Every so often you come across a story that, through no intention of the author, perfectly encapsulates the libertarian argument. Today that story comes from Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who expressed his frustration that the federal government did a poor job helping him get to the airport:
On Wednesday, I had a 6:03 a.m. flight from Providence to Detroit; Northwest to Detroit cheaper from Providence than Boston, or at least it was for this flight. I left Boston at 4:05 a.m. for the 53-mile drive to the airport in Providence. Not being all that familiar with the drive, I did what anyone would do — followed the signs on the highway for T.F. Green Airport, figuring it would be the shortest route.
From I-95 north of Providence, I got on I-295 south. And drove. And drove … and got back onto I-95 south of Providence for the final couple of miles to the airport. I couldn’t believe it — 65 miles. Seemed way too long. Got to the airport at 5:18, and if you’ve flown from Providence, you know it has the longest rush-hour security lines on the East Coast.
I made the flight, but I went on Mapquest later in the day and looked at the route. Mapquest would have had me go straight down I-95 all the way. So I’m an idiot for not looking at a map before I left home. I just figured if a sign on an interstate highway tells me to take I-295 to get to the airport, it wouldn’t be taking me 12 miles out of my way to get there.
Let’s say I’m not the only idiot out here who trusts the highway signs north of Providence. There have to be a few people every day who actually read the signs and heed them on the interstate highway system. Let’s say there are 200 a day who do what the United States Department of Transportation is telling them — get off this road, take the freeway circling the town, and drive 14 miles further to get to your destination. Wouldn’t the federal government, trying to get us to drive less and emit fewer pollutants into the air, be interested in knowing that scores of cars in Rhode Island are driving more miles than they need to? Let’s say it’s 200; it might be 50, it might be 500. But if 200 cars follow the route the highway planners tell them to follow, then cars are driving 2,400 more miles per day than they have to.
So, to recap, King only went on Mapquest after following the fed’s misleading road signs. I don’t know about you, but I tend to research directions before making a trip. Especially since the market provides that service free of charge via Mapquest and Google. But why do your own work when you can just rely on the government to tell you what to do? Honestly, King’s little misadventure may be one of the best metaphorical arguments against state intervention ever.
King’s longtime critics at the blog Kissing Suzy Kolber had a field day with this story. I’d like to highlight their response to King’s “200 people a day” hypothetical, because it doubles as a nice summary of the problem with most mainstream economics: “Let’s just invent an arbitrary statistical model that means nothing, so that I can justify my own idiocy.” Beautiful.