Opinion | Why the Meaning of ‘Infrastructure’ Matters So Much

In June 1982, President Ronald Reagan delivered a fire-eating speech before the British House of Commons that is best remembered for his prediction that democratic nations would triumph and communism would end up on “the ash heap of history.”

The speech also helped to popularize a relatively new English word: infrastructure.

Mr. Reagan didn’t predict victory by default. He said the United States would pursue the end of communism by investing in “the infrastructure of democracy.”

Almost four decades later, the word is on everyone’s lips, at least here in Washington, but no one seems quite sure what it means. President Biden has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that includes money for “community college infrastructure,” for care programs for older and disabled Americans and for electric-car charging stations.

Republicans insist that none of this counts as infrastructure. They propose to spend a smaller amount of money on “real” infrastructure like roads and bridges.

This is more than a semantic slap fight. Debates about the definition of infrastructure are almost as old as the word itself, because the definition of infrastructure depends on what a society is trying to accomplish. What we’re really talking about is not the true definition of infrastructure, but the proper role of government in American life.

Infrastructure makes other things possible. It is the stuff we take for granted, that we notice only when it breaks down. The infrastructure of driving is roads and bridges and gasoline pipelines. The infrastructure of the digital economy is glass cables and silicon chips and millions of lines of code. The infrastructure of democracy, Mr. Reagan said on that day in 1982, includes “a free press, unions, political parties, universities.”

The word has never had a fixed meaning, as Ashley Carse, an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University, documented in an entertaining 2017 essay. It began as a railroad word, coined in France in the mid-19th century to describe the work that must be done before the work of laying down tracks. In the early years of the Cold War, it was borrowed by NATO to describe the various kinds of preparations necessary to defend Western Europe.

The initial reviews were not kind. This newspaper in 1951 included the word in a mocking glossary of new bureaucratic jargon that the paper described as gobbledygook. Dean Acheson, then the U.S. secretary of state, called it a “baffling” word. Winston Churchill blamed “intellectual highbrows” seeking “to impress British labor.”

But policymakers kept finding new uses for the capacious word, and eventually it seeped into popular speech. Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist, credits Mr. Reagan’s 1982 speech as the key moment in his 2018 book, “Palaces for the People.”

Through it all, the meaning of infrastructure has maintained a certain stability. In the original sense, it described the work on the railroad that was performed by the government. The rest of the road, the superstructure, was built by the private sector.

The modern use of the word still reflects that division. When states were primarily engaged in clearing the way for railroad construction, that was the meaning of infrastructure. During the militarized midcentury, preparing for war became infrastructure, too. In speaking about the “infrastructure of democracy,” Mr. Reagan was asserting that the state had a responsibility to foster democracy. And as states accepted responsibility for social welfare, it is natural that the definition of infrastructure expanded to encompass the safety net, too.

A narrow definition of infrastructure is not a defense of the language. It is a policy position.

When we define infrastructure, we are asserting a public responsibility to make certain things possible. Infrastructure is the stuff people don’t have to worry about.

Mr. Biden’s broad definition of infrastructure is a necessary expansion. We need a definition of infrastructure that matches the professed values of the United States, and that provides the means to address the inequalities of wealth, health and opportunity plaguing our society.

For children to thrive, we must create an infrastructure of safe drinking water, clean air and quality early education. For families to prosper, we must create an infrastructure of care for the young and the old. To maintain a livable environment, we must create an infrastructure that allows people to travel in electric vehicles.

Perhaps most of all, to build and maintain this broader infrastructure, the United States needs to do what Mr. Reagan once prescribed for the countries of Eastern Europe: Rebuild the infrastructure of democracy.

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