Does a Big Country Need to do Big Things? Yes. Do We Need a Big Government to do them? No.


TV network MSNBC's left-leaning commentator Rachel Maddow has opened herself up to ridicule by the conservative blogsophere over her advert featuring the Hoover Dam. The thrust of the spot is that “we don’t do big things anymore” but that we should. But critics say the dam couldn’t be built today due to environmental opposition to exactly these kinds of projects. Indeed many in the Administration and their green allies are more likely to crusade for the destruction of current dams than for the building of new ones.

Both sides have their points.

Building the Hoover Dam was not uncontroversial, to say the least. But it has proven to be beneficial to millions of Americans (flood control, hydroelectric power, recreation, and water for homes, farms and factories). Truly, it has allowed the desert to bloom.

Public goods like dams are not excludable (their use is not limited to paying customers), so only government can provide them, right? Well, as economist Jodi Beggs points out, there is certainly a case to be made for private ownership of seemingly public goods. The questions to be asked are:

  • Do the benefits to society of these projects outweigh the costs?
  • Could private enterprise provide this good or service if the government did not undertake the project itself?
  • Is there a compelling reason to ensure that everyone have access to this good or service?
  • If so, is there a way to ensure access without wholly providing the good or service?

In support of the case for private ownership Beggs cites Dingmans Bridge, which provides a crossing of the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, one of the last private toll bridges in America. Ironic she should mention it, because for the past 40 years Dingmans Bridge was supposed to be deep under the water behind the Tocks Island Dam.

The Big Dam that Never Got Built

Although Tocks Island Dam was never built, 72,000 acres of land were acquired by the U.S. government, often by condemnation, including farms, homes, and businesses. Whole towns disappeared when people had to move away, including many historic roads and structures that featured prominently in the Revolutionary War. This land now constitutes the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area, which I visited last August on my summer vacation. It was eerie, haunting, beautiful and amazingly empty on a warm summer’s day within a 90-minute drive from Manhattan (okay, maybe two hours).

Many of the condemned homes, farms and buildings still exist, abandoned. As I drove through the area I could not help but think something has gone terribly wrong here, but what? Is it a story of government incompetence or good intentions gone bad? Or perhaps a story of NIMBYism run amok to throttle progress, development and future opportunity for future generations?

The Tocks Island Dam Project had been under consideration even before the 1955 flood, which caused several deaths and immeasurable damage to the Delaware River basin. In 1965 a proposal was made to Congress for the construction of the dam. The Tocks Island National Recreation Area was to be established around the lake, which would offer recreation activities such as hunting, hiking, fishing, and boating. In addition to flood control and recreation, the dam would be used to generate hydroelectric power and to supply water to the cities of New York and Philadelphia.

There was much local opposition to the project. My sister and brother-in-law have been locals for over 40 years and I can tell you, it’s still a touchy subject. The dam was disapproved by a majority vote of the Delaware River Basin Commission in 1975. With the United States still funding the Vietnam War, financial considerations came to the fore. Also, the geology was questionable for what would have been the largest dam project east of the Mississippi River.

In 1992, the project was reviewed again and rejected with the provision that it would be revisited ten years later. In 2002, after extensive research, the Tocks Island Dam Project was officially de-authorized. But the heartache of dislocation remains.

What are the lessons of the Tocks Island Dam?

Well, if we apply Beggs’ qualifications, we find that the project’s benefits did not outweigh its social, political and economic costs. It would have been nice to know this before all that land was acquired, causing those homes, farms and businesses to be condemned and abandoned by force. Would the dam have prevented the recent damaging floods in New Jersey and Pennsylvania? No, the recent floods were off the Passaic River, not the Delaware. Have New York and Philadelphia experienced major water and/or electricity shortages in the past 40 years that the dam would have ameliorated? Not apparently.

So we are left with this: even with highest purposes, best intentions and smartest people, government tends to get things wrong. It is not just the law of unintended consequences, but the law of government efforts having the opposite effect of those intended.

What ever happened to Reinventing Government?

In 1992 the concerns over government debt, deficits and unfunded liabilities were national issues (sad, ironic and maddening, isn’t it?). So strong were these concerns that they drove a Presidential candidate, Ross Perot, to the largest vote ever received (nominally and percentage-wise) by a national third-party candidate since the Bull Moose Party of Teddy Roosevelt. After Bill Clinton won that election – largely because of the votes Perot took away from George Bush – the newly-elected President would famously say, “The era of big government is over.” Oh, would that it were so.

That same year saw the publication of a book by David Osborne and Ted Gabler, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector. Oh, would that it were so. The most compelling concepts in that book (to me) were the privatization and contracting-out of government services – the transformation of government from the entity that provides services to the entity that makes sure needed services are provided.

What happened? The concept of reinventing government is still alive, at least on the local and state levels; David Osborne is still fighting the good fight with the Public Strategies Group, but as he writes, “Reinventing public institutions is Herculean work.” And at the federal level we have had orgies of spending, debt and deficits.

Of course, we still need to do big things: Keystone pipeline, anyone? How ironic the opposition to building big things comes from the political left, the greens. In contrast, big Labor generally supports infrastructure projects, but not universally and often with prohibitively expensive terms. One big advantage that FDR enjoyed – something rarely cited by progressives – was the lack of public employee unions.

Meanwhile, a whole generation of underemployed blue collar youth is coming up, with few prospects and little of the can-do ethic that once propelled us to do big things. The President recently bemoaned this too – citing the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge. What he does not realize is that, more times than not, big government is now more of a hindrance to, than an agent of, needed and desired change.

Dr. Roger Selbert is a trend analyst, researcher, writer and speaker. Growth Strategies is his newsletter on economic, social and demographic trends. Roger is economic analyst, North American representative and Principal for the US Consumer Demand Index, a monthly survey of American households’ buying intentions.

Dingmans Bridge photo by Charlie Anzman via Flickr.

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How about building more

How about building more bridges for the dam? I guess this would work for a mean while. You can build pedestrian bridge or even walking bridge for support. After all, you will be benefited with this project.