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The Strategy Room

From Locke to the Federalist, Government’s Role in Transportation Policy is as American as Apple Pie

By: The Stanton Team

Adam Smith and John Locke gave America much of its philosophical and economic underpinning. They also both argued for governmental participation in transportation infrastructure and public works. For Locke, it was an essential part of his overall proposition for the natural rights of man, while Smith believed public works served to fulfill the natural system of liberty. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith specifically mentions government’s role in transportation, declaring that the federal government has “….the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain.”

Congressman Bill Shuster addresses group at Stanton Communications’ Washington office.

Both Smith and Locke greatly influenced our Founding Fathers on a range of core beliefs and transportation can be listed among them. In Federalist #42, Madison wrote that “…nothing which tends to facilitate the intercourse between the States can be deemed unworthy of the public care.” In 1785, George Washington declared;  “The credit, the saving, and convenience of this county all require that our great roads leading from one public place to another should be straightened and established by law…To me these things seem indispensably necessary.”

Last week, we discovered the influence of these “founding thinkers” is still felt in the halls of Congress.  Stanton Communications welcomed House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman-elect Bill Shuster to our Washington, DC office to provide insights into his priorities for the 113th Congress. Instead of delving right into policy, Shuster began his remarks with a defense of the federal government’s a role in setting national transportation policy.

The rise of the Tea Party movement and 10th Amendment conservatism among Republicans, which embraces devolution to the states as the embodiment of good government, he explained, has caused some conservatives to call into question a broad range of activities undertaken by the federal government.

I clearly remember Chairman Shuster making the same argument earlier in the year.  I joined Shuster as he explained the federal role in transportation not with industry leaders, but with a group of freshmen Republican members during a listening session on the transportation bill.  Shuster’s mission, as a lead negotiator on the bill, was to play the role of educator, explaining why it was essential for Congress to pass transportation reauthorization even though many in the room were skeptical about the need for government involvement in infrastructure.

The argument Shuster gave then, like the one he presented last week, could easily have come from Adam Smith or John Locke.  Shuster removed all doubt that civic involvement in the development and maintenance of our transportation infrastructure is, in his view, a core function of American government.  He drew historical lessons from the founders’ experience.

Despite the fundamental belief that government has a role in promoting commerce through public works, the Articles of Confederation failed largely due to their inability to provide support for interstate commerce. The event that finally led to our Constitutional Convention was a longstanding dispute between Maryland and Virginia regarding navigation rights on the Potomac River. Washington feared that settlers in the Ohio Valley could only ship their products on the Mississippi to New Orleans, then Spanish, and settlers in the Great Lakes could only ship to Canada, which was then British. Multiple requests to both states to sign a navigation treaty failed, leading to a full convention to address the issue. Thus in a very real sense, the Constitutional Convention and the Constitution itself were in response to meeting the transportation and commerce needs of a young America.

As Chairman-elect Shuster assumes the gavel of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the next Congress, he will remind Republican members about this history as well as the Republican Party’s experience with national projects.  Lincoln built the Intercontinental Railroad; Roosevelt built the Panama Canal; and Eisenhower the Interstate Highway System. Shuster will need to remind members of their party’s pedigree and use it as central argument for his legislative agenda.  Given Shuster’s reputation as a consensus builder and his experience working on complex legislation with big personalities on both sides of the aisle, there is ample reason to believe he will be successful in doing so.

Adam Smith and John Locke would be proud.




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