I said yesterday that I’d come back to the issue of the Cambie St. merchants.  There’s a really hard, really interesting problem underlying that episode, and I want to try to bring it into focus.  But first, an important qualification: I’m less interested in that specific episode than I am in how we think about the underlying issues going forward.  So I’m going to leave out a lot of the gory details of the Cambie St. saga.

That said, here’s the problem. We think governments (and actors working for them) have the responsibility to build public infrastructure — that is, infrastructure that, in principle, benefits anyone who wants to use it.  Building that kind of infrastructure is one of the central functions of governments — it’s what governments do.  What’s more, it’s fair for citizens to expect the government to build infrastructure in a way that’s as cost-effective and timely as possible.  After all, it’s their tax-dollars getting spent on the construction.  But at the same time, we think there’s such a thing as the government asking too much of some private citizens, even when doing so saves the rest of us tax-payers money and gets us our shiny new infrastructure faster.

So how do we know when the government is asking too much of some private citizens?  I’m pretty certain Stalin asked too much of some people when he was building his industrial base in the Urals.  But in more local examples of business owners disadvantaged by construction of public infrastructure, things seem a lot less certain.  They get even less certain when you start thinking about how the government ought to compensate disadvantaged business owners.  What we need is some mechanism for negotiating these questions as they come up in specific cases.  But if the Cambie St. drama’s made anything clear, it’s that we have no such mechanism.

Finally, let me come back to that Left Coast post about the Cambie St. merchants complaints.  The biggest problem with that post was the lack of any recognition that the Cambie St. merchants were disadvantaged by the government’s construction of public infrastructure.  Their disadvantage was the public’s advantage.  But if you miss that basic dynamic, you’ve missed the really hard part of the issue.

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