807Thomas Power and Adam Smith
- Mar 30, 2008
From: Simon Norton <S.Norton@...>
In answer to Robert Bartlett and Gabriel Roth, I don't think there is any
alternative to a free market approach, but there needs to be careful
consideration of how it is applied.
I regard Adam Smith as a progressive economist, and ideas of the UK organisation
called the Adam Smith Institute as a perversion of his teachings.
If road pricing was really regarded by the rich as in their interests, I believe
it would have happened long ago. In some circles of the rich kudos is gained by
eliminating, as far as possible, one's financial contribution to society. Better
to sit in a traffic jam than to pay money which can be used to improve transport
for ordinary people. After all, if their journey is really urgent they can
always use a private aircraft.
One of the perversions of the free market philosophy is free trade
fundamentalism. Many economists have recognised that the theory of comparative
advantage breaks down when capital and labour are both mobile. It is this that
has pushed many so called "developing" countries into poverty. In addition, and
more relevant to transport planning, it has undermined efforts to internalise
external costs, either because of regulations introduced to guard against
protectionism in disguise, or because of fears that it would lead to an exodus
Transport policy needs to be based on two questions:
1. How much roadspace should be allowed for private motoring ?
2. How should motoring be regulated to minimise its impact on the environment ?
These questions are not independent, but I believe that any attempt to solve
transport problems solely through question 2 is doomed to failure. In recent
months I have several times been told that pedestrians, cyclists and bus users
must be denied the priorities they need because to provide them would lead to
My own answer to question 1 is "as little as possible". I have long been arguing
for a study to establish how much motoring really is essential to the
functioning of a city. Even before it became apparent that the developed world
needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 80% to have a hope of keeping
climate change under control, I hoped that the answer would be low enough to
make walking, cycling and travelling by bus into really attractive ways of
getting around -- and to eliminate congestion.
I am not a free market fundamentalist to the point that I believe that that
answer to 1 can be implemented through the pricing mechanism alone, but neither
do I believe that we can afford to ignore it.
Let us remember, the cost of congestion isn't just drivers sitting in jams. It's
the time spent by the people they are supposed to be meeting with waiting for
them to turn up. It's the time people waste allowing for jams which may or may
not materialise, whether they are travelling by car or bus. It's the time people
spend waiting for the next bus or train having missed the one they are aiming
for. And it's the time pedestrians, cyclists and bus users spend waiting for
gaps in the traffic.
If it is at all possible to run a city without congestion, let's adapt one of
our existing cities (or build a new one) in this way, and when people flock to
it in search of a better life let's adapt and build more of them to meet demand.
That's the free market, isn't it ?
Finally, Gabriel is right to say that so called "market pricing" can be a cover
for legalised extortion. In the UK peak pricing of rail travel, which also
affects trains that run at peak times but are practically empty (e.g. because
they are running against the direction of flow), is a case in point. If public
transport users have to put up with extortion, why should motorists be spared ?