Rick Snyder's transpo agenda and the long, bumpy road to the Mackinac Conference
Gov. Rick Snyder’s transportation agenda isn’t an item on Mackinac Policy Conference’s official agenda this year, but it should be obvious to anyone driving Michigan roads that it should at least find a place on the conference’s unofficial agenda.
Plainly, Michigan’s transportation infrastructure is a national disgrace. That should be clear to anyone traveling a pockmarked, warbling I-75 between Detroit and Mackinaw City.
When I stopped in West Branch for breakfast this morning, I should have ordered kidneys because, to quote Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, “I left mine back on the highway.”
Worse, metro Detroit’s public transportation systems are a balkanized and expensive mess that struggles to run buses on time. And the Detroit-Windsor border, the nation’s busiest commercial crossing is what Lt. Gov. Brian Calley called the “biggest bottleneck in the North American highway system.”
Improving transportation infrastructure is the rare issue where business and labor interests can find common ground. Indeed no less a capitalist than Adam Smith believed transportation to be one of government’s most important functions.
The Wealth of Nations: Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expense of carriage, put the remote parts of the country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighbourhood of the town. They are upon that account the greatest of all improvements. They encourage the cultivation of the remote, which must always be the most extensive circle of the country. They are advantageous to the town, by breaking down the monopoly of the country in its neighbourhood. They are advantageous even to that part of the country. Though they introduce some rival commodities into the old market, they open many new markets to its produce. Monopoly, besides, is a great enemy to good management, which can never be universally established but in consequence of that free and universal competition which forces everybody to have recourse to it for the sake of self-defence. It is not more than fifty years ago that some of the counties in the neighbourhood of London petitioned the Parliament against the extension of the turnpike roads into the remoter counties. Those remoter counties, they pretended, from the cheapness of labour, would be able to sell their grass and corn cheaper in the London market than themselves, and would thereby reduce their rents, and ruin their cultivation. Their rents, however, have risen, and their cultivation has been improved since that time.
So here is Gov. Snyder putting his political muscle behind a legislative package that would at long last provide Michigan residents and businesses with a first-class transportation system, yet he finds his proposals stalled in the legislature.
Snyder’s efforts are blocked by a wing of his own party that, while purporting to be defenders of the free market, are in fact advocates for mercantilist policies that hinder a prosperous market economy.
After Snyder announced his support for a new Detroit-Windsor bridge in his 2011 State of the State, Sen. Roger Kahn (R-Saginaw) told me he disagreed because government shouldn’t compete with a private business. That said private business (the Ambassador Bridge) operates based on a government charter and can only function because of connections to government roads is no matter, nor does it matter that the new bridge would be built and operated by a private concern chartered by binational governments.
You can almost imagine the right, Honorable Sen. Kahn in Adam Smith’s time, rising in Parliament to oppose allowing another firm from transporting tea to the colonies. It would compete with our fine friends at the East India Tea Company, he would exclaim!
Go down the line and you’ll find similar mercantilist tendencies. Raising the gas tax to rebuild highways? Opposed, supposedly, because we can’t afford it. That state drivers are estimated to spend more than $500 extra every year on gas and vehicle maintenance because of poor road conditions is ignored completely. But that’s money spent in the private sector and one might argue that terrible roads keeps Michigan’s wheel alignment technicians employed!
Given that our ignoble lawmakers have such a hard time grasping Adam Smith, I won’t burden their dim minds with Bastiat and the Broken Window Fallacy.
It’s only a matter of time before we must suffer through this: The men and women of the wheel alignment industry, keeping the American economy on the straight and narrow.
Even with public transportation, the mercantilist tendencies shine through. Consider Troy Mayor Janice Daniels’ anti-transit ally David Wisz, who fears public transit as “mugger movers” that will destroy his community. How similar does that sound to Londoners’ fears of those “remoter counties?” It’s uncanny, even.
A first-rate transportation is necessary, Smith posited, to create the free flow of people and commerce required for a thriving economy. More than 200 years of history only validates that idea.
Surely the group of local captains of industry assembled on Mackinac this week—attending a Chamber of Commerce conference, after all—would recognize wisdom from, you know, the father of capitalism. It’s time for this lot to put their shoulder to the wheel of Snyder’s transportation initiatives, and send the troglodyte wing of the Michigan legislature back to the 18th Century where they belong.