Will was right the first time

WILL WAS RIGHT THE FIRST TIME…. Conservative columnist George Will wrote a bizarre piece this week, condemning the very idea of investing in high-speed rail. The column was a mess, featuring a variety of errors of fact and judgment, and the closer one looked at Will’s case, the more absurd it seemed.

Yesterday, Sarah Goodyear went a little further, flagging a piece Will wrote just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, arguing that high-speed rail would greatly benefit the country. He specifically urged policymakers, at the time, to “build high-speed rail service.”

Two months ago this columnist wrote: “A government study concludes that for trips of 500 miles or less — a majority of flights; 40 percent are of 300 miles or less — automotive travel is as fast or faster than air travel, door to door. Columnist Robert Kuttner sensibly says that fact strengthens the case for high-speed trains. If such trains replaced air shuttles in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, Kuttner says that would free about 60 takeoff and landing slots per hour.”

Thinning air traffic in the Boston-New York-Washington air corridor has acquired new urgency…. Congress should not adjourn without funding the nine-state Midwest Regional Rail Initiative.

Dave Weigel was less impressed with the flip-flop: “Good get, but if we’re going to be talking about stupid ideas people had right after 9/11, we’ll be here all day. Will’s rail fetish was a passing fancy, and since then he’s come around to the conservative consensus that rail can never, ever work as a replacement for air travel, so rail projects are essentially boondoggles.”

Perhaps. In fact, I’ll gladly concede that 10 years is a long time in a policy debate. If Will simply changed his mind about the merits of high-speed rail, it wouldn’t be especially noteworthy and I’d be inclined to cut him plenty of slack.

But I mention this because of the way in which Will made his case against HSR this week. He didn’t argue that it’s an inadequate substitute for air travel, or that the projects would cost too much and be used too little; Will instead argued in all seriousness that those touting the policy he once agreed with support an elaborate plot to destroy American individualism. The case was less a column and more an Ayn-Rand-inspired conspiracy theory.

I don’t care that Will changed his mind; I care that he casually dismissed the substance of the debate in order to make the truly stupid case that high-speed rail is part of a liberal crusade to “diminish Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.”

On the merits, he was right the first time. To agree with Will circa 2001 is not to be a freedom-crushing authoritarian.