Posts tagged with: roads

Pundits and politicians have been having a field day with President Obama’s speech given in Roanoke, Virginia, last Friday. The quote providing the most fodder is the president’s assertion, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” (Here are a couple recent examples from Paul Ryan and Larry Kudlow.)

This has been widely understood to mean that the president is saying that if you have a business, you didn’t build it…and certainly not on your own. Earlier this week I pointed out a way of granting that there is some broader truth in the president’s remarks, even if they betray his own largely statist political assumptions.

But what if the “that” in “you didn’t build that” doesn’t refer to the business directly at all? What if instead it refers to the “roads and bridges” the president had just mentioned? Check out the video and decide for yourself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vz59sXwgoYQ

Still not sure what the “that” refers to? Watch it again. I think the video conveys something the text on its own doesn’t.

The case may not be airtight, but the most natural (and certainly the most charitable) understanding of the “that” in “you didn’t build that” is in reference to the roads and bridges, not the businesses.

Why does this matter? For starters, as Christians its important that we do justice to our responsibilities as expressed in the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor,” or more commonly simply, “Do not lie.” As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, one of the positive obligations arising out of this commandment is that I am to “love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it,” as well as to “do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.”

I realize that latter duty in particular is often difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill in the context of political campaigning. But if the president didn’t really assert that business people didn’t build their businesses, then it’s wrong to construe his words as if that’s what he meant.

This leads to another reason that it’s important to deal with what the president actually said: many of his own assertions are problematic enough without being turned into something they aren’t. The real problem is that the president simply dichotomizes between market and state, leaving no real room for the institutions of civil society. The real problem is that the president conflates “community” with the “government.”

Charles Krauthammer gets it right: the president’s assertion is about the relationship of infrastructure (and thereby government) to economic growth, not about entrepreneurship as such. The president is attempting to make the case for infrastructure spending, something he’s been keen on for quite some time (remember all those “shovel-ready” jobs?). But as Krauthammer writes:

Obama’s infrastructure argument is easily refuted by what is essentially a controlled social experiment. Roads and schools are the constant. What’s variable is the energy, enterprise, risk-taking, hard work, and genius of the individual. It is therefore precisely those individual characteristics, not the communal utilities, that account for the different outcomes.

The ultimate Obama fallacy, however, is the conceit that belief in the value of infrastructure — and willingness to invest in its creation and maintenance — is what divides liberals from conservatives.

Conservatives do themselves and their cause a disservice when they react so vociferously to a straw man, or to an assertion that was never really made, and thereby miss engagement of the position that is really held.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Wired magazine had a lengthy feature in 2004 on a new brand of transit design, specifically the kind that eschews signage and barriers, preferring instead more subtle signals.

In “Roads Gone Wild,” Tom McNichol profiles Hans Monderman (now deceased), “a traffic engineer who hates traffic signs.”

Monderman’s point of departure is that human interaction (e.g. gestures, eye contact) are preferable to explicit signage or signals that indirectly excuse us from conscious concern about our fellow travelers. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

Monderman's Drachten Intersection

Drachten's busiest intersection after Hans Monderman.


Monderman’s design philosophy is to embrace chaos, and it’s effective because it allows for a kind of spontaneous ordering to occur. As McNichol writes, “The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.” It is counterintuitive, but it is in accord with what we know about human nature.

Human beings, when faced with danger, instinctively and naturally slow down and assess the threats with heightened sense and attention. Indeed, self-preservation is a constitutive element in the natural law.

There is still an element of planning in Monderman’s designs, but what is remarkable about them is that they embrace what we know about human beings in toto and not for the purposes of some engineered abstraction (such as homo automobilus or some such).

The kind of planning that allows for free and spontaneous interaction and creates space in which this can happen within the larger framework of the rule of law, in markets as well as traffic intersections, end up being the best because they account for the complexities of human nature. The kind of planning that relies on rigid rules and regulatory edifices, whether on Wall Street or surface streets, tend to incentivize the objectification of human interaction, in which we treat each other as simple means, obstacles, impediments, or resources to be plundered.

Recognition of the other as having dignity, as well as the corresponding power to do us good or ill and their own responsibility to act accordingly, is constitutive of a superior design approach.

This kind of approach works, as I’ve said, because we instinctively recognize the worth of other human beings. The same reason that a bus filled with people must wait for a single person to cross an intersection is the same reason that the rule of law must limit majority rule, or absolute democracy. The rights of the individual must be respected, even when the majority must otherwise wait or acquiesce. A bus full of people on their way to a destination must often first wait for a single individual to go on their way.

In political economy, as Lord Acton writes, “The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.” And in traffic economy, the true natural check on absolute democracy might well be the spontaneous order arising out of a seemingly chaotic intersection.