The Bridges of Hennepin (and Every Other) County

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Last week, a bridge on Interstate 35W in Hennepin County, Minnesota collapsed, killing five people, with at least eight more missing at this writing. "For more than a decade the state of Minnesota has known of problems with the metal holding up the Interstate 35W bridge," according to Minneapolis CBS news channel WCCO. Around the nation, 75,000 other bridges have similar problems, and "are rated structurally deficient like the span that collapsed in Minneapolis," according to The Cleveland Plain Dealer -- which also informs us that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates a repair bill of at least $188 billion dollars for these bridges.

It isn't only bridges that are deteriorating: roads generally, the electrical grid, oil pipelines, sewer and water lines, levees, and other basic infrastructure in the United States has been largely neglected for many years. You've seen the stories. Less than a month ago (July 19, 2007), an underground steam pipe exploded beneath a Manhattan street, killing at least one person and creating what looked like a war zone near Grand Central Terminal.

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An obvious question -- although not a question many seem to be asking -- is "What the heck have Those In Charge been doing with our money, anyway?"

In particular, what have "they" done with the money that clearly should have gone into infrastructure maintenance, repair, and replacement?

It's not as if the various governments involved (local, county, state, and national) don't have oceans of our money to work with; they do. Total government spending was about 12% of the economy in 1930, and is now 44% -- in addition to regulatory and compliance costs forced upon the private sector. Even 12% was a far larger portion of the economy than government had traditionally taken in America before the 1930s.

Lack of tax money isn't the problem, in other words. What the tax money is being spent on is the problem.

You tax money is being spent on pork, on corruption, on slush funds, and on entitlements; on far better pay, pensions, and other benefits for government workers than for ordinary citizens (including at the local level); on huge increases in the numbers of government employees (especially at the state and local levels); on war (close to half the federal budget goes to past, present, and future war, by some accounts and depending on how one categorizes the spending), on ramping up the police state, on sports stadiums, on the war on drugs, and on almost anything else politicians feel like spending it on.

Plenty of this money is wasted, lost, or spent in secret. The day before the terror attacks of 9/11/2001, Donald Rumsfeld said the Pentagon could not track how 25% of its entire budget is spent; at the time, he said the Defense Department was missing $2.3 trillion dollars (link is to a CBS "Eye on America" report by Vince Gonzalez, including interviews with whistleblowers, retired military officials, and others; highly recommended). As a reminder: a trillion is a thousand billion, and a billion is a thousand million. I cannot believe that much money was simply lost; even if $100 billion was outright lost and another $100 billion stolen, that leaves $2.1 trillion to account for -- plus whatever is unaccounted for since 2001. One can be certain those trillions were spent on something, by somebody -- officially accounted for or not. This is an incredibly chilling story: our military-industrial complex is spending trillions of our tax dollars that it apparently refuses to even account for. What are they doing with all that money? How odd that this isn't an ongoing, major story with at least the level of coverage given to celebrity DUI arrests.

With trillions of dollars "missing" and trillions more spent on aggressive war and on a laundry list of other pork, evil, and simple foolishness, no wonder there never seems to be enough money to take care of basics. The taxpayers are certainly handing over enough tax dollars, but politicians and bureaucrats are spending it like degenerate gamblers in the throes of a high-stakes binge.

The next time you cross one of those 75,000 bridges, give a moment's thought to the way your tax money is being spent. Meditate on the built-in incentives (here's one example of how they work) that lead government to spend your money in counterproductive, inefficient, and often violent or unhealthy ways, and which eventually deprive "basic government services" of the funds they need.

The fix is not to make government more efficient; that is a pipe dream, because the nature of coercive government is to become ever-more corrupt and inefficient, no matter how many times the government is reformed. The fix is to use less coercive government in the first place -- ideally, to do things without the coercion of government, as civilized humans do when dealing with each other.

Government is truly The Worst Way to Do Anything, as I have pointed out before. That is not a new idea; Thoreau said it eloquently in Civil Disobedience (even the relatively tiny government of his mid-1800s America was an evil). Doing things by means of government coercion, including funding by coercive taxation, causes an endless series of unintended consequences and other problems, in addition to the evil of coercion itself.

Coercion is the enemy of love and freedom, and using coercion as the cornerstone of society -- as we increasingly do in the United States -- is the worst disaster a nation can suffer. Americans will either find their way back to their pro-freedom roots soon (and do a better job of it this time), or they will discover -- the hard way -- why people from other nations have been desperate to come to America for so long.

Falling bridges are only one symptom of the real problem, which is the dramatic growth of government size and coercion in this country, and thus the equally dramatic loss of efficient and civilized private society. As the darkness of tyranny descends further, where will desperate Americans flee to?

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 105

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity. He maintains paradise-paradigm.net. This is one in a series of columns on the human condition.