By Graham Peterson
Flying is a libertarian nightmare. Being crammed into a commercial airplane should make any remotely aware libertarian conscious of the unholy impacts of private monopolies (there are all of two commercial jet manufacturers globally), externalities in social interaction (does the middle seat get to use both arm-rests or just one?), the necessity of government infrastructure (airports), and the inevitability of government interference (because security theater).
But all of those woes will melt away because of the progress of technology — which is to say — because of economic growth. The only reason any of these problems arise is because of the current state of aeronautic technology.
Air travel requires an amazing amount of jet fuel. It is so expensive for airlines, that they negotiate and buy enormous blocks of fuel on future contract years in advance. That means that airlines need to get a lot of people on one vehicle in order to cover the fixed cost of getting from New York to Dallas. And that requires a monumental vehicle.
Since the vehicle needs to be so monumental, the people who make them, too, incur enormous fixed costs in order to build and coordinate monumental manufacturing concerns. And in order to coordinate the taking off and landing, one needs an incredible infrastructure: airports.
Getting the land for an airport together is a mess. For some reason, it seems, when one needs an amazing amount of land or other resource that’s a free gift from nature (airspace, say, or bandwidth, or the land freshly cleared by genocide on the American frontier), our intuition has been, historically, that a small, armed cartel (the State) should claim arbitrary ownership and allocate it — in the interest of fairness.
So. Big jets require lots of fuel, because the state of the technology and the physics is such that planes are only so efficient at converting oil into forward thrust. The situation compels us to bring together bazillions of customers and workers to coordinate the massive mess that relatively inefficient planes create. Is there any hope of cleaning this mess up? Sure.
Our current mess with planes is precisely the same mess we had in converting coal-fired steam into forward thrust — railroad. The historical economic pattern is general.
We start with an inefficient but fantastic technology, which creates natural monopolies and economies of scale, and we end up with the network effects of a few central nodes (firms) and small number of edges between them. Whenever we must channel bazilions of people through such a network — someone will inevitably capture the power the network conveys.
Never fear — economic growth is here!
As quickly as railroads came — and created a great fuss over the (technologically determined) natural monopoly that arose in them, and thence the demonstrably artificial monopoly where producers colluded on prices — their profits and monopoly got chewed up by passenger automobiles and commercial trucks. Such will be the fate of the Boeing 747, of political strong arming to get airports built, the tacit arm-rest fight on your flight, and the ghastly TSA.
Cars are already flying. There is a technological bottleneck in terms of energy source, but that situation is improving rapidly. We have GPS technology that will be able to map and coordinate zillions of flying cars very soon. It is really not a question of if, but when, the skies will look like a scene from Back to the Future.
The lesson here is not “mmglaven, flying cars wow cool.” The lesson is political, economic, and social.
Technologies that create limited-path networks with few hubs and spokes create ideal access points for the state to violate your liberties. To take a currently-in-operation example: there are few places where you have fewer constitutional liberties than in your own car, because you drive on “everyone’s” (the state’s) roads. The opportunity to harass, seize, search, and extort you is obvious, and well exercised. And that harassment increases as a function of the concentration of the network — welcome to the Transportation Security Administration — where you have no constitutional rights at all.
But the government need not be involved in our roadways nor our airways. The only reason there is a “public good” in roads, is because it has been prohibitively expensive to have tolls everywhere. Before we even see flying cars, we could see privatized roads emerge, with electronic tolls buried underneath them, and EZ-Pass sensors in cars drawing our checking accounts as we drive. In the sky, a similar system will charge us for automated flight plans on a GPS grid, just like we currently pay to use WiFi hotspots. Such a system destroys the network centrality of airports and the big planes that require everyone to link into them.
What do these technological developments get us? They get us more distributed networks (e.g. cars got us more distributed networks than railroads), which gets us more competition, fewer opportunities for exploitation and powerful monopolies, more convenient travel (computers already fly our planes), no arm-rest fights, no time wasted waiting for flights, and cheaper goods that don’t have to route into congested transportation networks to get to us.
As people become less limited by geographic constraints, they’re more able to select into different clusters (or cliques) of belief and tastes. That means a greater diversity of cultural forms and competition among them, limiting the possibilities of exploitation that for instance the Frankfurt School was worried about — the Mass Culture that brainwashes you and reduces your menu of tastes and opinions to a lowest common denominator.*
As technologies get cheaper and more accessible, more people get to enjoy them, and in turn one another. And that is a very good thing.
A number of readers will protest: “but what about inequality?” I don’t know what to say to that complaint, other than that the debate over the ethics of such a system will look rather strange when the latest moral outrage concerns the bottom decile of earners who lack the latest version of “basic needs,” a flying car.
*But that mass culture, yet again, was originally a product of the incredible expense, natural monopoly, and network centrality of early 20th century communication and information network technologies. Now we have Youtube and independent films.