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.
- 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
- 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.