Reading Comprehension With Lowry and Ponnuru

Via Matthew Schmitz, the Ponnuru & Lowry response to critics of their assertion that mass transit is a foreign and socialistic infringement of liberty:

Many, many blog posts have been written about two words in this passage: “The Left’s search for a foreign template to graft onto America grew more desperate. Why couldn’t we be more like them — like the French, like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society? You can see it in Sicko, wherein Michael Moore extols the British national health-care system, the French way of life, and even the munificence of Cuba; you can hear it in all the admonitions from left-wing commentators that every other advanced society has government child care, or gun control, or mass transit, or whatever socialistic program or other infringement on our liberty we have had the wisdom to reject for decades.” The two words are “mass transit.” Contrary to our least literate critics, nothing in that passage suggests that we consider subways an infringement on our liberty. Nor does it mean that we are skeptical of mass-transit subsidies because the policy strikes us as European. It means something closer to the opposite: that we suspect that much of the enthusiasm for these subsidies among liberals is based on mass transit’s association with Europe.

What on earth could they mean when they say that “nothing in that passage suggests that we consider subways an infringement on our liberty”? Of course something in that passage suggests that they consider subways an infringement on our liberty. Subways are a form of mass transit. And “mass transit” appears on a list of items that are said to be “socialistic program[s] or other infringement[s] on our liberty.” It’s quite a bit more than a suggestion!

Meanwhile, I note that mass transit unquestionably is a socialistic program, as are highways and bridges and tunnels generally. In principle you could have road or rail infrastructure funded entirely by the private sector, but in practice no country operates in this manner. A problem for Ponnuru & Lowry, I take is, is that not only did they write that mass transit is a socialistic infringement on liberty but they, like most conservatives, seem to want to use “socialistic program” in such a way that for a program to be socialistic it’s necessarily an infringement on liberty. No sensible person, however, regards the provision of transportation infrastructure as a infringement on liberty.


We modern liberals appreciate the virtues of a mixed economy in which most goods and services are provided by the private sector but also the wisdom of a certain amount of socialism — with transportation infrastructure being an excellent candidate for public sector provision, though I think more use of market rate pricing for congested roads and scarce parking spaces would be an improvement over the status quo.