By Adam Gopnik
The horrific Amtrak derailment outside Philadelphia this week set off some predictable uncertainty about what exactly had happened—a reckless motorman? An inadequate track? A missing mechanical device? Some combination of them all?—and an even more vibrant set of arguments about the failure of Americans to build any longer for the common good. Everyone agrees that our rail system is frail and accident-prone: one tragedy can end the service up and down the entire path from Boston to Washington, and beyond, for days on end. And everyone knows that American infrastructure—what used to be called our public works, or just our bridges and railways, once the envy of the world—has now been stripped bare, and is being stripped ever barer.
What is less apparent, perhaps, is that the will to abandon the public way is not some failure of understanding, or some nearsighted omission by shortsighted politicians. It is part of a coherent ideological project. As I wrote a few years ago, in a piece on the literature of American declinism, “The reason we don’t have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it’s that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would, when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal.” The ideological rigor of this idea, as absolute in its way as the ancient Soviet conviction that any entering wedge of free enterprise would lead to the destruction of the Soviet state, is as instructive as it is astonishing. And it is part of the folly of American “centrism” not to recognize that the failure to run trains where we need them is made from conviction, not from ignorance.
There is a popular notion at large, part of a sort of phantom “bi-partisan” centrist conviction, that the degradation of American infrastructure, exemplified by the backwardness of our trains and airports, too, is a failure of the American political system. We all should know that it is bad to have our trains crowded and wildly inefficient—as Michael Tomasky points out, fifty years ago, the train from New York to Washington was much faster than it is now—but we lack the political means or will to cure the problem. In fact, this is a triumph of our political system, for what is politics but a way of enforcing ideological values over merely rational ones? If we all agreed on common economic welfare and pursued it logically, we would not need politics at all: we could outsource our problems to a sort of Saint-Simonian managerial class, which would do the job for us.
What an ideology does is give you reasons not to pursue your own apparent rational interest—and this cuts both ways, including both wealthy people in New York who, out of social conviction, vote for politicians who are more likely to raise their taxes, and poor people in the South who vote for those devoted to cutting taxes on incomes they can never hope to earn. There is no such thing as false consciousness. There are simply beliefs that make us sacrifice one piece of self-evident interest for some other, larger principle.
What we have, uniquely in America, is a political class, and an entire political party, devoted to the idea that any money spent on public goods is money misplaced, not because the state goods might not be good but because they would distract us from the larger principle that no ultimate good can be found in the state. Ride a fast train to Washington today and you’ll start thinking about national health insurance tomorrow.
The ideology of individual autonomy is, for good or ill, so powerful that it demands cars where trains would save lives, just as it places assault weapons in private hands, despite the toll they take in human lives. Trains have to be resisted, even if it means more pollution and massive inefficiency and falling ever further behind in the amenities of life—what Olmsted called our “commonplace civilization.”
Part of this, of course, is the ancient—and yet, for most Americans, oddly beclouded—reality that the constitutional system is rigged for rural interests over urban ones. The Senate was designed to make this happen, even before we had big cities, and no matter how many people they contain or what efficient engines of prosperity they are. Mass transit goes begging while farm subsidies flourish.
But the bias against the common good goes deeper, into the very cortex of the imagination. This was exemplified by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision, a few short years ago, to cancel the planned train tunnel under the Hudson. No good reason could be found for this—most of the money would have been supplied by the federal government, it was obviously in the long-term interests of the people of New Jersey, and it was exactly the kind of wise thing that, a hundred years ago, allowed the region to blossom. Christie was making what was purely a gesture toward the national Republican Party, in the same spirit as supporting a right-to-life amendment. We won’t build a tunnel for trains we obviously need because, if we did, people would use it and then think better of the people who built it. That is the logic in a nutshell, and logic it seems to be, until you get to its end, when it becomes an absurdity. As Paul Krugman wrote, correctly, about the rail-tunnel follies, “in general, the politicians who make the loudest noise about taking care of future generations, taking the long view, etc., are the ones who are in fact most irresponsible about public investments.”
This week’s tragedy also, perhaps, put a stop for a moment to the license for mocking those who use the train—mocking Amtrak’s northeast “corridor” was a standard subject not just for satire, which everyone deserves, but also for sneering, which no one does. For the prejudice against trains is not a prejudice against an élite but against a commonality. The late Tony Judt, who was hardly anyone’s idea of a leftist softy, devoted much of his last, heroic work, written in conditions of near-impossible personal suffering, to the subject of … trains: trains as symbols of the public good, trains as a triumph of the liberal imagination, trains as the “symbol and symptom of modernity,” and modernity at its best. “The railways were the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society,” he wrote. “They are a collective project for individual benefit … something that the market cannot accomplish, except, on its own account of itself, by happy inadvertence. … If we lose the railways we shall not just have lost a valuable practical asset. We shall have acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively.”
Trains take us places together. (You can read good books on them, too.) Every time you ride one, you look outside, and you look inside, and you can’t help but think about the private and the public in a new way. As Judt wrote, the railroad represents neither the fearsome state nor the free individual. A train is a small society, headed somewhere more or less on time, more or less together, more or less sharing the same window, with a common view and a singular destination.