Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Economics Will Never Compensate for Irresponsibility

Brad Edmonds over at the Mises.org Blog writes that there are a few messages that we really need to garner from the bridge collapse in Minnesota. He writes that one message we should take from the collapse is that it was a rare event. He is correct. The Federal Highway Administration has the total count of bridges in the US currently at 597,340.1 With more than half a million bridges in the US and five years since the last collapse, we are talking about a rare event. But Edmonds then goes on to argue that this another example of the kinds of failures that occur due to the bureaucratic negligence, misplaced incentives, and all-around laziness that private markets could solve so much better for us than the government. There’s a logical problem with that argument and an important distinction that needs to made.

On the one hand, the evidence of the occasion of the bridge collapse is rare—which would seem to point the way to a large number of overlooked successes. Yet, simultaneously, these overlooked successes are evidence for the poor process by which the government constructs and pays for public goods. I don’t think the first premise supports the second. If the way that the government currently goes about investing in infrastructure is so bad, then why aren’t there more collapses?

Edmonds and others that want to carry this single event to a higher plane of argument about government structure too conveniently overlook the merit of civil engineers who take their jobs seriously as intelligent men of skill and training and who do not have profit as a motivating factor for their generally exceptional work. A private market for infrastructure would be just as vulnerable to the greedy excesses and corner-cutting of the market that the energy market was susceptible to with Enron. There, too, there were auditors who “jealousy guarded their reputations”2 like Anderson, who still utterly failed in their capacity to look after the books.

The point is that there is no economic system for funding large-scale projects that is not vulnerable to individuals who (for one misplaced incentive or another) decide not to do their jobs. Private bridges collapse too. The real and critical difference between public and private funding is who, in the end, pays for it. Is the cost distributed evenly, or only paid for by those who use it? There’s certainly a debate to be had on that point, but failure is endemic to all human endeavors, not one or another system of funding. Until someone can produce real evidence that privately built bridges stand up longer and function better than publicly constructed bridges, Edmonds argument that we need to privatize the infrastructure in the name of improved quality doesn’t hold water (or traffic).

  1. Take into account that this is my own summation of the data in the FHWA’s database—I’m pretty sure I calculated the sum correctly, but feel free to double-check my numbers. 

  2. This is Edmonds’ description of the private market incentives. 

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