduce its size? What was the opportunity cost of the rebuilding of Galveston?

I don’t have the answers to those questions, but they are the questions that should be asked. Clark has fallen for the trap of looking only at what is seen, and not at what is not seen. He seems fascinated by bigness and boldness, but those aren’t great standards by which to judge things. Those are the standards of developing countries’ dictators who build the world’s tallest building instead of ensuring everyone in their country is well-fed, well-housed, and well-educated. An obsession with grandiose projects without consideration of their opportunity costs is itself a type of small-mindedness. It’s a small-mindedness that confuses bold action with good solutions.

And that’s where liberals like Clark misunderstand us smaller-government types. He thinks we’re opposed to good solutions, when we’re really opposed to big government projects undertaken without regard for the opportunity costs. There’s an important distinction, and I think Fred Clark is intelligent enough and honest enough to recognize it. That’s why it’s so depressing that he doesn’t.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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7 Responses to The Liberal Error

  1. Loki says:

    And you make the “Conservative Error.”

    Who paid for this? Should everyone be taxed so that some don’t have to make wiser choices about where to live? Is it just (and the slacktivist cares about justice) to require some people to subsidize the foolishness or obstinacy of others?

    Yes, everyone should be taxed to pay for rebuilding the city. And it is absolutely just, even from the warped selfishness personal responsibility that conservatism espouses. Where, exactly and precisely, should these people live? Certainly not the Midwest with its tornadoes and flooding, not the south and the eastern seaboard with their hurricanes, not the mountain states with their volcanoes, and not the west coast what with their forest fires and earthquakes. You’ve managed to successfully prove there is not a single place in America that it is not foolish to live. Everyone gets taxed to rebuild Galveston, because you don’t know when or where the next natural disaster is going to hit, so you pay to rebuild Galveston and in return Galveston pays to rebuild your city.

  2. AMW says:

    Where, exactly and precisely, should these people live? Certainly not the Midwest with its tornadoes and flooding, not the south and the eastern seaboard with their hurricanes, not the mountain states with their volcanoes, and not the west coast what with their forest fires and earthquakes. You’ve managed to successfully prove there is not a single place in America that it is not foolish to live.

    That is, frankly, absurd. There are various levels of risk all across the country. In some places hazards are highly unlikely; in others they are fairly commonplace. You might as well say, “How, exactly and precisely, should people get from place to place? Certainly not on the roads; people are killed in car accidents every day. And we all know that planes can crash and trains can derail. Don’t get me started on walking; even perfectly fit individuals would expire on a trip from Albuquerque to Salt Lake City. And riding a bike is just asking for a slipped chain or detached handle-bar.”

    Everyone gets taxed to rebuild Galveston, because you don’t know when or where the next natural disaster is going to hit, so you pay to rebuild Galveston and in return Galveston pays to rebuild your city.

    That sounds an awful lot like hazard insurance. And generally people are perfectly capable of paying for their own hazard insurance. The only exception to that rule is when the hazards involved are of particularly high probability or cost or both. In such cases the premiums become ridiculously high and no one is willing to pay for it. Enter insurance subsidies to take money from people who live in reasonably safe places and use it to pay people to live in hazardous places. Brilliant.

  3. lance says:

    It would be interesting to find out who did pay for the seawall and the elevating of the cities structures and how it was financed and if this is even an accurate account of what happened.

    If I had lived there, and survived, I would have marched my ass inland at least ten or twenty miles before I expected my fellow Texans or Galvestonians, or whatever subset of humanity you choose, to build me and my slow learning neighbors a hurricane proof coastal city.

  4. Matty says:

    Lance’s question intrigued me so I did a quick bit of googling and found this.

    The first three miles of the wall, built between 1902 and 1904, were paid for with $1.5 million in bonds issued by the county with voter approval and sold mostly to city residents to raise money to pay contractors. In 1926 to 1927, the county was able to pay for extensions to the wall with regular operating money. In between, the federal government, seeking to protect a military installation and other property on Galveston, built 2.8 miles of sea wall in 1904 to 1905 and in the 1920s at a cost of $2.6 million. To help pay for the grade-raising, the Texas Legislature agreed to rebate to the city treasury nearly all state taxes collected on Galveston. In a controversial plan that made construction firms queasy, city leaders in turn used some of the state tax money to back new city bonds and forced contractors to take a portion of their payment in those city “grade-raising” bonds.

  5. James Hanley says:

    Loki–If you were paying any attention you’d know that I’m not a conservative. I no longer have patience with would-be clever folk who can’t distinguish between conservatives and libertarians.

    And as AMW says, your argument is ridiculous. I’ve lived in the Midwest for about 33 of my 46 years, so I’m well acquainted with tornado risk, which in general is much lower than hurricane risk in the Gulf of Mexico, and normally can be handled with homeowners insurance. As to flooding, you may not be aware that after the ’93 Mississippi flood, the government relocated an entire town out of the flood plain to the bluff above the river. The residents were given an ultimatum–they could stay but the government wouldn’t help them in the case of a future flood. That’s as it should be.

    In California it may make sense for the state to take on responsibility and tax everyone since roughly 94% of the state is in an earthquake zone. But that doesn’t mean it’s the responsibility of people in, say, North Dakota to subsidize them. And I’ve been through three serious earthquakes in the time I lived out there, so the widespread devastation they cause is no mystery to me.

    Matty–Great googling. Thanks.

  6. Lance says:

    Matty,

    Very interesting research. I have no problem with elected community officials collecting funds from the local community to pay local contractors to improve the city.

    Requiring contractors to accept bonds as partial payments for work done for the city would be OK with me so long as it was clearly spelled out in the provisions of the contract before the contractor’s bids were accepted. No contractor would “have” to do the work if they didn’t want to so the word “forced” makes me wonder if it was part of the original contracts.

    The “rebates” of taxes from the Texas legislature also seems reasonable given that in the long run improvements to Galveston will increase tax revenues to the state in the future and no state funds would be expended in future clean ups and assistance to a hurricane devastated, low lying Galveston.

    The federal expenditures also sound like they were made to improve federal facilities so that seems kosher as well.

    All in all it sounds like representative democracy at work.

  7. AMW says:

    P.s. The mountain states are virtually devoid of volcanoes.

    How did I miss that gem in Loki’s comment?

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