As federal spending explodes to unimaginable levels, limited government conservatives find ourselves repeating the need for sober debate about the proper role of bureaucracy in citizens’ lives, arguing for as little as possible (particularly at the federal level) in order to maximize individual liberty. Of course, even committed libertarians recognize that government can play a role in the handful of tasks that benefit the whole, not just a few parochial interests.
The calling for conservatives, therefore, is to: (a) identify the tasks that fit that definition, and (b) keep that list as short as possible.
For many, government should be limited to the safety and security of the citizenry: providing for the common defense against foreign invaders, protecting the populace from criminal behavior through local police forces, and ensuring justice through an unbiased public court system. These are among the tenets espoused by Adam Smith, whose The Wealth of Nations (published in 1776) coincided with the birth of our own republic.
Regarding infrastructure, Smith believed that non-users should not have their taxes confiscated for a purpose that was not purely universal. He favored user fees and, if government involvement was necessary, decentralization to the lowest practical level. But he also recognized the economies of scale for a dedicated group to contribute the costs of building a road or bridge, rather than expecting individuals to pay exorbitantly to build their respective sections of thoroughfare.
Public choice economics involves the distribution of taxpayer resources so that costs are dispersed over a large group, even though benefits are concentrated (in this case, the users of the highway or bridge).
Liberals use the model to demand a plethora of government programs targeted at a few special interests, but conservatives can more genuinely justify “concentrated benefits, dispersed costs” by maximizing the universe of beneficiaries as is the case with the United States Armed Forces (everyone benefits from the blanket of security provided by our military). It also applies to infrastructure benefiting the nation generally.
Enter the twentieth century. In 1919, a young Army officer named Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower led a military convoy from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. Due to America’s roads’ overall abysmal condition, the 3,251-mile trek took 62 days to complete, sometimes averaging only 5 miles per hour.
Fast forward to World War II. As Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower had marveled at the efficiency of Germany’s autobahns, particularly for strategic purposes such as military mobilization. When the retired general became president in 1953, he prioritized the improvement of U.S. highways; hence, we now enjoy the benefit of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
Not since the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 had infrastructure been connected in such a transformational way. Ike’s highway system streamlined commerce and logistics nationwide, further fueling America’s emergence as a global power.
Which brings me to another Ike. In September 2008, the 14th congressional district of Texas was slammed by Hurricane Ike, along a track similar to the deadly 1900 Galveston Hurricane, costing lives and resulting in billions of dollars in damage. In August 2017, we were struck again, this time by the even more catastrophic Hurricane Harvey.
The damage from both storms could have been greatly mitigated by a barrier system known as the Coastal Spine. Since the 2008 storm, this initiative has been nicknamed the Ike Dike. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working closely with the Texas General Land Office to study the feasibility of a “multiple lines of defense” system along the Texas coast. An innovative component includes movable “flood gates,” reminiscent of those in the Netherlands, at the entrance of Galveston Bay.
My district includes five ports—more than any other Member of Congress—and all or part of Brazoria, Galveston, and Jefferson counties (essentially, the suburban areas south of Houston and the Beaumont-Port Arthur metro area). Our region has a history of violent storms, but the desire for a comprehensive mitigation project is not just a parochial one.
Texas—and I contend, America—cannot wait much longer. The effects of the next devastating storm would be felt nationwide. Given our region’s outsized role in the nation’s fuel supply and vital petrochemical industry, the sizable price tag (some $30 billion) should be weighed in the context of energy disruption nationally.
The 2021 hurricane season begins in less than four months, and all Americans should be concerned. For non-Texans to balk at the Ike Dike’s sticker price might be pennywise, but it would also be pound foolish.
• U.S. Representative Randy K. Weber, Texas Republican, serves as the Ranking Member of the Energy Subcommittee on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. He is also a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he serves on Water Resources and Environment, Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, as well as Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittees. He is a small business owner and third generation Texan representing the 14th congressional district of Texas.
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