Has the American public’s sense of progress been diminished by the lack of “big projects” in recent memory? No moon shots or space elevators, no Hoover dams, no ubiquitous high-speed rail? Would these types of massive projects bring with them a new sense of optimism? Virginia Postrel doubts it, quite aside from whether such efforts would be successful in technical or economic terms. In her critique of business icon Peter Theil and science fiction writer Neal Stephenson on this point, Postrel says they confuse satisfaction from an improved quality of life in the mid-twentieth century with optimism about the future impact of iconic public investments in infrastructure and technology:
“People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief. They remembered epidemics and rejoiced in vaccines and wonder drugs. They looked back on crowded urban walk-ups and appreciated neat suburban homes. They recalled ironing on sweaty summer days and celebrated air conditioning and wash-and-wear fabrics. They marveled at tiny transistor radios and dreamed of going on airplane trips.”
Postrel also points out that technology has always provoked some anxiety about the future, just as it does today. In addition, Theil and Stephenson under-appreciate noteworthy projects of the not so distant past, both public and private. That’s not to say that all of those projects were well-executed (the Big Dig?) or economically successful.
Postrel’s argument suggests that the current sense of malaise has more to do with weak economic growth and its causes. She emphasizes an excessive application of the precautionary principle. The growth of the regulatory state and arbitrary, czarist rule-making is an outgrowth of this phenomenon. As I said earlier this week, “Life’s Bleak When Your Goal Is Compliance.” Poor results of most public initiatives (e.g., public education, student loans, the war on poverty) do nothing to inspire confidence, with an increasing proportion of the population dependent on public support. Meanwhile, rewards seem to flow to well-connected cronies, a result that seems assured when resources are allocated to big public projects. There is a growing sense that not much can be accomplished without privilege or luck.
Above all, let’s hope we never take to evaluating massive projects based on their potential to foster a renewed sense of public optimism.