Principles and Practicalities: A Dilemma

TrainLogoAs I sat stuck in stop-and-go traffic the other morning, I found myself pining for commuter rail: a relatively uneventful and predictable commute spent reading or writing (or occasionally — let’s be honest – napping), less wear-and-tear on my vehicle and nerves, and a ready reason to leave work on time in order to catch the last train out.

I have ridden the train before and loved it. In fact, I’m a big fan of the concept of rail transportation. The reality of it, however, gives me pause. I had heard when I rode the train before that it couldn’t sustain itself, let alone turn a profit. I have little doubt that subsidies are the only reason the trains still run every day, and that my employer’s financial support of mass transit was the only reason it was a cost-effective option for me. Commuter rail appears to be something of a money pit, and I’m not a fan of money pits, in concept or reality – but at the time it cost me less to park and ride than to commute and park in the Cities.

The question that arose in my mind the other morning was, Since the train, the track, and the subsidies that sustain them are already realities through no decision of mine, can I park my car and ride the rails in good conscience?

This was followed quickly by the disturbing realization that I hadn’t taken the time to think through my underlying philosophy on this before – especially since the answer seems applicable to numerous other dilemmas we may face. For example, if I disapprove of the public funding plan for the Vikings stadium, should I boycott games there? Even if I’m given tickets? If I disapprove of Obamacare in principle, but it becomes the law of the land and I am ever without health coverage, what then? I complain about infrastructure and services every day and still use them — but is there a point at which that approach lacks integrity?

I have viscerally different reactions to each of these questions, and I’m honestly not sure if I can articulate a consistent approach to these types of dilemmas. The challenge is similar to that of what businesses to frequent based on their stances on social issues – except that somehow getting this right seems more important to me, since these involve public funds and public impacts.

I have a sinking feeling I’m making this way too complex, but can’t quite see how. Men of the Junto, help me talk this through!


  1. Didymus says:

    It seems that we would first need to differentiate between true moral issues and ones of prudential judgement of public policy. Although there is a legitimate moral argument against massive and sustained deficit spending, making a claim of immorality against this one project seems to me a stretch. In the case of light rail, there were voices for and against, and the people who thought the predictably understated financial costs justified some predictably overstated benefits won the day. The opponents of light rail (myself included for purely financial reasons) lost. Go ahead and use it! I might oppose all sorts of projects for all sorts of reasons, but as long as there is no cooperation with evil involved, once they have taken my tax money for the project, I own it as much as anyone else. It might be different if your ridership increased the operating subsidy, but in fact, it actually helps us all out by nudging the rail one rider closer to the wildly optimistic numbers used to justify all such projects. Even your discounted ticket must exceed the small incremental variable cost of one additional rider, so by all means, saddle up. You are helping to reduce the operating subsidies we all have to pay, so you are negating (in a miniscule way) part of the financial reason why so many of us opposed this. Way to go, Timshel! Recusabo utar! I object and use!

  2. Spaniard says:

    Like Didymus, I wouldn’t worry too much about it from a personal moral standpoint, for the excellent reasons stated, but I would advocate for policies that make more sense than public commuter rail.

    If we must have a subsidized, State-run mass transit system, we should use busses. Unlike the incredibly ineffective rail system, a bus route can change with customer demand. Even so, getting to the route will be a problem for most folks in an increasingly decentralized society. These options only work if one lives and works near terminals. (I don’t, do you?) That’s why private companies don’t run mass transit.

    Interesting new solutions have been previewed in films such as “Minority Report” and “I, Robot,” and now in reality with Google’s driverless cars. I look forward to seeing a day when we might see customer-responsive systems that use the efficiency of computerized traffic control on large trunk highways with individual, local options. Might these even be privatized and profitable?

    In the meantime I wouldn’t sweat riding the train. Besides, if you’re the only rider on the North Star, the Statists that insist on 19th century transit technologies won’t be deterred for one instant.

    • Hythloday says:

      Wouldn’t the state’s highway system also be considered a “subsidized, State-run mass transit system”?

      If it’s the principle of such a system that we oppose, then wouldn’t it follow that we should also oppose public funding for the publicly run road systems? I think the issue is more with the particulars of such a system rather than whether or not such a system should exist.

      I see no danger to integrity in arguing against the rail system and utilizing it if you find value in it. In actuality it is your money that is being spent and you therefore have a right to benefit from it. Even if the rail system was a mistake from a practical point of view, I have to remember that there are more people in the State than those who agree with me unfortunately. If I end up on the losing side of a debate, my integrity does not require boycott.

      This only holds true for issues other than ones of morality of course.

  3. Timshel says:

    Both solid responses, and I appreciate them — but I’m wondering is there a point short of immorality where one should still be concerned with integrity? When the Central Corridor line is completed, light rail may again be a viable and cost-effective option for me personally. Will I be stripped of my Junto status?

  4. Spaniard says:

    Of course not. The Junto can always use a man on the inside… 🙂

  5. Didymus says:

    For some issues integrity can call on us to refrain from using or participating in things we opposed. Say I believed that a level of means testing should be used for social security which would exclude myself, but that law did not pass. To maintain my integrity might well require me to abstain from taking a legal benefit in that case. However, if your sole objection to light rail is the required operating subsidy, and you are reducing that by riding the rail, you are not acting in opposition to your beliefs and there is no question of integrity involved. Stubbornness, maybe :).

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