The Distorting Effects Of Transportation Subsidies

by Kevin Carson
The Distorting Effects Of Transportation Subsidies

This article won the 2011 Beth A. Hoffman Memorial Prize for Economic Writing.

Although critics on the left are very astute in describing the evils of present-day society, they usually fail to understand either the root of those problems (government intervention) or their solution (the operation of a freed market). In Progressive commentary on energy, pollution, and so on—otherwise often quite insightful—calls for government intervention are quite common. George Monbiot, for instance, has written that “[t]he only rational response to both the impending end of the Oil Age and the menace of global warming is to redesign our cities, our farming and our lives. But this cannot happen without massive political pressure.”

But this is precisely backward. Existing problems of excess energy consumption, pollution, big-box stores, the car culture, and suburban sprawl result from the “massive political pressure” that has already been applied, over the past several decades, to “redesign our cities, our farming, and our lives.” The root of all the problems Monbiot finds so objectionable is State intervention in the marketplace.

In particular, subsidies to transportation have probably done more than any other factor (with the possible exception of intellectual property law) to determine the present shape of the American corporate economy. Currently predominating firm sizes and market areas are the result of government subsidies to transportation.

Adam Smith argued over 200 years ago that the fairest way of funding transportation infrastructure was user fees rather than general revenues: “When the carriages which pass over a highway or a bridge, and the lighters which sail upon a navigable canal, pay toll in proportion to their weight or their tonnage, they pay for the maintenance of those public works exactly in proportion to the wear and tear which they occasion of them.”

This is not, however, how things were actually done. Powerful business interests have used their political influence since the beginning of American history to secure government funding for “internal improvements.” The real turning point was the government’s role in creating the railroad system from the mid-nineteenth century on. The national railroad system as we know it was almost entirely a creature of the State.

The federal railroad land grants included not only the rights-of-way for the actual railroads, but extended 15-mile tracts on both sides. As the lines were completed, this adjoining land became prime real estate and skyrocketed in value. As new communities sprang up along the routes, every house and business in town was built on land acquired from the railroads. The tracts also frequently included valuable timberland. The railroads, according to Matthew Josephson (The Robber Barons), were “land companies” whose directors “did a rushing land business in farm lands and town sites at rising prices.” For example, under the terms of the Pacific Railroad bill, the Union Pacific (which built from the Mississippi westward) was granted 12 million acres of land and $27 million worth of 30-year government bonds. The Central Pacific (built from the West Coast eastward) received nine million acres and $24 million worth of bonds. The total land grants to the railroads amounted to about six times the area of France.

Theodore Judah, chief engineer for what became the Central Pacific, assured potential investors “that it could be done—if government aid were obtained. For the cost would be terrible.” Collis Huntington, the leading promoter for the project, engaged in a sordid combination of strategically placed bribes and appeals to communities’ fears of being bypassed in order to extort grants of “rights of way, terminal and harbor sites, and . . . stock or bond subscriptions ranging from $150,000 to $1,000,000” from a long string of local governments that included San Francisco, Stockton, and Sacramento.

Government also revised tort and contract law to ease the carriers’ way—for example, by exempting common carriers from liability for many kinds of physical damage caused by their operation.

Had railroad ventures been forced to bear their own initial capital outlays—securing rights of way, preparing roadbeds, and laying track, without land grants and government purchases of their bonds—the railroads would likely have developed instead along the initial lines on which Lewis Mumford speculated in The City in History: many local rail networks linking communities into local industrial economies. The regional and national interlinkages of local networks, when they did occur, would have been far fewer and far smaller in capacity. The comparative costs of local and national distribution, accordingly, would have been quite different. In a nation of hundreds of local industrial economies, with long-distance rail transport much more costly than at present, the natural pattern of industrialization would have been to integrate small-scale power machinery into flexible manufacturing for local markets.

Alfred Chandler, in The Visible Hand, argued that the creation of the national railroad system made possible, first, national wholesale and retail markets, and then large manufacturing firms serving the national market. The existence of unified national markets served by large-scale manufacturers depended on a reliable, high-volume distribution system operating on a national level. The railroad and telegraph, “so essential to high-volume production and distribution,” were in Chandler’s view what made possible this steady flow of goods through the distribution pipeline: “The revolution in the processes of distribution and production rested in large part on the new transportation and communications infrastructure. Modern mass production and mass distribution depend on the speed, volume, and regularity in the movement of goods and messages made possible by the coming of the railroad, telegraph and steamship.”

The Tipping Point

The creation of a single national market, unified by a high-volume distribution system, was probably the tipping point between two possible industrial systems. As Mumford argued in Technics and Civilization, the main economic reason for large-scale production in the factory system was the need to economize on power from prime movers. Factories were filled with long rows of machines, all connected by belts to drive shafts from a single steam engine. The invention of the electric motor changed all this: A prime mover, appropriately scaled, could be built into each individual machine. As a result, it was possible to scale machinery to the flow of production and situate it close to the point of consumption.

With the introduction of electrical power, as described by Charles Sabel and Michael Piore in The Second Industrial Divide, there were two alternative possibilities for organizing production around the new electrical machinery: decentralized production for local markets, integrating general-purpose machinery into craft production and governed on a demand-pull basis with short production runs and frequent shifts between product lines; or centralized production using expensive, product-specific machinery in large batches on a supply-push basis. The first alternative was the one most naturally suited to the new possibilities offered by electrical power. But in fact what was chosen was the second alternative. The role of the State in creating a single national market, with artificially low distribution costs, was almost certainly what tipped the balance between them.

The railroads, themselves largely creatures of the State, in turn actively promoted the concentration of industry through their rate policies. Sabel and Piore argue that “the railroads’ policy of favoring their largest customers, through rebates” was a central factor in the rise of the large corporation. Once in place, the railroads—being a high fixed-cost industry—had “a tremendous incentive to use their capacity in a continuous, stable way. This incentive meant, in turn, that they had an interest in stabilizing the output of their principal customers—an interest that extended to protecting their customers from competitors who were served by other railroads. It is therefore not surprising that the railroads promoted merger schemes that had this effect, nor that they favored the resulting corporations or trusts with rebates.”

Reprising the Role

As new forms of transportation emerged, the government reprised its role, subsidizing both the national highway and civil aviation systems.

From its beginning the American automotive industry formed a “complex” with the petroleum industry and government highway projects. The “most powerful pressure group in Washington” (as a PBS documentary called it) began in June 1932, when GM president Alfred P. Sloan created the National Highway Users Conference, inviting oil and rubber firms to help GM bankroll a propaganda and lobbying effort that continues to this day.

Whatever the political motivation behind it, the economic effect of the interstate system should hardly be controversial. Virtually 100 percent of roadbed damage to highways is caused by heavy trucks. After repeated liberalization of maximum weight restrictions, far beyond the heaviest conceivable weight the interstate roadbeds were originally designed to support, fuel taxes fail miserably at capturing from big-rig operators the cost of pavement damage caused by higher axle loads. And truckers have been successful at scrapping weight-distance user charges in all but a few western states, where the push for repeal continues. So only about half the revenue of the highway trust fund comes from fees or fuel taxes on the trucking industry, and the rest is externalized on private automobiles.

This doesn’t even count the 20 percent of highway funding that’s still subsidized by general revenues, or the role of eminent domain in lowering the transaction costs involved in building new highways or expanding existing ones.

As for the civil aviation system, from the beginning it was a creature of the State. Its original physical infrastructure was built entirely with federal grants and tax-free municipal bonds. Professor Stephen Paul Dempsey of the University of Denver in 1992 estimated the replacement value of this infrastructure at $1 trillion. The federal government didn’t even start collecting user fees from airline passengers and freight shippers until 1971. Even with such user fees paid into the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, the system still required taxpayer subsidies of $3 billion to maintain the Federal Aviation Administration’s network of control towers, air traffic control centers, and tens of thousands of air traffic controllers.

Eminent domain also remains central to the building of new airports and expansion of existing airports, as it does with highways.

Subsidies to airport and air traffic control infrastructure are only part of the picture. Equally important was the direct role of the State in creating the heavy aircraft industry, whose jumbo jets revolutionized civil aviation after World War II. In Harry Truman and the War Scare of 1948, Frank Kofsky described the aircraft industry as spiraling into red ink after the end of the war and on the verge of bankruptcy when it was rescued by the Cold War (and more specifically Truman’s heavy bomber program). David Noble, in America by Design, made a convincing case that civilian jumbo jets were only profitable thanks to the government’s heavy bomber contracts; the production runs for the civilian market alone were too small to pay for the complex and expensive machinery. The 747 is essentially a spinoff of military production. The civil aviation system is, many times over, a creature of the State.

The State and the Corporation

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the dominant business model in the American economy, and the size of the prevailing corporate business unit, are direct results of such policies. A subsidy to any factor of production amounts to a subsidy of those firms whose business models rely most heavily on that factor, at the expense of those who depend on it the least. Subsidies to transportation, by keeping the cost of distribution artificially low, tend to lengthen supply and distribution chains. They make large corporations operating over wide market areas artificially competitive against smaller firms producing for local markets—not to mention big-box retailers with their warehouses-on-wheels distribution model.

Some consequentialists treat this as a justification for transportation subsidies: Subsidies are good because they make possible mass-production industry and large-scale distribution, which are (it is claimed) inherently more efficient (because of those magically unlimited “economies of scale,” of course).

Tibor Machan argued just the opposite in the February 1999 Freeman:

Some people will say that stringent protection of rights [against eminent domain] would lead to small airports, at best, and many constraints on construction. Of course—but what’s so wrong with that?

Perhaps the worst thing about modern industrial life has been the power of political authorities to grant special privileges to some enterprises to violate the rights of third parties whose permission would be too expensive to obtain. The need to obtain that permission would indeed seriously impede what most environmentalists see as rampant—indeed reckless—industrialization.

The system of private property rights . . . is the greatest moderator of human aspirations. . . . In short, people may reach goals they aren’t able to reach with their own resources only by convincing others, through arguments and fair exchanges, to cooperate.

In any case, the “efficiencies” resulting from subsidized centralization are entirely spurious. If the efficiencies of large-scale production were sufficient to compensate for increased distribution costs, it would not be necessary to shift a major portion of the latter to taxpayers to make the former profitable. If an economic activity is only profitable when a portion of the cost side of the ledger is concealed, and will not be undertaken when all costs are fully internalized by an economic actor, then it’s not really efficient. And when total distribution costs (including those currently shifted to the taxpayer) exceed mass-production industry’s ostensible savings in unit cost of production, the “efficiencies” of large-scale production are illusory.

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21 responses to “The Distorting Effects Of Transportation Subsidies

  1. There is no economic case for government subsidies (including forced land sales) for road or railroads.

    Oddly enough Kevin is, from the other side, repeating the economic errors of Henry Clay and the Whigs.

    Henry Clay and the Whigs who followed him claimed that without government subsidies large scale transport infrastructure (ports, roads, canals and so on) would not be built – and Kevin repeats their error.

    In reality (just as with the canal network in Britain and the turnpike roads in both Britain and the United States) the transport infrastructure would have built without government.

    It might have been a different infrastructure (for example more rail and less road – and private mass transit in the cities not being destroyed by the PRICE CONTROLS and “free” roads of the mid 20th century) – but there would have been a vast transport infrastructure without government intervention.

    Where Kevin goes further into error than Henry Clay and the Whigs who followed him is that Kevin disputes the benefits of economies of scale itself.

    This must not be left standing .

    Without economies of scale and world wide distribution the economy would collapse.

    The result of “Kevinism” (for want of a better word) would be MASS STARVATION.

    In short if Kevin was correct (that without government a large scale transport infrastructure would not have been developed) this would be an argument in FAVOUR of government intervention.

    However, Kevin is wrong – government is not needed to create the economically vital large scale transport network.

    Large scale production, and large scale distribution and retail do not need government transport intervention.

    Cities and towns might be different (private rail and other mass transit more important – road less important, and where people lived, worked and shopped influenced by this), but large scale (economies of scale) production and distribution would continue to exist.

    Indeed they would have developed better WITHOUT government intervention.

  2. I wrote a big long comment and a glitch in Opera erased it just before I posted, but that doesn’t matter because Paul has said it better anyway.

    One interesting addition (I mean, I find it interesting) is that we have a good example from the past; Roman Britain. The start of the Dark Age is heralded in the archaeological record by the vanishing of centrally produced goods such as crockery and roof tiles. Yes, the Romans bought commodity, factory goods too. They aren’t a Victorian invention. But when the trade networks collapsed, Britons rapidly reverted to eating off pieces of wood, and even just stale bread for plates.

    The interesting thing there is the disappearance of wheel turned pottery altogether. Not just mass produced, but home produced. It seems strange; potters wheels are cheap, and easy to make, and can be used in the home workshop. But they disappeared.

    The reason is that without the support of a mass market economy, people didn’t have the opportunity cost to spend on fancy stuff like wheeled pottery. And this is the basic problem with Kevin’s “DIY” economy. The market economy is efficient because we contract out most of our production to efficient, centralised specialists. I could probably make a radiator valve with the right tools, but it would take me time I need to spend on other things; so I purchase one for a trifling sum. I could perhaps learn to turn my own pottery, but that would be only one of numerous skills that I do not have the time to learn or use. By trading with millions of other people who I do not know, I become in a virtual sense the equivalent of a man with a millions skills and talents of every kind. Heck, I can strum a tune on a guitar myself. But I’d rather listen to somebody else play one who is actually good at it.

    The Dark Ages tell us what happens when the mass society reverts to localism. It continues to survive, but in a much reduced state. Transport networks are how we avoid that. They give us access to the fruits of millions of other producers. We could have had a world of utterly private railways and turnpike roads. Our ancestors did differently. Maybe we can usefully criticise them for doing that. But to move from there to criticising the roads themselves is utterly foolhardy. It is the equivalent of declaring that healthcare itself is bad because our forebears set up an NHS, or that dairy products are intrinsically illibertarian because of the Milk Marketing Board.

    • Ian, your comments about the Dark Ages are irrelevant to this debate. The end of Antiquity – c400-600 – seems to have been brought on by a demographic collapse in the Mediterranean world. The barbarian invasions, the decay of culture and of public goods, the snapping of trade links and the movement away from divided labour – these should be seen as common symptoms of the collapse. This seems, by the way, to correlate with a global cooling trend that began about 200AD and continued till about 700AD.

  3. As Dr Gabb well knows the economic decline of the Empire started long before the barbarian conquest.

    Indeed the cause and effect is the other way round – the economic decline made the Roman world weaker and weaker, thus making barbarian conquest less difficult.

    As for blaming the economic decline on global cooling (rather than the traditional reasons of rising government spending, taxes and regulations) – oh pull the other one, it has got bells on.

    By the way – there is no “debate” about large scale production and the division of labour and raw materials over great distances (which require transport).

    These things are established facts, Any effort to deny them shows,at best, ignorance of basic political economy – or, more likely, something a lot worse.

    I continue to believe that Kevin knows perfectly well that what he writes is not true (hence his practice of quoting free market writers out of context – to make it appear they held the opposite opinions to those they did hold). He is a foe and always been. That was obvious seven years ago with “Contract Feudalism”.

    Why would someone write a line such as “the “efficiencies” of mass production are illusory”? Such a line is obvious untrue (it is a blatant lie) – the only plausible reason is to discredit libertarianism by associating it with such lines.

  4. Sadly the Classical world never achieved a true industrial revolution. There was large scale transport of materials and products (and this achieved living standards higher than otherwise would have been), but the key inventions that mark the industrial world were either never achieved (I hesitate to say that X was not invented – as only a tiny fraction of classical literature survives, and who knows what strange machine may be dug up tomorrow) or were not put into large scale use.

    Britain truly was the first industrial country – this is (or should be) a point of great pride. We are the home of the industrial revolution – the first industrial society.

  5. To give one example.

    The men whose images are on the back of a 50 Pound note did more good for humanity than all the Roman Emperors put together.

  6. Sean, there are a thousand theories for what triggered the collapse of Roman greatness, from lead poisoning to military incompetence to monetary inflation to climate change to too many Jews. There’s one for everyone. The reality is that all causes are also themselves effects, and a demographic collapse for instance itself has a cause, and so on.

    Why I brought it up is that I have a rather good book on the subject which very clearly elucidates the direct correlation between civilisational and production collapse, and particular the disappearance of manufactured goofs (and indeed wheel tunred pottery).

    PAul is entirely correct that Rome never had an industrial revolution. But it did to a significant degree optimise its pre-industrial economy through trade and centralised production. As I said, Romans didn’t make their own plates. They bought them, from plate manufacturers. Archaeologists are still digging shards out of the ground that they can identify as the product of some particular producer and chart how far those producers’ wares were traded.

    So it is all relevant data. If Kevin had properly studied what he is writing about, he would know that home production and poverty are intrinsically linked, for the reasons I explained above and which are routine knowledge in economics. It may be that in a century form now we will all have nano-replicators and the game will be totally changed. But that is irrelevant to the 19th and 20th centuries, or to the 5th century, none of which economies had nano-replicators and thus could only optimise production by specialisation and trade. Subsistence farmers ate off bits of wood and stale bread because they didn’t have the time and skills to make fancy tablewares. It’s a basic thing called opportunity cost. Modernity is the interaction of millions of specialists, and abundance of goods and services requires that mass interaction. Kevin’s dream of a “localist” economy of craft workshops is a naive and foolish pipe dream. He is actually advocating mediavalist poverty. If he wants to eat a limited local diet off bits of stale bread, he is welcome to. But I doubt many others would be willing to trade their crockery and interesting, varied diet for that.

    As often pointed out, Kevin is a marxist and proud of that. He thus believes nonsense like Marx’s mode of production stuff and sees factories powered by steam engines as a conspiracy theory. The point of my talking about the Roman pre-industrial economy was to show that centralised factory production was not a consequence of steam engines, but arises naturally in an economy seeking optimal production. The Romans bought their roof tiles because it was for more efficient than trying to make their own. It’s just basic economics.

  7. Ian – Population statistics must be inferred for all ages previous to our own. But all the evidence suggests a rise in Mediterranean populations from about the birth of Christ to the arrival of what may have been typhus in the late second century. Thereafter, populations drifted downward till they stabilised around 450AD. The arrival of bubonic plague in the 540s then sent all populations in the temperate zones into free fall for the next 150 years. This correlates with the tree ring evidence for a cooling phase. Indeed, the cooler climate may easily have produced movements of flea-bearing rats that would not otherwise have happened.

    Doubtless, less predatory ruling classes would have moderated the collapse. On the other hand, most of the changes the historians write about are clearly symptoms. Lower populations do not sustain an extensive division of labour. They do not provide taxpayers and soldiers on the same scale as before. Territories are less defensible, and less worth defending against, incomers from less temperate zones. You can even account for the rise of Christianity and other comfort religions in an age when life is suddenly less secure because of disease and misgovernment and invasion.

    The Persian and Chinese Empires faced the same problems at the same time. This being so, we should look more to general causes than specific declines in the quality of government. The best available cause is the slight cooling of the planet. In the overall scheme of things, this is, of course, an effect of something else. It is, however, an event outside the scheme of our history, and is therefore a new intervening cause that none of the grand narratives can account for.

    Moving forward, there was a major volcanic eruption in Iceland in, I think, 1784. This spread a blanket of silica dust over the northern hemisphere that was observed at the time. There were several bad summers, and the winters saw many deaths from lung disorders – this may have finished off Dr Johnson. I wonder to what extent it exacerbated the financial problems of the French Monarchy? Since we know what happened at the end of the decade, we may have another cause independent of the usual narratives.

    You can push all causal explanations too far. Even so, variations in solar output should be taken into account in the writing of history.

  8. Sean, I’m not disagreeing with any of that. I myself though less educated on the matter than you am fascinated by the subject. But with all due respect, this is missing the point of what I said, which can be boiled down to the absence of wheel turned pottery. A population which is large or small can both make a potter’s wheel and use it. It is not a vastly complex item of machinery. But they were not used in post-Roman Britain. Romans got their pottery from centralised specialist manufacturers. They did so because it is a good way to ensure high quality, standardised goods rather than relying on Cousin Eric’s amateur attempts in his home workshop. To quote-

    “Three features of Roman pottery are remakrable, and not found again for many centuries in the West; its excellent quality and considerable standardisation; the massive quantities in which it was produced, and its widespread diffusion, not only geographically (sometimes being transported many hundreds of miles) but also socially (so that it reached not just, the rich but also the poor). In the areas of the Roman world that I know best, central and northern Italy, after te end of the Roman world, this level of sophistication is not seen again until perhaps the 14th century, some 800 years later”.


    “Most Roman pottery is light and smooth to the touch, and very tough although, like all pottery, it shatters if dropped on a hard surface. It is generally made with carefully selected and purified clay, worked to thin walled and standardised shapes on a fast wheel, and fired in kilns capable of a consistent finish. With handmade pottery, inevitably there are slight differences between individual vessels of the same desigin, and occasional minor blemishes. But what strikes the eye and the touch most immediately and most powerfully with Roman pottery is its consistently high quality.”


    “A fragment of a Roman pot can very often be matched […] to a specific production site at a particular moment in time. […] For instance, a fragment of pottery discovered on the island of Iona off the Scottish mainland can, despite the apparent implausibility of the link, be attributed to a sixth century date and a production site thousands of miles away by Sea, in modern Tunisia”.

    And this is the thing. Kevin is against trade networks. He’s not just against modern industrial roads and railways. He’s trying to drag us to a lower level even than antiquity, apparently purely to avoid his hated capitalists making a few per cent profit on selling a nicely made fruit bowl made in their factory. And to do that, he has to deprecate the roads. Not even just the modern freeways and Autobahns. Kevin has to get rid of Watling Street and the Roman ones too. Because every road, however old, however rough, allows someone in one place to produce a product and sell it to someone else in another place, and that destroys Kevin’s beloved local communal production, so we can’t be having that.

    So, we tear up the roads, close the railways, dam the canals and rivers and, presumably, ban anyone from owning a cart in case they use it to transport trade goods beyond the village collective. Of course, this means that we can’t rush anyone to a hospital if they are taken ill, but I’m sure women with birth complications, heart attack victims and some stout yeoman who’s accidentally chopped off their hand with a workshop-made arty crafty axe will be happy to be bumped across the fields on a stretcher. After all, any price is worth paying to ensure that the proles don’t get to eat off capitalist crockery.

    • Two points of reply:

      1. When a population declines by about half, there may be a shortage of people with the specific skills to maintain high levels of workmanship. Also, the survivors will need to devote more of their available time to growing food. In these cases, transport infrastructure will necessarily decay. There will be fewer people to maintain it, and fewer trading opportunities to make it worth maintaining. This decay will then become a cause in itself of lower sophistication.

      2. You are still missing Kevin’s point, which is not against infrastructure per se, but subsidised infrastructure. Even in this country, which was less statist than most European countries, the railways were built with the help of compulsory purchase laws and incorporation laws that did much to externalise costs. The Carson argument is that, without these and other subsidies, alternative patterns of trade and transportation would have emerged, and that these would have been less centralised than what we actually have. You are welcome to take the conventional view, that subsidising transport infrastructure is a legitimate function of the State, and that such interventions produce large positive externalities. This may be a correct view. Holding it, however, puts you at variance not only with Kevin, but with many other libertarians.

      Let me give you this argument. Suppose the British and French States were to build a bridge across the Channel big enough to continue the M2 and M20 as a three lane dual carriageway. There would be substantial benefits. For the first time, the British and French motorway networks could be fully integrated. Long distance trade would flourish – Birmingham to Lille would become as easy as London to Bristol. The two Channel shores would become a single economic region divided only by language. The problem would be the opportunity costs, or what Bastiat called the difference between what is seen and what is not seen. Perhaps the two governments here might see real benefits not visible to private businessmen. More likely, prosperity in Kent would be at the expense of depression in Cumberland, and the growth of Birmingham’s long distance trade would crowd out other kinds of enterprise. You wouldn’t be some kind of Luddite to say this.

  9. Sorry, I lost the thread somewhat on the potters’ wheels. The point being that prior to collapse, the Romans bought their bowls and, after the collapse, the post-Romans didn’t have the time in their harsh subsistence economy to make their own. Hence, they used bits of wood and stale bread, which was all, in productive terms, they could afford.

  10. What Sean Gabb is saying is simply untrue – and matches the untrue (blatantly untrue) defence he has presented of Kevin for some years.

    Kevin is quite clear in stating that he regards the benefits of mass production and large scale transportation as “illusions”.

    Two possibilities are present at this point.

    Either Kevin sincerely believes what he is saying – in which case he is a lunatic.


    Kevin does not believe the things he has (repeatedly) said – in which case he is a liar.

    I believe the latter possibility is the correct one.

    The same is true of the whole series of other things that make up (for want of a better word) “Kevinism”.

    Either Kevin believes the various utterly absurd things he has (repeatedly) wrote over the years – in which case he is a lunatic.

    Or he does not believe them – in which case he is a liar.

    And Sean Gabb’s repeated defence (on all sorts of matters) that “Kevin does not really mean……” or “Kevin is not really saying…….” is just silly. An example of Sean’s desire to take the “naughty” side (whether it is attacking Winston Churchill or anything else).

    As for the decline of the Roman world……….

    To disregard the effects of human choice is an error. For example, the increase in government spending under Septimius Severus mostly on higher pay for the soldiers – money the Empire could not afford. Or the transformation of the government under Diocletian, not “just” what may well have been a doubling of government spending, but the massive expansion of state factories, general price controls, and an effort to tie peasants to the land reducing citizens to the level of serfs.

    We could also discuss the effects of the Civil Wars – also the result of human CHOICES.

    We could also discuss the contrast of the pre Imperial period Roman world when the mark of a free man was their right (indeed duty) to keep and bare arms, with the Imperial period where (starting with Augustus) ordinary citizens keeping and training with weapons was actively discouraged.

    Indeed the only time I have praised Islam was when I (on Counting Cats) wrote a brief post accepting the truth that the Muslims recaptured the basic truth of the pre Empire Classical World – that the mark of a free man is the ownership and use of military weapons (“everybody fights”), This principle enabled a relatively small number of Muslims to take over much larger populations of citizens of the Byzantine and Persian Empires.

    Because, both in the Roman world and the Persian world, military life had been reduced to the level of a special group of people – with the mass of the population being reduced to a passive state, not really “citizens” at all.

    A similar point could be made about the culture of the Germanic barbarian tribes in the West. When the economy of the Empire declined (due to rising statism) the military caste (eventually) could not be paid for – and the civilian population had been (in terms of the real nature of citizenship) castrated for centuries. The Germanic barbarians were new masters for an essentially servile (disarmed) population.

    Instead we get plague (“typhus”) and “global cooling” presented as the main reasons for decline. At least we are spared the line that expanding forests caused the global cooling. Why did forests expand? “Because the Empire was in decline” – a little problem with cause-and-effect there (with the real causes for the decline of the Roman world pushed out of the picture).

    Determinism, determinism, determinism.

    Humans reduced to unimportant actors whose antics are a matter or soap opera or novels – but not the real cause of major changes in the world.

    I am reminded of Sean’s claim that World War One was caused by “demographic” pressures.

    Again a denial of human agency (of human choice – real choices) – in favour of some deterministic cause.

    However, I doubt that Sean means any of this seriously – it is, like his defence of Kevin (year after year), an example of his “naughtiness”,

  11. Quite so Ian.

    In the east of what is now England one can find examples of pottery from what used to be called “the early Dark Ages” (the term “Dark Ages” is now out of fashion – but for no good reason). But in Wales and so on, pottery stops for a long time.

    This is because in the Roman world pottery was made in large factories (as were other things) – yes Mr Wedgewood might not have been wildly impressed by some of the technology (although we do not know for sure……), but there was large scale production of pottery and other goods.

    The barbarians made such things as pottery at the village level – so the collapse of civilisation (and I think we can call it that) did not prevent them having pottery – although of an inferior sort compared to what the Romans had made and used.

    Another example might be weaponry.

    In the late Roman world (after Diocletian) arms and armour were made in state arms factories – the quality seems to have declined (unless people developed square heads – but that would not explain the inferior shields), but a lot of weapons and armour continued to be made.

    And then, when the state arms factories were overrun or stopped operating for other reasons, it did not get made – and the weapons and armour that was not made did not get transported.

    Yet the barbarian tribes (the Saxons, the Angles and so on) still had village blacksmiths experienced in making helmets, swords and so on.

    So it may not just have been in pottery that the barbarians had technological edge over the “Citizens” (as the Welsh traditionally called themselves). At least for a while (and it may have been a critical time).

    Although (I accept) Sean could come back and point out the worse effects of plague in the west of this island compared to the east of it.

    The Romano British still seem to have maintained some trade links (although much reduced) with the late Roman (Byzantine) world – the Anglo Saxons much less so.

    This may have meant that the great plague that marked the end of Justinian’s time hit the Britons worse than it hit the Angles, Saxons and so on.

    There – that was nice of me.

  12. By the way I have a theory as to why Sean downplays the role of the bad choices (the transformation of the Roman world) of Diocletian.

    It might be called the “Gibbon” theory to explain Sean’s position. Sean does seem to have been influenced by Gibbon – and not just in writing style. For example Sean is (or was) an atheist – of the polite 18th century sort (the vast majority of 18th century thinkers were not actually atheists at all – but their thought has, mostly, gone down the “Memory Hole”).

    Gibbon seems to downplay the effect (especially the long term effect)s of the choices of Diocletian – because Christian writers had traditionally played it up.

    Gibbon disliked Christians (indeed he appears to have despised them- in a polite late 18th century way – the horrors of the French Revolution had not hit when Gibbon was writing) – so he had a bias against their interpretation of some things. And, yes, Gibbon could present a good case against many Christians (although not all) – on grounds of their superstition and their contempt for science. But Gibbon seems to have had a very starry eyed view of what non Christian societies were and are like – perhaps because he had never in his life seen a non Christian society (so only the flaws of the Christians were present before him) – the mass throwing of murdered babies on rubbish heaps (by their own families) is not something that Gibbon had ever seen.

    Gibbon even defends Mohammed and Islam – not because he was a closet Muslim (that theory is as absurd as the idea that Comrade Barack is a secret Muslim) – but because Christian Europe had been in conflict with Islam for over a thousand years, so as Christian Europe was boo-hiss the other side could not be that bad……

    One can see a far more extreme attitude with the wildly popular modern intellectual Edward Said (who has recently died) – Mr Said was not a Muslim, he just hated (fanatically hated) the West (an its evil “Orientalism” which he did a Kevin on. i.e. he reversed the meaning of the term. – in reality “Orientalists” were Western scholars who RESPECTED Eastern cultures, but Said reverses this truth)..

    In people like Said we see the link between the extreme left and the Islamic world (which is otherwise baffling) – the link is a simple one, hatred of the West. and it trumps any differences on “the rights of women” or “Gay rights” or anything else.

    With Gibbon things are vastly more mild.

    Gibbon (unlike the modern university crowd) was not in favour of the sort of thing one sees with the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution – such things were not part of his mental universe.

    When Gibbon thinks of non Christian rule he seems to assume it would be like having David Hume in charge.

    After all I accept that Constantine and Justinian were terrible rulers (people who, on balance, did great harm) – and that someone like David Hume would have been a much better.

    Rather than having hot tempered and passionate people in charge – people who see the world as essentially a struggle between good and evil, with the agents of evil everywhere (lurking behind the attractive smiles of the seemingly innocent). The Christian, even those who theologically oppose the use of force in religious matters, is a natural inquisitor (after all an inquisitor is someone who holds ideas to be deadly serious matters – not just matters of polite after dinner discussion).

    The same is true in Jewish culture – it is no accident that both a disproportionate number of people of Jewish origin have been Communists and also successful HUNTERS of Communists. Being wildly over represented in terms of both Cong and successful Cong hunters is quite natural for people who take ideas serous – i.e. hold that the mark of taking an idea seriously is being prepared to KILL for it. Something I do not see David Hume or Gibbon doing – which means (in the end) they are not serious people – at least from this point of view.

    But Cong hunters (or whatever name one chooses to use) have their place – it is also no accident that most of the aggressive theological orders (aggressive at least in their way of intellectual life – they did not tend to burn people, contrary to what it often claimed the great burners were the Spanish Inquisition and they were an arm of the STATE and the motivation was part racial and part financial – not really intellectual) such as the Jesuit Order (a very different thing to what it is now) were abolished in France (an elsewhere) some years before the Revolution.

    The intellectual attackers no longer faced intellectual defenders – they faced people who did not really take ideas seriously (in the sense of being prepared to slit throats or have their own throats slit in what was, centuries later, called the grim, savage “twilight struggle with the totalitarians” fought out in the back streets of the cities of the world). Meeting no serious opposition and being well funded (by the Duke of Orleans and others) the victory of the Revolutionaries was only a matter of time.

    What of me?

    I am semi Pelagian heretic (someone in opposition to the ideas of Augustine – a central figure in the history of Christianity) – the sort of person who would have been burned alive in the Middle Ages.

    However, I recognise and value the type of mind that holds ideas to be important (more important than one’s own life and death) – rather than as a matter of polite after dinner conversation. That is why I respect Islamists, Marxists and Randian Objectivists – because they all take their beliefs seriously, And I respect that – even when I do not agree with them. Rather than the people who hold thought to be a matter of after dinner debating points. No “well King Antiochus may not really be a God – but let us worship as if he was one, after all only those silly reactionary Maccabees object to this, they just do not understand that certain myths are necessary for social progress…..”,

    I hate that sort of game playing. A person should say what they mean – and be prepared to die for it. No “well if I say such and such I will win certain people over to our side…..”.

    Bugger that.

    Yes it is true that some people who took ideas seriously did terrible harm – and, yes, Constantine (with his transformation of the Roman army into a personal bodyguard sitting with him the capital – with only inferior forces on the borders) and Justinian (with his near bankrupting of the Eastern Empire to finance his desires) are two examples of such rulers. However, the way to oppose such people is not to treat ideas as games.

    Statist rulers (and collectivist Revolutionaries) can only be defeated (in the long term) by treating ideas seriously – very seriously indeed.

  13. In the defence of the Saxons (and the……)

    I think Ian is missing something here.

    The Saxons (whatever their other faults) were not really practicing Kevinism.

    This is because Kevin has made it clear (most recently in a post on this very site) that Kevinism is a lot more radical than just a village based economy with someone buying their helmet (and so on) from the local blacksmith.

    Under Kevinism a SINGLE SOURCE of all major things would exist in the local community (he said the “Invisible Hand” would result in this – because he wished to spit on the grave of Adam Smith).

    That is not how a Saxon village operated – in a Saxon (and other Germanic) village, different people offered different goods and services (and were subject to competition on price and quality of goods – which is why the Pagan Saxons, like the Christian Bavarians, rejected the price controls of Charles the Great of the Franks – who was trying to restore something like the extreme late Roman Empire in terms of economic policy).

    If someone had gone to the council of elders of a Saxon village (normally, I am told, 12 men) and said “you should organise the economy – telling everyone what goods to produce and how they should produce them” they would have rejected such advice and stark, staring mad.

  14. I didn’t say they were practising Kevinism. The point I was making was that Romans had more goods and services thanks to well developed trade networks and transport links, and when those collapsed, local production couldn’t produce anything like the same quantity and quality of production.

    Regarding Sean’s “he isn’t really saying that” apologetics, we’ve been over it a thousand times in other threads. Sean has read and indeed reviewed Organsation Theory and Carson’s other writings and knows full well what Carson is promoting, and it is quite plainly, persistently and passionately against all forms of mass production and trade, and in favour of localised communist and home production methods.

    In general, if a person cannot defend some other person on the basis of what that person says, but by pretending that they haven’t said it, that is a pretty clear indicator that they know that said opinions are indefensible.

  15. I apologise for my error Ian.

    And, on the rest of the post, – well yes.

  16. I should have said “on the rest of the comment – well yes”.

  17. Ian, I am at the moment less concerned to defend Kevin Carson than an opinion that I hold about the distorting effect of subsidies to transport infrastructure. Let us leave aside whether what I am saying is genuine Carsonism. Let us instead take these six propositions:

    1. For the past few hundred years, the British State, among others, has been subsiding road and rail and more recently air transport. These subsidies take the form of direct building, or of financial subsidy, or of compulsory purchase and incorporation laws that externalise many of the private costs of construction and maintenance and use. Then there is the control of sea routes and military interventions to open foreign markets. We also have national and global networks for the transport of gas and electricity

    2. These subsidies have encouraged more centralised production and more long distance trade than might otherwise have existed. For example, we currently import apples from Turkey and even China that are sold for lower prices than apples grown in Kent and Somerset. Many of my books are printed in China. We appear to have patterns of comparative advantage that make sense only on the basis of long term systematic cost externalisations.

    3. If there had been no infrastructure subsidies, it is highly likely that there would now be infrastructure – but it would be a different sort of infrastructure. Full internalisation of business costs might have led to the emergence of smaller and more decentralised patterns of production and trade. It may be that ending the current subsidies now would allow such patterns to emerge.

    4. It is arguable that these patterns would be preferable to what we actually have. What we have is a system underwritten by armed force and beyond the understanding and control of ordinary people. It encourages intellectual passivity and obedience. Without it, there might be fewer wars. There might be more cultural and regional diversity, and more tolerance – either principled or simply effective. Fewer economies of scale might be balanced by other efficiencies. We might miss out on some good material things that we now But we might have many other material things in their place.

    5. It may be that state interventions of this kind produce large positive externalities, in the same way as national defence does, and that we are living in something reasonably close to the best of possible worlds – and that improvement would simply be a matter of lower taxes and less regulation. It is not unlibertarian to argue this, as libertarianism is not a species of anarchism: instead, anarchism is only a species of libertarianism. However, if you insist that the existing patterns of production and trade are a good thing, you should accept that they are a state construct, and be prepared to defend them on those grounds.

    6. I think it is worth arguing for the fullest possible separation of State and business, and to explore the possible alternatives that would emerge if this were to happen.

    All this I take from the writings of Kevin Carson. It is possible that I have misread him, and that he really does believe that we should all be forced to make fires by rubbing sticks together. But let us leave that argument aside, and consider the validity of the numbered points. They are separable from Kevin Carson and from whatever else he may believe.

    As for Paul’s comments on the ancient world, they are worthless even where not irrelevant. I cannot be bothered to reply to them, except with an argumentum ad auctoritatem. I am an acknowledged expert on the world of Late Antiquity. I know the two main languages, and have read all the more accessible primary sources. I have read deeply in the secondary scholarship of the past four centuries. If I make a statement of fact, or suggest an hypothesis, I am not regurgitating some dubious claim made by an American neoconservative.

    Paul is welcome to comment as he pleases on this Blog. For all manner of reasons, he is part of the Libertarian Alliance family. That does not oblige me, however, to spend time on debating with him – especially over matters of which he knows hardly anything.

  18. As Sean knows perfectly well …… if there had not been transport subsidies large scale transport links would still have been built – they might have been different in type (more rail and mass transit – less road), but they would still exist. Railways do not NEED government taking of land – any more than canal networks do. Although (yes indeed) if artificially cheap land is offered it will be bought – but if the land is not artificially cheap it will still be bought (or alternative routes will be used – for example when the landowners of Stamford blocked what is now the East Coast Mainline, the railway went via Peterborough instead – where they were more welcome).

    Large scale production, distribution and RETAIL (oh horror of horrors – Tesco and Walmart) would still exist. Even if people lived nearer to railway stations – rather than to major roads. And major roads can be privately financed also.

    There is nothing to “debate” about.

    The promise of Kevin that large scale “capitalist” production, distribution and exchange would not exist without state intervention is a lie – nothing more. And his claim that economies of scale (and so on) are an “illiusion” is another lie – nothing more.

    By the way, as I have often pointed out, the existence of large retail outlets do not prevent the existence of corner ships.

    There are two large supermarkets within a few minutes walk of me (and three other supermarkets in the town – Tesco, Aldi, Morrisons, and Sainsburys are all represented, and I think there are other chains represented also) – this does not prevent the existence of several corner shops also within a short walk of me.

    None of the above should be taken to mean that I think that government grants (or government “loans”) to build roads are a good idea – I do not.

  19. This is not to say that a lot of small business enterprises have not been destroyed by state action – they have been.

    But transport subsidies are not the method – transport links (or one form or another) would have been built anyway (which means there is no real case for the subsidies – even from a pro transport point of view).

    The method that a lot of small business enterprises have been destroyed is REGULATION.

    The mind numbingly boring regulations that Christopher Booker (with his friend Richard North) have been examining for decades.

    Often it is not even deliberate – it is just that a large operation has a legal department (and so on) and so on, and can deal (to some extent) with all this sh**

    A small enterprise just can not deal with it – they lose the will to live.

    Certainly large enterprises would be the main thing in most industries – that was true even in the 19th century (before regulations were very important).

    But small specialist butchers (owned by local farmers – who also owned specialist slaughter houses) and so on would have survived better than they have done – had not the tidal wave of regulations not hit.

    Even Corporations are not what they were.

    I noticed that Spectator magazine reported last week something I have been “banging on about” for years.

    When I was born INDIVIUALS (British individuals) still owned a majority of shares in British companies.

    What percentage do they own now?


    A situation where British individuals own a majority of shares and a situation where they own 11% are fundamentally different (and overseas individuals own very little – if you are asking that).

    This (what we have now) is a fundamentally different economic system – how was it created? This system where hired managers are responsible to other hired managers (with no OWNERS in the picture).

    Tax law (favouring institutional investors over individuals) and TIME.

    Inheritance Tax (“Death Duties”) and Capital Gains Tax – not just the graduated Income Tax.