Part 1: Political parties, three-axes, and public transport – An Introduction

By David Levinson and David King.

As a gross over-simplification, the current rap is that Democrats like trains and Republicans like roads, Greens like bikes and Libertarians like tolls. No party stands up for buses, which are by far the most used transit mode.1

Transportation policy has become politically divisive, especially for local politics which have been less constrained by national parties in the past. Why should something as fundamental as infrastructure policy lead to such vitriol and moral superiority?

Roads (Republican) Rail (Democrat)  Don't Know (Independence),  Bikes (Green)
Roads (Republican)
Rail (Democrat)
Don’t Know (Independence),
Bikes (Green)

We need a good framework to start working through why advocates of a particular transport technology are so assured of their rightness. In the current environment, there is no room for reasoned critique of transit, roads, etc., or reasonable agreement that these things are important.

Maturity (peak travel) is one explanation. Transport policy has become ideological because there are not clear priorities for new investment for any mode, and spending on maintenance doesn’t make anyone happy, it just prevents future unhappiness.

Another plausible explanation is that as federal dollars have become more competitive (for all things) strict party loyalty is more important at the local level. This means that federal representation sets priorities for non-formula spending and if you want any money you best conform to that vision. As Republicans dominate rural areas and Democrats dominate cities, party loyalty helps determine what transport policies you favor.

 Three-axes Model

If you take a charitable view of the world of ideas, and politics,  you can adopt  the three-axes model of political beliefs popularized by Arnold Kling. People have internal value systems that array on three axes. For convenience we have mapped these to the three-point French Revolutionary slogan of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

This idea is in the ether, [So we won’t take credit for originality]

Keith Wilson
04-08-2013, 05:51 PM
Perhaps it would be better, or at least less fractious, to get back to something like the subject of the original post?I propose another way of looking at it. Three civic values, all good things, but sometimes in conflict: liberty, equality, and community (probably a better translation than ‘fraternity’, which seems an unreliable cognate). One’s political ideology is a reflection of the relative weight one gives these three. Libertarians value liberty, and don’t care much if at all about the others. A traditional conservative might value community most highly; modern libertarian-influenced conservatives community and liberty, both value equality a distant third. A utopian socialist, or even a genuinely idealistic communist (rare breeds these days) would value equality much more highly than the others. An orthodox Catholic distributist would value community above all, with equality perhaps second.Personally, I think the trick is to try and maximize all three, or at least maintain a pretty good balance.


A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

In brief:

  • Liberty is associated with Libertarianism, and privileges individual freedom.
  • Equality  is associated with modern American ‘liberalism’ and social justice, and thus the Democrats, and prioritizes fairness (with all that means).
  • Fraternity (or community), considers most important group loyalty, respect for order and hierarchy, and obedience to the social order, preservation of civilization, abhorrence of barbarism, and is associated with modern American ‘conservatism’ and thus Republicans.

There are important core-values associated with all of the axes, and society requires a tension between them to be successful.

Without social justice, (which is bad of itself), the out-group will not be loyal to the system.  If out-groups provide value (e.g. by increasing international trade), this is a major loss. Even without a clear racial out-group, people naturally form divisions over even trivial distinctions, as shown in the Robbers Cave Experiment.

Without any individual freedoms, (which is bad of itself), and rewards and responsibilities associated with personal action) there will be no innovation or progress.

Without any respect for order, there will be no stability or government or framework under which the others can operate.  There also needs to be defense against the outsider.

It is entirely reasonable to believe that society has moved too far on one axis and away from another.  It is entirely unreasonable to believe only one axis has value. Absolutism on any of these axes (as a core belief) is politically unsustainable. Pretended absolutism as a way of opening the  Overton window  may be, however, a logical strategic move, depending the degree to which people believe you are true to your beliefs.


Nevertheless, regardless of your political persuasion, everyone should like buses. Over the coming week, the rationale for the various political persuasions will be presented.

Political Parties, Three-Axes, And Public Transport

  1. Part 1: Introduction
  2. Part 2: Why Democrats Should Like Buses
  3. Part 3: Why Republicans Should Like Buses
  4. Part 4: Why Libertarians Should Like Buses
  5. Part 5: Why Greens Should Like Buses
  6. Part 6: Summary

1. [The Independence Party (in Minnesota) shown in the photo was an offshoot of Ross Perot’s Reform movement that was aligned with independent governor Jesse Ventura, and has been captured by some others in recent years. In practice, Ventura funded the first LRT line in the Twin Cities (thanks in large part to Representative Oberstar), but underfunded  maintenance of roads and bridges.]

3 thoughts on “Part 1: Political parties, three-axes, and public transport – An Introduction

  1. I think things become clearer if you think of political parties as representing interest groups (the interests not always economic in nature) rather than belief systems. Consider, for example, the faux-libertarian defenders of exclusionary zoning.


    1. I personally dislike exclusionary zoning on the grounds that there are economic inefficiencies inherent in over-consumption of land, but it is entirely wrong to equate this to top-down central planning of the kind that libertarians inherently oppose, and imply inconsistency in support for one and opposition for the other.

      “Exclusionary zoning” as condemned by the supporters of “compact city” planning, is more an exemplar of the kind of free-market choice that libertarians see as functioning perfectly well without any central planning to guide it. In some political/legal traditions, this would be referred to as “covenants”. The citizens in Auckland NZ, for example, who are currently fighting upzonings that are being decided at the central (planning) level, would be perfectly within their rights to simply adopt a legal covenant – if they could get the entire neighbourhood to sign up to it, there would be nothing the central planners could do from then on without changes in law at the national level.

      The rational solution to the tendency of some sectors of the population to want to consume more land as an exclusionary policy, is to have a progressive land tax on lots, that increases in its rate with the lot size. In fact, given that there is a close connection between exclusionary tactics and the quality of local schools and other local amenities, it would make a lot more sense to simply levy higher local municipal taxes in your “exclusionary” local municipality. Of course this requires a high degree of localism in government. The trend to municipal amalgamations and super-councils is inherently athwart this kind of freedom.

      The completely irrational approach to central urban planning that is sadly the dominant one currently, is to impose growth boundaries and leave it to “the market” to work out who gets what share of the land inside, and at what price. The first perverse consequence of this, is that 1/10 of an acre lots end up double the cost that 2 acre “exclusionary” lots used to be. It is obviously the rankest kind of hypocrisy to support this and oppose “exclusionary zoning” in US cities that are systemically affordable. Whole cities become even more exclusionary, in spite of high density (and often disgraceful living conditions for those at the bottom of the income distribution), than the dreadful exclusionary suburbs in systemically affordable cities.

      The second highly ironic perverse consequence, is that “large lots” that manage to continue to exist in spite of the growth containment, take on a many times more successful exclusionary effect. The extreme illustration can be seen in the UK’s cities. Systemically affordable US cities tend to have 1/4 acre lots for well under $100,000, and because the raw land cost remains so cheap, every added 1/4 acre of lot size only manages to inflate the ultimate house price by 4% (Glaeser, Ward and Schuetz), or a few thousand dollars. A 4-acre lot might still cost less than $200,000.

      But the typical lot in a UK city – and Auckland NZ is converging on this – is less than 1/10 of an acre and its cost is typically $250,000+. In the rare case that there is a 1/4 acre lot provided somewhere in the city anymore, it will command a price of above $1,000,000. But if you compare mansions on 10-acre estates, these will cost perhaps $2 million in systemically affordable US cities, and in UK cities, they will be the preserve of the top 0.1% (Elton John, Richard Brandson, etc) at prices of more like 50 million dollars equivalent.

      Generally the opponents of “exclusionary” suburban zoning are not economically literate enough to be capable of thinking these things through, and in many cases, are even incapable of accepting the real life evidence I have described.


  2. This is exactly the kind of thinking I was pointing to. The practical content of this position is that it’s okay for your homeowner neighbors of similar income level to tell you what to do with your private property, but wrong if people with lower incomes who live in other neighborhoods are allowed to vote.

    The idea that a private covenant represents a freely agreed to contract has even less connection to reality. The covenants are written by the developer — once the land is subdivided, it’s impossible to get unanimity. If I want to live in the community (sometimes very large, Columbia Maryland has over 50,000 residents) I have to obey. I can leave town if I don’t like the covenants, but I can do the same thing with a zoning ordinance. One big difference is that everyone can vote in elections of city councils that oversee zoning, but non-property owners are denied the vote in elections of homeowner associations.

    I lay out these arguments in more detail in my book Dead End.


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