Public goods are REALLY good: thousands of years later, the Roman roads are still paying dividends

Originally published at:


Sounds like MENA opted to hunt rabbits rather than stag.


And aqueducts!




But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads …


Incas had paved roads for the same reason but no wheels.


It may be worth pointing out that substantial portions of the Roman road system survived all this time not only because the Romans spent treasure building them, but because subsequent civilizations kept using and therefore maintaining them all the way up to today.



irrigation, sanitation, medicine, and wine…


Rome: “Hmmm…if we’re going to take over the world, we’ll need a recognizable brand.”

Dionysius : “We have a lightly pre-owned culture.”

Rome: “We’ll take it!”



From an article elsewhere, not my words.

The Space Shuttle and the Horse’s Rear End

Say friend, did you know that the US Standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches.

That’s an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used?

Because that’s the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.

I see, but why did the English build them like that?

Because the first railway lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

Well, why did they use that gauge in England?

Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did their wagons use that odd wheel spacing?

Because, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads. Because that’s the spacing of the old wheel ruts.

So who built these old rutted roads?

The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The Roman roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts?

The original ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by the wheels of Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for or by Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Thus, we have the answer to the original question. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman army war chariot.

And the motto of the story is Specifications and bureaucracies live forever.

So, the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse’s ass came up with it, you may be exactly right. Because the Imperial Roman chariots were made to be just wide enough to accommodate the back-ends of two war-horses.

So, just what does this have to do with the exploration of space?

Well, there’s an interesting extension of the story about railroad gauge and horses’ behinds. When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are the solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at a factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.

The railroad from the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than a railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses’ behinds.

So a major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was originally determined by the width of a horse’s ass. <<<


I absolutely love that story, which is why I was so bummed when I found out it probably mostly isn’t true.

The grade says False, but there are some caveats in the article.


Logical but not 100% true? Damn, it feels right, though, doesn’t it?


I sadly have to debunk that one fairly often… it has multiple errors.

Sometimes it uses the MX missile instead of the shuttle SRBs, but since my father and I were involved with both those programs, I can debunk it either way. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Short version: There were once multiple rail gauges in use in the USA, but after the Civil War the gauge that became standard was the one that had the most miles left still useable. If the South had won, it would have been different. And the “ruts” in Roman roads aren’t ruts, they are designed into the road surface, not for war chariots (which do not get their primary use on the highways, after all) but for multi-ton ox-drawn wagons.


It has much truthiness.


Never let the truth get in the way of a good story!!


You’re saying the North won because they followed the Roman specs? /s


Clearly a bunch of pinkos misunderstand the true moral of this story:

By investing in ‘public goods’ tax-and-spend Rome blew a ton of money on infrastructure that continues to enrich invaders and illegal aliens millenia after their attempt to renew their culture with other people’s children failed!

Clearly they should have followed a wise course of tax cuts for Crassus and constant maximally destructive warfare(silence you with the ‘but what about military infrastructure?’ look, in the back there). That would have preserved them from the terrible scourge of uncompensate used of their property, which is practically second cousins with altruism; and closely related to the heretical theory of so-called ‘positive sum’ interactions; an idea absurd to reason and dangerous to faith.

Yes, they probably would never have amounted to anything that way; but the principles at work here are surely more important than mere empire.


education, public order, and public health…


Maybe, maybe not. There were different gauges in the UK too like the Great Western Railway’s 7ft 1/4in “Brunel” gauge, but after the Gauge War the government standardised on 4ft 8 1⁄2in. This was then exported to Northern USA and Europe.

I’m sure there could be a whole genre of steampunk where Isembard Kingdom Brunel won and all trains run on broad gauge.