This is not the most original post idea I’ve ever had, but this post by Matt Yglesias got me thinking, and I decided to just write it all down.
The basic argument is about the US Postal Service. This comes up all the time, as they go more and more broke, and I actually used to be on the other side. That is, I thought universal mail delivery was precisely the kind of thing that the private sector can’t or won’t provide, which created an opening – or even a necessary role – for the federal government. Yglesias’ argument is basically, sure, maybe that’s important, but it needs to be argued (rather than simply asserted) that universal delivery is an important goal.
Like I said, I have actually changed my position on this topic. At some point, I realized that I’m a pretty dedicated urbanist. My natural aesthetic preference is for people to live in cities, so my natural reaction to arguments about the USPS should be opposed to universal delivery. What difference does it make to me if people in rural places can’t get mail (easily)? Frankly, universal flat rate service to the hinterlands serves only to encourage people to keep living in the hinterlands. I don’t want that, as a matter of aesthetics, so why should I want government policy that encourages it?
Of course, as Yglesias would point out, this is really just the tip of the iceberg. The US has any number of policies, at both the federal and local levels, that encourage non-urban living. There’s the mortgage interest tax deduction that incentivizes larger houses (which are necessarily located away from cities where you can actually build a larger house), urban building height restrictions like those in my own DC homeland, mandatory parking minimums for new construction, zoning rules, the food truck wars, highway subsidies. Probably even agriculture subsidies, for all I know.
The point is, there is a vast network of subsidies and regulations that make rural life more economically attractive than it otherwise would be. And, as far as I can tell, all of these subsidies are built around nothing more than the exact opposite of my own aesthetic preference – i.e., that there is something beautiful or noble about living “out there”. Call it the American frontier spirit, I guess.
Anyway, I’m not really building to a grand conclusion here. I just think all of this policy is massively inefficient. Granted, there are policy options I favor that would encourage urban living – congestion pricing or highway tolls, gas taxes, increased emphasis on mixed-use development, mass transit subsidies, etc. Some of these I’m willing to argue on their economic or philosophical merits: Pigovian taxes correctly (or better) price externalities, it isn’t the state’s job to micro-manage land use. Others are substantially more aesthetic: mass transit has environmental and certain other health benefits, but mostly I just think driving everywhere is silly.
I know a lot of the Ordinary Gents around here are far, far less reflexively urban than I am, so I’m interested to hear some thoughts from them.