Where is the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Where do you, personally, draw the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Merriam Webster dictionary definition of infrasctructure, the system of public works of a country, etc.I ask this sincerely, with no desire to engage in polarized internet snipe-fests, but in the spirit of attentiveness to what government services various individuals might deem “necessary” and which are “overreach.”

Even more interesting than the what, is the why.

Only deep ignorance of history allows one to pretend there’s anything universal about this question. Our republican forebears in Rome—whose architecture we aped in the United States capitol in part due to the Founding Fathers’ lionization of that civilization—prioritized very different governmental interventions than we do today.

Proving myself, as always, a true dilettante and no real scholar, I’ll begin by pointing to a series of mystery novelsthat I read years ago. They turned me on to a startling fact: the ancient Romans had no police force.

police car parked at justice centerRome, civilization par excellence, did not feel that it owed average citizens the protection of civil police. The military kept order to an extent that suited the needs of the state, but there was no one to call when your silver was stolen. It wasn’t until the great republic became an empire that Augustus formed the Praetorian Guard in 27 BCE… to protect himself.

And all this in spite of the fact that the Ancient Greek city of Athens had seen the nascent formation of a police force (c. 400 BCE) to keep order and arrest and manage prisoners using publicly owned Scythian slaves. Investigating and detecting crime, in the ancient world, was the responsibility of individual free citizens.

So, is a police force a basic piece of infrastructure, a right that should be available to all, or is investigation and detection by paid government agents an imposition against individual freedoms as the Romans seemed to believe?

In spite of our turbulent times and the fraught political environment, I’ll admit it: I think this is a fascinating question. In a democracy, it is, in fact, the duty of every citizen to ponder these essential assumptions.

Do modern American people on the right and on the left really have such different ideas about what a government ought to do, or are our differences more about degree and descriptive nomenclature?

Certainly, in 2020, it was the conservative element that most desired to increase police funding; 45% of Republican-identifying respondents to a Pew poll would do so. This is the same party that professes to prefer “small government.” Is that a contradiction? If not, feel free to explain your thinking as to why not in the comments.

And, to be clear, polls show that the vast majority of more left-leaning Americans also want to maintain effective police forces of a similar size to today’s. This demographic is pressing for reform of policies regarding illegal behavior on the part of individual officers, and often wants to redirect some funds currently allocated to police enforcement into social programs to prevent crime, but it is a small minority actually calling to entirely disband police departments, or even to reduce funding levels by significant amounts.

It would appear that, in the United States of America today, we believe that a police force is part of the basic infrastructure of our society.

Postal services can be dated back to ancient Egypt, thousands of years before our modern era. Early in the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1000 BCE), China probably developed the first post-house relay system for quickly delivering messages across vast distances. Rome’s postal system was so useful, it survived for centuries after the Empire itself crumbled. Mail service pre-dates civil police by millennia.

United States post office mailbox - 1Today, like the Ancient Greeks, some segments of American society seem to lack the will to support a robust public system of mail delivery. Is the ability of every individual, rich or poor, to send a letter or package across the nation a right, or a mere luxury?

Is the need for physical letter delivery obviated by universal availability of electronic messaging? And, if so, does our current society meet your definition for universal access to voice communication, texting, and/or email?

There was a point in time in which roads were nobody’s business but the people who had to navigate them. The Romans managed a huge network of beautifully engineered ones, but most of Europe allowed them to decay for hundreds of years thereafter. Medieval monarchs preferred for the peasantry to stay put, “where they belonged,” working land they did not own in spite of generations of tenancy.

4 lane road passing beneath overpassWhy are roads now infrastructure for which everyone is required to pay, even those without personal vehicles? Why do the inner city poor, reliant on public transit, pay taxes so that wealthier suburbanites and rural homesteaders can drive about at will in private conveyances to under-populated areas?

Why do all of us pay taxes to support airports that are used by around 50% of Americans each year? Sure, the percentage of people who fly has gone up in recent decades, but are airports really more fundamental and important for government to fund than, say, basic preventative healthcare for the children who will grow up to become tomorrow’s workers?

In America today, it seems to be taken as a given that roads and airports are infrastructure, yet somehow passenger rail and transit are luxuries that only deserve to exist if their users can afford to pay full freight. Each of these is simply a mode of transportation, isn’t it? So how does one justify the distinction in priorities?

I was prompted to ponder these weighty questions by a Duolingo language learning exercise.Duolingo prompt to translate to English from German, "Why don't I have health insurance?"

The cartoon is asking: “Warum habe ich keine Krankenversicherung?

Translation: Why don’t I have health insurance?

Were the content creators at Duolingo getting political, or simply finding a sentence to demonstrate the German language’s tendency to concatenate seemingly endless lists of individual words to create monumental compound nouns?

Regardless, it got me thinking and not just about my third language. It can be factually stated that the United States is the only one out of “the top 50 countries with very high human development according to the Human Development Index[4]…without a Universal HealthCare system [with the note that a few countries are in the process of implementing their universal systems].”*

Prescription bottle of pain pillsMy personal view on how medical care ought to be managed is complex, and I’ll confess to an innate aversion to the idea of my dysfunctional government being the sole provider of healthcare; I’m not excited about Medicare for All. In recent years, I’ve been drawn to an analogy comparing auto and health insurance, and I see “insurance” as more appropriate for rare events for which rational individuals can’t reasonably plan.

I choose not to use my insurance for routine medical appointments, having opted for direct primary care.

Where I see governmental support as absolutely fundamental is in the realm of public and preventative health. There’s nothing quite like a pandemic to bring this point home. If it were up to me, the predictable and public would not be managed or financed in the same way as emergencies and catastrophic disease are. Aside from the involvement of doctors, these situations are too disparate to want the same remedies.

The plodding but implacable bureaucracy of big government is well positioned to offer scheduled services and cast a wide net of availability for what is needed by every citizen: routine check ups, dental cleanings, eye exams, screening for- and inoculation against- communicable disease, and perhaps the provision of routine yet vital life-preserving treatments like dialysis or diabetes management.

In my view, public access to the basic mechanisms by which human health has been improved in the past century or so aligns with the idea of infrastructure. Without healthy human citizens, society can’t function. Certainly there is no value to any government or economic system in the absence of living participants!

Safety goggles, cloth face mask, and disposable glovesThere was a time when few people traveled outside their home villages; roads were then the province of the few. Protection such as that afforded by police belonged only to the powerful in earlier eras; now, all members of developed societies expect some measure of law enforcement. Posting a message to distant points used to be an elite privilege for those with retainers to spare for carrying letters; most of the world can now communicate immediately for a trivial fee.

All of these vital systems—alongside public education and utilities—represent a progression of understanding amongst reasonable people as to what a population should expect from its government. I haven’t heard even Libertarians or Tea Party Republicans demanding the abolition of public roads or the electrical grid.

Much of the function of modern governmental infrastructure would be unfamiliar to the Founding Fathers, yet these systems are required for any competitive economy today.

Conservative voices decry the priorities of Democrats as socialism; liberals accuse the other side of fascism. Most of these reproaches are political obfuscation at best, and frank lies at worst. Few of us truly wish to live at either extreme.

We all need to ask ourselves this question: What is infrastructure in 2021?

After that, let’s work together on building it.

First, there must be the will to do it. Next, we make commitments and take action. It isn’t someone else’s job, but yours and mine.

The true greatness of America was the founding of a secure public framework upon which a wider variety of individuals was free to build success, each according to her own design. That chance remains the dream of most of us, and we retain the power to keep its achievement within the average person’s grasp.

By all means, if you enjoy Ancient Rome and/or serialized mystery novels, pick up Steven Saylor’s “Roma Sub Rosa: the Investigations of Gordianus the Finder” books. They are great fun. If you read them, let me know what you think.

* I grabbed this quote from a great, and very thorough, page on a site called Fact/Myth researched by and Published – June 28, 2017. I highly recommend you visit and read the entire page if you are interested in a careful, comprehensive definition of universal health care, and a discussion of who has it and whether or not its existence points to a fundamentally socialist economy.

3 thoughts on “Where is the line between infrastructure and socialism?

  1. Rather than pick a specific demarcation line or an opinion, I offer a thought experiment for prodding each person to develop their line for themselves. Consider the spiral of increasingly more expensive, heroic medical interventions. What happens now is that medical advances to extend life (or rescue it after severe traumatic or degenerative damage) are each applied to an increasingly feeble organism state, and have to be more and more complex to work. It’s inevitable – the more successful an intervention is, the more it extends the sinking ship of a damaged organism and the next intervention has to be that much more sophisticated in order to keep it going. It is likely that advances in regenerative medicine will break this feedback spiral and induce actual rejuvenation, but let’s imagine for a minute that they don’t. Let’s imagine that some day, we get to the point where there is a medical treatment available that keeps patients alive but is incredibly expensive. Let’s imagine that the cost is real (it’s not expensive because of broken regulatory or billing systems – it actually requires an incredible amount of effort to implement per patient). Sure, we have plenty of expensive treatments now; so one view is, we need “free” health care so that everyone, no matter their economic status, can have access to the same healthspan. What we can do is spread the burden around, via taxes. By charging everyone a bit, we can make a huge difference to those who need it. But imagine if the cost for treatments is so high, and the # of people who need it is so many, that when you take the total cost, and divide it by the number of tax payers, each person would have to pay a huge amount. For the purposes of a thought experiment, I’m considering situations where the math is unequivocal: it’s not about arguing whether by taxing X% from the “rich”, we can make it work. Roll the medical spiral forward until the math is such that there simply aren’t enough “rich” people to pay for it. The cost is such that each person would have to kick in a massive portion of their resources to make it work. So now, the question is: what ethical principles do we use to determine how much of a person’s resources (= quality of life) a government has the right (or duty) to confiscate in order to implement a basic healthspan? “Right to health” seems very reasonable, but what do we do when delivering that right to all citizens requires everyone to kick in so much that basic stuff becomes unaffordable to them? How do we draw the line? Would you pay an extra 1% in taxes to give everyone healthcare? I assume we all would. Would you pay 95% of your current income in taxes if that’s what it actually took to give everyone on Earth a healthy life? What if that’s how the math shook out – what if by giving away 95% of what you make each year, you could establish equal, good health for all? Let’s not argue about whether it really takes 95% – right now it may not, but it’s certainly possible to imagine a plausible scenario where this becomes true. So as a kind of Trolley Problem, in that world, what would you do? If 95% is not palatable to you, what % would be your line? And if 95% is palatable, then consider the fact that right now, without waiting for anything else to change, most of us certainly could take 95% of our current income and radically transform the health state of some number of people in the world who need it badly. How does one make such decisions?

    • I appreciate the thought experiment, and will repeat my assertion that I see an almost total separation between “predictable & affordable” (mostly) preventative health care, and exotic treatments for intractable diseases. Your case is very much a part of why I draw that line, seemingly contrary to how average people view “health care” as an entity.

      That said, your complex thought experiment is also why I believe government should FIRST address easier, more straightforward, low-hanging-fruit projects when possible. When the Affordable Care Act was being debated, we got drivel about “Death Panels.” I’d leave the harder stuff for after doing what makes ethical and financial sense.

      Then again, I think like an engineer. Unlike a politician, whose career goal is being liked, I’m trained to SOLVE PROBLEMS. I’d rather make someone’s life better than make that someone like me better…

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