I can explain this Polly

Why was the Victorian state so good at building great cities, sewers, clean water pipes, railways, roads and all the infrastructure we still rely on, while we dither, fear to spend or to commandeer the levers of control for the public good?

Because the Victorians only taxed in order to build those great monuments. They did not also tax in order to fill the wallets of 6 million diversity advisers from the public teat.

Cut the State back to those things that must be done, those things that must be done that can only be done by the State, and you can have as many glorious public goods as you like. The fact that the money is spunked away on things that are not needed, even if they can be done by the State, is why we cannot have nice things.

48 thoughts on “I can explain this Polly”

  1. As several of the comments on the Guardian site and ukliberty have observed, it was private interests that built the railways, similarly to the earlier canals. Acts of Parliament did provide right-of-way, but even they were private bills. The railways were only nationalised at the time they were in decline, losing out to roads for over a decade. Waterworks were private companies in Victorian times. Sewerage varied outside London, although the spectacular London scheme was the responsibility of an organisation established by Parliament. I also would not have said the Victorian state “built great cities”. Their growth was usually linked to the rise of local and regional industries, surely.

  2. And probably in Victorian times the engineers got a brief scope and were free to get on with it. Nowadays, every Tom, Dick, and Harry wants to stick his oar in and the scope gets changed multiple times during the project execution.

  3. Yes, the railways were private enterprise all the way. Only in Ireland did the Victorian UK government subsidise railway construction

  4. Has somebody kidnapped Polly and stolen her login credentials? She even uses the term “opportunity cost”.

  5. also, I’m willing to bet that those railways, great cities &c that were built from the public purse (and I, too, thought that most of the grand buldings and the railways were private interests) didn’t have to conform to every last pissy standard in the latest green ballocks, or have meet unified national standards that have been calculated so that in the unlikely event that an arthritic deaf-blind dwarf with no hands and one leg and no command of English falls over they can’t be held liable.

    And they won’t have been built by heavily unionised labour, or only put out to tender to companies that can demonstrate an active diversity policy and that they are carbon neutral so cost a lot to run.

    So they were probably considerably cheaper.

  6. There’s also the basic fact that there was a demand for these projects.

    Nowadays, especially since Keynes (but not funnily enough really due to Keynes) there is an idea that railways are like porn cinemas; build it and they will come. That is, this idea that “invesment in infrastructure” causes growth, rather than the more proper understanding that when an economy is growing, it will require infrastructure.

    Hence nonsense like HS2. They really think that building a railway will induce economic growth.

    As hinted above, for once I’m not blaming Keynes for this, even though pseudo-Keynesian rhetoric is used. Keynes was quite clear that the public spending (on “infrastructure”) was just a means to dump more money into the economy and stimulate demand for goods from currently under-utilised facilities (e.g. factories whose production lines are idle due to reduced demand in a recession). If your marginal propensity to consume is high enough, that may induce the building of new production facilities that soak up unemployment. But even he didn’t think building a giant train set was itself just going to magically generate economic growth.

    So anyway, that’s why the Victorians were good at building shit. The country actually needed more railways, sewers and roads.

    Also, back then it didn’t take ten years of planning, ten years of approval and twenty years of construction to build one.

  7. It makes sense to do civil construction projects when there is unemployment and low interest rates. Whats the alterntive – wait until there is no unemployment and the compete with the private sector.

  8. These great building projects were carried out in an atmosphere of can do by government and entrepreneurs unaffected by the requirement for planning consent, (Act of Parliament was usually bought by the offer of a few shares..), a population unconcerned with the despoliation Gaia, who did not own their own property, were only 30% of today’s numbers, could see that sewers, clean cities and railways were good for their life style, had little national communication and no personal long distance communication.
    The world has changed, move on.

  9. Transport links centralize production and employment. The argument that HS2 would be an exception would need special evidence.

  10. > IanB

    It has been proposed that once completed HS2 would create jobs in the North of England. I am saying that the opposite is true, as transport links pomote the centralization of production and employment, as the centre is the geographical point that is nearest to all others and so benefits the most from the inter geographical trade made possible by transport links.

  11. She really said that the modern state ‘fears to spend’. She actually said that. Even for Polly that is extraordinarily stupid.

  12. Dinero at 12:54 pm
    It makes sense to do civil construction projects when there is unemployment and low interest rates. Whats the alterntive – wait until there is no unemployment and the compete with the private sector.

    There is an alternative. Let the private sector do it itself. No need to compete if the government doesn’t get involved in the first place. The private sector will happily use up the unemployed and take advantage of the low interest rates. And there is a bonus, it will actually get used because the private sector will only build it if there is a demand, unlike the state (or rather the politicians in control) which will build it if it gets enough bribes from the developers.

  13. Yes the costs were lower back then, due to no ‘elf & safety, no NIMBYs, etc.
    But the flip side is that the benefits were much higher too. Going from 10mph horse-drawn carriages to 100mph trains was a revolution; and customers were prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege of moving people and goods faster than before.
    Today we’re looking at going from 125mph trains to HS2’s proposed 250mph; it’s a smaller improvement, and it’s only over one part of the journey (when you reach Euston you still have to change to the Victorian tube or sit in a taxi crawling through the medieval street layout). People just aren’t willing to pay for the difference.

    As for things being easier back then, well no, not always. Sir Christopher Wren’s grand plans to rebuild London after the Great Fire were quashed by all sorts of special interest groups. Even our great railways couldn’t force their way into central London – which is why the capital has a dozen separate railway termini instead of a single “London Central”.

  14. Did the Victorians turn a profit margin over the cost of running of the Underground combined with the cost of building it . Today only the running costs apply. Labour costs must have been much lower then.

  15. @CHF, and everyone else. You’re forgetting that in Pollyland all good things only ever come from the state. Stuff from the past we have that is good must therefore have been created by the state.

  16. “No NIMBYs”?

    The construction of a railway line in the 19th century required an Act of Parliament providing for the compulsory purchase of the land. So in practice one needed the acquiescence of any major landowners on the route.

  17. I think Tim is overlooking the strongest salient fact here. back then religious and civic duty were what made a man but I don’t think Polly would like that much either.

    Money should be spent on a Job Guarantee for all who want one.

  18. SBML @ 1.36 ” The private sector will happily use up the unemployed and take advantage of the low interest rates. And there is a bonus, it will actually get used because the private sector will only build it if there is a demand, unlike the state..”

    Well, right now the private sector is NOT using up the unemployed NOR taking advantage of the low interest rates, but why look at evidence?

    And you imply that the private sector is infallible, and would never provide something for which there is no demand. M6 toll road? The *only* privately funded road in the UK has insufficient demand – that’s a 100% record of being wrong. All those housing estates in Ireland, worth less than the farmland they were built on (“because cows can’t eat fecking concrete”)?

    The point of having the private sector do as much as possible is that if they cock up, it’s their money and/or lots of people will try different things, some of which will work better. Not that individual capitalists or the market as a whole is infallible.

  19. The private sector is hampered by the meddling of the government which is holding the economy back. Osborne is a crap chancellor. Not as bad as Brown, but close to it.

    The interest rates might be low, but the loans are being offered. The government tells the banks to lend, but at the same time it tells them to save for when they next become “to big to fail”.

    The private sector is just as infallible as the state. But because there are more private companies than the single state it doesn’t matter if one fails. Others will take up the slack. I don’t think I tried to say that the market was infallible. By private sector I mean all the many companies in the sector.

    I like the example you use. Using a group of which there is only one and showing how it has failed. What about a bigger collection such as nursing homes. These fail too. But new companies take them over or take on the residents.

  20. “The interest rates might be low, but the loans are being offered. ” I agree – but that’s not the point. The point is that the loans are not being *taken.* For whatever reason, non-financial companies (ie the private sector) are just piling up cash and *not* making use of low interest rates (or the the unemployed). That was Dinero’s point – that if no one else wanted to make use of free money or cheap labour right now, the Gov’t could.

    I know the M6 was a little unfair, but Polly T was talking about roads ‘n’ railways. But private sector building of unneeded houses (and the private sector bank lending that supported it) has completely fucked Spain and Ireland. So it’s not so clear that private sector can’t screw things up.

    BTW. I actually read the Polly T article – having set teh hare running, she concludes that we shouldn’t build HS2.

  21. On a slightly different tack:

    “The Victorians…did not…tax in order to fill the wallets of 6 million diversity advisers from the public teat.” I don’t think present governments do that either.

    What actually happens is that in an era of mass media Governments (or rather politicians) tend to grandstand on issues of the moment in order to satisfy an electorate clamouring for “something to be done”, and in that they have little choice if they want to be re-elected.

    Public bodies and institutions are then under pressure to deliver “results” and the simplest way of doing that is to employ additional staff with those specific responsibilities, with a resulting unwarranted, and often unwanted, increase in costs.

    But I really don’t know what else they are expected to do. The alternative would be for politicians to grandstand in the short term with an eye to satisfying public opinion (i.e. that days’ editorial in the Daily Mail) but then not to pursue implementation too aggressively in the medium long term. But when, for example, David Cameron tries to take that approach, TW reviles him as a “fucking twat” (June 12).

    Who’d be a politician, eh?

  22. Following on from AndrewM’s point, I think that one aspect is that we really don’t need any more state infrastructure, or at least, they are about small projects (a new road, a new reservoir) rather than a massive undertaking. A lot of that is simply because in the 19th and 20th centuries, we built the phone, electric, water, sewage, education and health infrastructure.

    The things that are left are about people (paying for nurses and teachers) and things like scientific research.

  23. “…while we dither, fear to spend or to commandeer the levers of control for the public good?”

    Currently just under 50% of GDP is government spending . How does that compare to Victorian times.

  24. ” “No NIMBYs”?

    The construction of a railway line in the 19th century required an Act of Parliament providing for the compulsory purchase of the land. So in practice one needed the acquiescence of any major landowners on the route.”

    I believe you’re right in that the railway companies needed the agreement of landowners to build on their land. Hence some odd routes where they were denied access, at least to begin with (many were later tidied up into the direct route it should have been).

    But I suppose a major difference is that in the 19th century, the railway companies simply went to the next door landowner and made an agreement with them instead. So while the line didn’t run on the land of objectors, there was nothing the objectors could do if the rail ran right next to their land on someone else’s land. If you didn’t want a railway in sight of your mansion then you bloody well had to own all the land in said sight.

    Whereas nowadays, NIMBYs from miles around extort vast payments – as if they have some entitlement to an unspoiled view of land that doesn’t belong to them.

  25. But private sector building of unneeded houses (and the private sector bank lending that supported it) has completely fucked Spain and Ireland. So it’s not so clear that private sector can’t screw things up.

    It was the Spanish state that encouraged the building and lending!

  26. Bank lending isn’t “private sector”, that’s the whole problem. If it were, we wouldn’t have news today that the bankers are throwing their hats in the air, accompanied by oinks and squeaks, because a State bureaucrat has announced that he’s going to keep giving them money.

  27. QE is not giving banks money. It is buying interest earning assets from banks. Leaving them with a non interest earning asset, cash.

  28. Today we’re looking at going from 125mph trains to HS2?s proposed 250mph; it’s a smaller improvement, and it’s only over one part of the journey (when you reach Euston you still have to change to the Victorian tube or sit in a taxi crawling through the medieval street layout). People just aren’t willing to pay for the difference.
    —————————

    Hence why we shouldn’t build HS2. It would make more sense (and be far cheaper) to build something a bit more like the existing generation of 125mph trains with some new dedicated track for them to increase capacity, or even build some new freight routes at bigger loading gauges to move shipping containers double stacked.

    If the economics were sound, then private money for such measures should be forthcoming…

  29. The Prole,
    From what I’ve read on HS2, it would cost nearly as much to build a 125mph line as to build a 250mph line. The expense comes from moving other things out of the way: building bridges and tunnels over or under roads, buying up pricey London properties, etc. New infrastructure simply costs a lot more when you have existing infrastructure to worry about. The Victorians didn’t need to worry about the existing dirt tracks.

  30. Andrew M

    That is why in the very special case of HS2 it would be much cheaper to rebuild the Great Central Mainline that was closed in the 1960s. (£8billion was the 2003 costing). The basic route is pretty much still there so less stuff to move.

  31. Devonchap – would the Great Central mainline have the capacity in land to handle track for a train going so fast? Or would it force the train to reduce speed?

  32. The government is taking a vast slice of the GDP, but they are spending it on the wrong sort of people. More than a million broadly useless ‘crats were drafted into the public sector by the Blair/Broon administration. These are people who are capable of no tangible functions. They design nothing, they build nothing, they discover nothing.

  33. Even our great railways couldn’t force their way into central London – which is why the capital has a dozen separate railway termini instead of a single “London Central”.

    Was this really down to special interest groups? Paris doesn’t have a single major station, and has a few each serving the geographic regions. And Moscow – not a place known for historically protecting property rights or listening to local concerns when planning grand projects – also doesn’t have a single station, but several dotted about the periphery of the city centre. Perhaps over a certain size of city a central station doesn’t work?

  34. You can see why Polly became a communist.

    So much easier to just wish a fact into existence, rather than actually accomplish something…

  35. Of course it doesn’t bloody work. Look at an aerial photo of any London big rail terminus. The amount of land the track covers to get a couple dozen platforms. Now have track coming in from four points of the compass. There wouldn’t be anything in the city center but railway.

  36. Indeed. We built all these things and an Empire that covered a quarter of the world with the state taking no more than 10% of GNP. To be fair the USA grew better on 6%.

  37. Also as Boris opinted out, the Victorians didn’t have to spend £1bn on consultants and lawyers before putting a spade in the ground – if we include those parasites, the public sector spend is nearer 70%

  38. @ Mark T: You call external consultants and lawyers “parasites”. I think this is unfair. I have personal experience of working for major public institutions, and it is extraordinarily difficult to obtain objective assessments from within, given the inevitable conservatism and self-interest which most (all?) bureaucracies display.

    External consultants are very often the only way of displacing the status quo.

  39. If the government just stole the land to build the line on and then made every transport system that wasn’t a railway pay for grade-separated crossings (bridges, tunnels, etc), then it could be done a lot cheaper, yes.

    That’s how the Victorians did it – what do you think those Railway Acts did? They just transferred the land from the current owner to the railway company and set a fixed price per acre, and told the “former” owners to lump it.

    They also had the advantage of not building through suburbia, because there wasn’t any suburbia yet – so they just picked a farmer and ran through his fields.

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