Thursday, November 5, 2009

Houston's Tunnel System: A Lesson in Self-Interest

We are often told that infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, water, and sanitation must be provided by government. Private individuals and businesses we are also told, cannot and would not provide such crucial facilities. Houstonians can find ample evidence that such claims are false simply by looking at downtown. Or more accurately, by looking below downtown.

One of Houston's hidden gems, and to me one of its most endearing features, is the downtown tunnel system. The tunnel system, which began in 1931, is more than 6 miles long and connects dozens of downtown buildings. And perhaps the most interesting part is, the entire system is privately owned and operated.

The tunnel is essentially an underground mall with restaurants, retail stores, doctors, and other services available for downtown workers. The system also allows pedestrians to travel from building to building without confronting traffic, rain, or heat. These amenities have become so important to downtown workers that new buildings downtown consider it crucial to connect to the system.

While statists argue that large projects such as the tunnel system requirement government involvement, the tunnel system demonstrates that private businesses can and do work together cooperatively. Doing so makes each individual building more valuable and provides additional revenue to the building owner. In short, the building developers are, as a recent Chronicle story put it, "acting in mutual self-interest."

The virtue of self-interest is generally maligned. It is usually viewed as a dog-eat-dog scenario, in which each individual pursues his own interests to the detriment of others. But as the tunnel system demonstrates, the pursuit of one's self-interest is nothing of the sort. Working together often has benefits for each party involved, and when individuals are free of government controls they are able to judge each situation and act accordingly.

The view that an individual's self-interest can only be achieved at the expense of others is one of the most destructive consequences of altruism. Those who hold such a view are, as Ayn Rand put it, confessing
their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest—which he must selflessly renounce. The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men.
To the altruist life requires sacrifice, whether of oneself to others or of others to oneself. The only issue is who will sacrifice and who will benefit. Politically, we see this made manifest in the special interest groups that clamor for government favors. We see it in restrictions on individual liberty in the name of the "common good". We see it in the growing number of schemes to redistribute wealth. All of these examples--and countless more--are the logical result of altruism. All require some individuals to sacrifice for the alleged benefit of others, with the result that the political process becomes a battle to determine the victims and the victimizers.

The tunnel system is a refutation of this view. It demonstrates that businesses that are seeking their own self-interest--more profits through higher occupancy rates and higher rents--can accomplish this without harming others. By working together they make their individual buildings more attractive to tenants and their employees, which benefits everyone, including the tenants, employees, and owners in other buildings.

These are the types of cooperative actions that are only possible when men are free of government controls and regulations. When men are free to act according to their own rational judgment, they find innovative solutions that are impossible for government bureaucrats to even imagine.

As an example, and in stark contrast to the private tunnel system, numerous downtown government buildings are also connected by tunnels. Unlike the private system, these tunnels are not well maintained, are drab and unattractive, and are completely empty of retail shops and restaurants (this may have changed since my last visit several years ago, but I doubt it). They serve a single purpose and offer no amenities.

I love Houston's glorious skyline, and my adoration goes much deeper--both literally and figuratively. The majestic skyscrapers throughout downtown rest on more than concrete foundations. Their construction was made possible by the ethical principles demonstrated below street level--free men pursuing their own self-interest.

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