Book Review: Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources, by Brett Frischmann

by on April 25, 2012 · 8 comments

The folks at the Concurring Opinions blog were kind enough to invite me to participate in a 2-day symposium they are holding about Brett Frischmann’s new book, Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources. In my review, I noted that it’s an important book that offers a comprehensive and highly accessible survey of the key issues and concepts, and outlines much of the relevant literature in the field of infrastructure policy.  Frischmann’s book deserves a spot on your shelf whether you are just beginning your investigation of these issues or if you have covered them your entire life. Importantly, readers of this blog will also be interested in the separate chapters Frischmann devotes to communications policy and Net neutrality regulation, as well as his chapter on intellectual property issues.

However, my review focused on a different matter: the book’s almost complete absence of “public choice” insights and Frischmann’s general disregard for thorny “supply-side” questions.  Frischmann is so focused on making the “demand-side” case for better appreciating how open infrastructures “generate spillovers that benefit society as a whole” and facilitate various “downstream productive activities,” that he short-changes the supply-side considerations regarding how infrastructure gets funded and managed. I argue that:

When one begins to ponder infrastructure management problems through the prism of public choice theory, the resulting failures we witness become far less surprising. The sheer scale of many infrastructure projects opens the door to logrolling, rent-seeking, bureaucratic mismanagement, and even outright graft. Regulatory capture is an omnipresent threat, too. . .  any system big enough and important to be captured by special interests and affected parties often will be. Frischmann acknowledges the problem of capture in just a single footnote in the book and admits that “there are many ways in which government failures can be substantial.” (p. 165) But he asks the reader to quickly dispense with any worries about government failure since he believes “the claims rest on ideological and perhaps cultural beliefs rather than proven theory or empirical fact.” (p. 165) To the contrary, decades of public choice scholarship has empirically documented the reality of government failure and its costs to society, as well as the plain old-fashioned inefficiency often associated with large-scale government programs. For infrastructure projects in particular, the combination of these public choice factors usually adds up to massive inefficiencies and cost overruns.

From there I launch into a fuller discussion of public choice insights and outline why it is essential that such considerations inform debates about infrastructure policy going forward. Again, read my entire review here.

Previous post:

Next post: