What Is Infrastructure?

Irami Osei-Frimpong
5 min readJun 29, 2021


Infrastructure and essential workers are two abused concepts. The two concepts are thrown around at whim. There is this notion that there is a non-political answer to what is infrastructure or who the essential workers are, even as we are talking about the infrastructure and essential workers for a nation. The secret police and domestic spies are rightfully considered essential workers and the basic infrastructure for an authoritarian regime. In the US, we need to know what kind of goods and services figure into self-determination and self-governance in order to think through whether to publicly fund them.

We don’t assume that the infrastructure and essential workers for a symphony orchestra are the same as the infrastructure and essential workers for a basketball game. We shouldn’t assume that the infrastructure and essential workers required for a democratic regime premised on self-governance are going to be the same as those for the infrastructure of an expressed oligarchy. This means that to have a real conversation about essential work and infrastructure in the US context requires a rather robust understanding of self-determination, since we are talking about the enabling conditions for the production and the sustenance of a regime premised on self-determination.

Trying to have these conversations in an absence of a worked out conception of the particular aims and characteristics of self-determination in the United States invites a power play where people are just going to fight for a grab-bag of arbitrary goodies and call them essential.

I’m going to try clear all of this up in plain English.

Infrastructure is the name for universal goods and services that are the means through which particular entities realize themselves, e.g., Ford and GM are each particular members of the car business. In order for Ford and GM to thrive as entities in the car business, someone else has to be in the road business, since roads are the enabling condition for a thriving car business. The road business is part of the infrastructure for the car business. The car business is not organized in scale to also supply its roads, so if either Ford or GM voluntary allocate the resources to build roads, the competing company would allocate resources towards designing and marketing superior cars and eventually outcompete the company that spent their car resources building roads.

Through the roads, each car maker is allowed to freely design their car for market and realize themselves as car makers. Roads serve as the universal good that enable the particularization of the differentiated car makers. And the gravel business is the infrastructure for road business, since the gravel business provides one of the universal enabling conditions for all of the differentiated, particular road building companies. Roads are not infrastructure in the abstract; rather, roads are infrastructure relative to the interests of the vehicles that require roads. But even that is not enough to warrant roads as a matter of public infrastructure demanding of the public purse. In order to account for roads as a publicly funded piece of infrastructure, we need to appreciate how the activity enabled because of roads is the realization of a species of economic freedom.

The aim of a political debate in the United States concerning whether the state should fund roads as a piece of infrastructure is going to turn on what modes of self-determination roads enable, and what kind of burdens road production and maintenance puts on the self-determination of the people who are tasked to build, sustain and pay for them.

In this way, the virtue of public infrastructure should always be pegged to how what is produced through that infrastructure affects or enables self-determination. Since in the United States infrastructure is a means through which the various modes of self-determination are realized.

The of a piece of infrastructure is going to change from nation to nation and time to time. The UAE is also going to consider roads a matter of infrastructure in Abu Dhabi, but that is an infrastructure demand calibrated to produce wealth and prestige for the ruling class, which means that even if two nations happen to land on the same good as a piece of infrastructure, they did not necessarily land on it for the same reason: the infrastructure good is not some sort of self-subsistent good that is the same from nation to nation because it does not function to sustain the same kind of nation.

Nor is it the same from time to time, in conceiving the interstate highway system, Eisenhower sought to build a military infrastructure fit to with roads big enough to drive tanks through. We see that it was a happy accident that these roads also allows Walmart trucks to zoom through.

The United States is going to have different infrastructure needs than the UAE. Not because of the difference in climate or natural resources, but because the United States aims to enable self-determination, including self-government, not merely commerce. And each sphere of self-determination, e.g., family, social, and political, is going to have different infrastructure needs to be organized for, but since they are all spheres of self-determination, they need to be modified to accommodate each other, which is why your job has to be organized to allow for your political participation which has to be organized to allow for your family participation, which has to be organized to accommodate you in ability to participate in the legal system, in order for you to be a free American. So in addition to the goods required for economic thriving, the US is mandated to organize the infrastructure for political freedom, e.g., the particular candidates may not be particularly incentivized to spend resources ensuring readily available polling stations, in the same way that Ford and GM do that have the resources to secure roads. At stake in any of these deficiencies in the infrastructure for freedom is the promise of self-government.

What about climate change and health care infrastructures? Those infrastructures are not meaningful in the abstract; rather, they are only meaningful insofar as they are the enabling conditions for the discretionary activities that measure up to social, political, family, and legal institutional, etc. self-determination.

If you try to treat climate and healthcare infrastructure as primary goods, rather than enabling conditions, you run into a provisioning problem in the US because the goods and services required for climate and healthcare justice require the non-voluntary, substantive labor and resources of others, and in order to account for the compelled use of their discretionary activity, you have to account for climate and healthcare enable free self-determination, not merely serve as a conditions of life, without qualification.