Automobility and Freedom
Kazman lecture at The Objectivist Center's 2001 summer seminar
A century and a half ago, the legal scholar Sir Henry Maine observed that the evolution of human society was a movement from a society of status towards a society of contract. In traditional society, what you were depended on the circumstances of your birth. Born a serf, you remained a serf all your life. Born an aristocrat, you remained an aristocrat all your life. Modern society, however, is a society of contract, in which what you can become depends upon what you can do. In a similar way, I think, much of our recent history has involved not just evolutionary movement, but also literal movement. We’ve become a society of far greater physical movement. Traditionally, for most people, where you lived depended upon where you born. Aristocrats, of course, have always been able to get around, but that was a freedom common people did not previously enjoy. What is new in this century, as a result of the automobile, is that physical mobility has become accessible to just about everyone who is free.
My essential theme is that the car is just not another consumer item, and not just a very important consumer item; rather, that it is something incredibly special, something that ranks with only a handful of other technologies that can truly be said to have liberated mankind. In a sense, the car is morally different from most other consumer goods. It has a major ethical dimension, and that is something we are losing sight of. Moreover, it is this special moral feature that accounts for the increasing barrage of ideological attacks on the car.
BackgroundLet me begin by offering some background. The car was invented in Europe, but it was democratized in America. When Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1909, it sold for $825. By 1925, it sold for only $260. Europe was using a carriage-trade approach toward manufacturing cars, the same as it did with horse-drawn carriages: a small group of men did everything. Consequently, in Europe, it took about 3,000 man-days to build one car. Once Henry Ford got going, it took 70 man-days. In Europe, therefore, the car was a plaything of aristocrats. America made it something everyone could afford.
Second, remember what the car replaced—horses. You think cars are dirty in terms of what they emit? A horse produces about forty-five pounds of manure per day. That’s not all; in the late 1800s, New York City was disposing of 15,000 horse carcasses a year. Now, it is one thing to find a rusted hulk of a car on the roadside, but if you come upon a horse carcass, it is a different order of disgust. Then, too, if early cars were unsafe, the things they replaced were even more unsafe. Horses were not a very safe mode of transportation, and controlling them was especially a problem for women and the elderly.
Which brings me to a little side issue; the late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky observed that the world is made safer by dangerous products. These products are dangerous, they have risks, but they replace products that are even more dangerous. For all of the car’s problems, what it replaced was a very dangerous, very dirty type of transportation, which made cities, and especially the high-density cores of cities, incredibly filthy places.
Finally, there is the fact that cars are privately owned mechanisms that operate in a politically managed infrastructure of roads. Politically run entities, of course, are notorious for being poorly run. But when things go wrong with traffic, such as congestion, it is always politically easier to blame the privately owned car rather than the political management of the road.
The Attacks on the CarIn one sense, today’s attacks are not new. When railroads were first being developed in the 1800s, the Duke of Wellington declared that they would just encourage common people to move about needlessly. Aristocrats had always been able to move about, but once commoners began to do it by rail, mobility became an object of aristocratic disdain. And once the car was developed, the disdain was not much different. In the early 1900s, one member of the British Parliament claimed that the car was a luxury that would degenerate into a nuisance. More recently, we have a whole slew of attacks on the car. Al Gore, in Earth in the Balance, wrote that the internal combustion engine is a mortal threat to society, deadlier than any military enemy.
That message has become something we hear daily. Let me go through some television ads to illustrate.
In this first ad, a young man driving down a deserted desert road is stopped by a highway trooper who asks, rather forcefully, why he isn’t car pooling. When we’ve shown this ad some people have though it was a satire that we produced at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). It isn’t; it is a serious environmentalist ad. The fact that, at the end, the officer does not return that kid’s nervous smile indicates that it’s no spoof.
In a second commercial, a troubled woman is searching for something in her home. She gets increasingly desperate as she looks, yanking open drawers and sweeping countertop items to the floor. Is she looking for cigarettes? A fix? She seems about to fall apart when she suddenly finds it—her car keys! “Addiction” is the accusation that opponents of the car often use. They don’t say “our love affair with the car” or even “our over-dependence on the car.” It’s claimed to be an addiction; as I’ll suggest later, that terminology is paving the way for something else.
This third commercial is from Greenpeace. It shows all these toys cars assembled into the shape of a dinosaur, which then collapses while the narrator intones: “It’s coming—the end of the age of the automobile.” The ad closes with a pleasant scene of people biking down a city street. Notice that whenever you see the bicycle portrayed as an alternative to the car, the bike-riders are always healthy people, unburdened with shopping carts or groceries or babies. They’re never elderly or handicapped. And it’s never a rainy day.
Some of these ads raise issues that are conceivably valid, such as pollution and its violation of property rights. But many of the attacks on cars have nothing to do with pollution. Think back to the late 1980s, when there were news reports of a phenomenon known as cold fusion. It was supposedly a new chemical reaction that would produce limitless, totally clean, incredibly cheap energy from mechanisms operating at room temperature. For several weeks it seemed that we might really have a new form of energy. So, what did the prospect of non-polluting energy mean to the environmentalists? Let me quote Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford professor and one on the leaders of the ecology movement: “It would be like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.” Jeremy Rifkin, another anti-technologist, said: “It’s the worst thing that could happen to our planet.” Why? Because until then, pollution was a stick with which these people could attack energy use. Once that stick was taken away, once energy became immune to these pollution-based attacks, anti-techologists would be left totally unarmed. That was the worse thing they could imagine.
Let me give you another quotation, this one from Amory Lovins, who runs the Rocky Mountain Institute and is one of the leaders of alternative “soft energy”: “Suppose we had clean, renewable, hydrogen-powered, ultra-safe, 150-mile-per-gallon station wagons, which we probably could have if we wanted them. What would that mean if two billion Chinese or ten million Los Angelenos drove those cars? Well, it simply wouldn’t work. We might not run out of food or air, but we’d run out of roads and patience.” Those quotations demonstrate that most of the philosophical antagonism towards the car has little to do with arguable claims regarding pollution and property rights. Instead, it’s remarkably similar to the disdain that the Duke of Wellington expressed over a century and a half ago: the common people are moving about needlessly, if not via rail then via sport utility vehicle.
Planning versus ChoiceNothing ruins a central-planner’s vision more than a technology that lets individuals go where they want, when they want. Nothing destroys their plans the way a car does.
Planners often begin their attacks on cars by pointing to congestion. But in the private economy, congestion is an opportunity. If you are running a restaurant and you get a good review in the local newspaper, then all of a sudden crowds are lined up outside at dinnertime. That’s an opportunity for you, and you’ll respond to it by accommodating the increased demand. You’ll introduce early-bird specials to get some people to come at off-peak times. You may even expand your restaurant, or build another. Congestion is a visible symbol that your place is success. Yet planners insist that highway congestion is a sign of failure. It is not. It becomes a sign of failure and causes problems for highways only because those highways are political infrastructures, not privately managed institutions.
What do critics of the car think that we ought to do about congestion? What is the vision they offer? They want us to prevent congestion and sprawl by going back to the European-style high-density city life. But this is an issue of lifestyle, not property rights. The fact is that people, for decades, for many reasons, have been moving away from cities. Sometimes they decide to move back. Regardless, they are engaging in choices of lifestyle, not in violations of rights. But to the central planner, and to those who believe in centrally planned societies, nothing could be more disturbing.
The National Association of Home Builders polled people on this question: If you were given the choice between an urban townhouse, close to public transportation, close to shopping and work versus a single-family, detached home in an outlying suburb, which would you chose? Eighty-three percent went for the single family home; seventeen percent for the urban townhouse. Many people do not like the urban style of living, or at least they do not want it for certain phases of their life such as when they are going to raise kids. They like the suburbs. Statist intellectuals, on the hand, despise few things more than the suburbs.
There’s is a myth that urban sprawl, and the popularity of the vehicles that make it possible, are the fault of General Motors’ destruction of urban transit systems. The claim is that GM bought up the rights to produce electric buses and then switched everyone into cars. But if you go back to the history of that epitome of automobile life, Los Angeles, it indicates something quite different. When the car was first introduced, Los Angeles already had what was probably the best, most extensive public transit system in the world. It had trolleys going into just about every neighborhood. What happened when cars came? People found that cars were incredibly more convenient than trolleys. It wasn’t that GM or the auto industry connived to kill the trolley. LA residents, who were well served by public transit, had a huge preference for the car. It wasn’t the car that kept the trolley out; it was that the trolley couldn’t compete with the car.
A Philosophical Examination of AutomobilityThe basic challenge today is re-legitimizing the car, establishing a moral basis for its defense. About five years ago, CEI asked Loren Lomasky, a philosophy professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, to do a monograph on the car. We did not want a Chamber-of-Commerce-type defense of the car; we didn’t want statistics on car sales or car-related jobs or the auto industry’s contribution to gross domestic product. After all, a heroin producer could say the same things about contributing to the economy, but that wouldn’t do much for legitimizing his work. What we wanted was an ethical defense of a car. And Professor Lomasky produced a very fine monograph, which is available on CEI’s web site. Basically, he concluded that the car is one of the three most liberating technologies ever developed (the other two being the printing press and the microchip). It is one of the technologies that has most enhanced our ability to engaged in the fundamental human attribute of self-directed action.
The car’s connection to freedom of physical motion may seem obvious, but Professor Lomasky examines its less obvious contribution to several other aspects as well.
One of these in involves knowledge. Philosophers sometimes distinguish between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. Knowledge by description is what you learn from reading, knowledge by acquaintance is what you learn from experience. You can do all the reading you want about Chicago, you can read everything you want about it, and maybe view everything on the Web. But if you tell someone, “I really know Chicago,” and they ask, “Have ever been there,” and you say no, it is clear that you’ve been pulling their leg. Much knowledge, especially of actual locales, is acquired by going and seeing. For intermediate ranges, even for some very long distances, nothing exceeds the ability of a car to allow a person to do that. When it comes to your city, the outlying areas, the farms within a day’s trip, nothing enables you to know them like the car. There may be exceptions, such as the densely populated core areas of certain cities where you might learn far more by walking, but for most of the world, at least the paved world, the best way is going to be the car.
Another liberating aspect of the car involves the issue of privacy. When you get into your car and close the door, you have incredible control over your environment, such as what you listen to and whom, if anyone, you’re with. It may well exceed the bathroom as a privacy-enhancing chamber of twentieth-century life.
But the car also allows people to achieve privacy in another way. The dense, urban lifestyle is something that a lot of people do not like, and quite often that includes immigrants to this country who have left precisely that style of life. There is a wonderful book by Joel Garreau called Edge City (1991), in which he interviewed some immigrants from India who were living way out in the boondocks of a Houston suburb. Why was there an Indian community out there? You might think that Indians are accustomed to density. But that’s just it; as one immigrant explains, in India you have no privacy. There is no such thing, because you live in a house with thirty family members. So when you get your first taste of privacy in the United States, it becomes very, very precious.
Lastly, the automobile vastly expands your range of economic opportunities. Throughout most of history, where you lived was pretty much where you worked. That changed somewhat with the Industrial Revolution; the question then became: Where could you move to in order to work and live? But only with the car was there a true disaggregation of the two. With the car, working in one place still left you free to live in a huge range of other places. And if you lost a job in one place, you no longer had to pull up roots and move. Being able to choose where we live is incredibly important, because in large part we are choosing who most of our friends are going to be. Professor Lomasky concludes that Detroit did more to liberate and dignify labor than all of the Socialist Internationals combined.
Democratizing Mobility, Undermining CommunismAlan Pisarski, a leading transportation analyst, did a very interesting paper for us on what he calls the automobile’s “democratization of mobility.” He finds that, over the last few decades, the car has been the major factor that has allowed large numbers of women to enter the job market. Without the car, it would be nearly impossible to manage dropping off the kids at daycare, working full-time, picking up groceries, and getting the kids back from daycare. It would be impossible to do this on any mass-transit schedule. Only the car makes it possible.
He reaches similar conclusions for the entry of minorities into the market place. When immigrants come to this country, the first thing they want is a job; the second thing they want is a car. And once they have access to a car, their range of job choices increases dramatically, as does their range of residences. And at that point their lifestyles become middle class in nature. If we restrict mobility in the name of something like global warming, then the last groups that gain mobility, women and immigrants, will probably be the first groups to lose it.
The car has had a huge impact not only on those who have, but also on those who don’t. Waldemar Hanasz, an Assistant Philosophy Professor at Rockford College, drew on his experience as a Polish émigré to examine the car’s contribution to the fall of Communism. For people living behind the Iron Curtain, the car symbolized both Western technology and Communist inequality. Foreign cars were the most visible example of class privileges in the supposedly classless Soviet society. Every Soviet citizen dreamt of three things—an apartment, a telephone, and a car. Meanwhile Politburo members could be seen regularly driving their luxurious foreign cars through Moscow’s streets.
In the 1940s the Soviet government arranged for showings of the film, The Grapes of Wrath. It assumed that this socialist saga of displaced American farmers would show the Russian people how cruel life in America was for the downtrodden. The plan backfired. As the audiences saw scene after scene of farmers traveling across the country in their battered trucks, searching for work, they were struck by one thought—in America, even the poor have their own cars.
Central Planning Wasn’t Always GreenThe vision behind today’s attacks on the car is largely an environmentalist vision. It’s easy to forget that throughout history there have been other types of planning visions as well. In the South, in the first half of the twentieth century, the vision was white, not green. It was embodied in the Jim Crow laws. It’s significant that one of the turning points in the civil rights struggle against those laws succeeded, in large part, because of the car.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 began when Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. The boycott was a lengthy affair, marked by violence and the focus of national attention. But few people today realize that one major factor in the ultimate success of the boycott was the fact that its participants had access to cars. Here you had a government-regulated, segregated bus monopoly, and the way people got around that was to organize car pools and church van pools. Had it not been for the car, the bus boycott, which lasted for a whole year, would very likely have broken down.
Let me read to you some quotes from people who lived through that event, from a National Public Radio production entitled “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?”
Said one participant: “Many people offered their cars and … would pick up people before they went to work every day. Some taxi drivers said that they would drive for free to help pick the people up.”
But as the narrator explains, the police commissioner threatened to arrest any cab driver who charged less than the minimum fare. (The police chief must have been an antitrust scholar who knew predatory pricing when he saw it!)
From other participants:
“We had church vans carrying people. And those of us who had automobiles, we had really a system.” “Nobody passed anybody walking without stopping and picking them up.”
There was a huge amount of police harassment. “Negroes were arrested for running a red light when there wasn’t a red light there, and arrested for running a stop sign and there wasn’t a stop sign there. They were arrested for speeding and sometimes they were standing still.”
It didn’t matter; this turning point in the civil-rights movement occurred because people had access to a form of transportation that was free of government control.
Morality and AutomobilityTo re-legitimize the car means to make people recognize, once again, that it is a moral product. At CEI, we joke that people in the auto and oil industries tend to feel more ashamed of their products than heroin producers. They rarely tout the nature of automobility; they rarely run messages saying “It’s a great day for a drive.” Why? Because to do so would be to encourage the gratuitous consumption of allegedly dwindling resources.
So what is the industry doing? Worse than nothing. 1996 was declared to be the centennial of the car in the United States. Detroit ran ads showing polls of people saying their car was more important than their refrigerator and their hairdryer. Persuasive? Not one bit. Yet 1996 could have been an incredible opportunity; it wasn’t just the centennial of the car, it was also the fortieth anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott. Yet the industry, which could have publicized that historical connection, did not say a word about it.
Not all businesses are this timid. The pharmaceutical industry has some wonderful ads about what pharmaceuticals mean to life, and so does the steel industry. In terms of legitimizing energy, General Electric used to have an absolutely beautiful commercial that starts with a child’s hand turning on a light switch; in space of 55 seconds, the ad then traces a chain of energy that runs from her home to jet engines to hospitals to baseball games to trains to auto plants, then back to her home as the light goes out and she’s put to bed. CEI produced (on a much lower budget) its own public service spot, using the theme of “Why not let there be light?” But you rarely see anything like this from the auto industry. Instead, you have things like Ford Motor Company becoming the exclusive sponsor of Time magazine’s Earth Day issue.
Let me give you a thought experiment on how important re-legitimization is. Imagine taking a video camera to someone stopped at a red light in a big empty car; the driver is the only person there. Stick the video camera in his face and ask: “Was this trip really necessary? Couldn’t you have carpooled? Couldn’t you have waited until you had several chores instead of zipping down the road to pick up a six-pack of soda?” I think in most cities you will get a semi-apologetic response. “Yeah, you’re right. I guess I’ll try harder next time.” Now suppose instead that you go to a Borders or a Barnes and Noble mega-bookstore. Take your video camera to the check-out line, to someone buying half a dozen paperbacks, and ask: “Do you know how many trees died for the paper in those books, how many streams will be polluted by the ink? Did you see whether your library has those books? Whether your neighbor has them?” I think you’ll get a totally different reaction. It will be along the lines of “get out of my face and get out of my life.” Why? Because people view reading as an inherently moral activity, and they’re right. To read is to become a better person. Cars, on the other hand, are viewed differently. They may be a great convenience, but they are semi-sinful.
There is something wrong about that attitude. The challenge for the auto industry is to put cars on the same moral plane as the book. The challenge is declare that cars have been instrumental in creating a valued way of life for us, and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with bringing that way of life to two billion Chinese.
What has been going on over the last decade and a half, in terms of the way industries are attacked, involves the “demon-ization” of industry. It began with the tobacco industry. Today you can find environmentalist documents that explicitly discuss the aim of putting the auto industry on the same track that the tobacco industry was on twenty years ago—namely, headed for disaster but with no understanding of what is coming. I am not going to make any apologies for the tobacco industry; I think there is a real question as to whether, before warning labels appeared in the mid-1960s, that industry wasn’t misleading people for at least some period of time. But the point is that the industry demonization approach has proven incredibly effective.
One of the elements in the suits brought against the tobacco companies by the states attorneys general was the alleged recovery of social costs. Every time a smoker lights up, they said, he imposes costs on society. Therefore, we, on behalf of the states we represent, are entitled to recover those costs.
In light of that, it’s interesting that there has now developed a large literature on what is called the “social costing” of cars. The theory is that every time you fill up at the pump, you’re not paying the real “social costs” of that gasoline: the military cost of protecting our foreign sources; the subsidies that highways are supposedly given; the costs that your pollution supposedly imposes. It doesn’t take much to imagine some attorney general, in the near future, deciding that this is a great basis for a mega-lawsuit to recover those “social costs” from the auto industry. After all, didn’t the tobacco litigation establish the precedent for this?
Let me conclude with this thought. We have all heard the phrase about people voting with their feet. Automobile use is a matter of people voting with their tires. Mobility is an incredibly important ability. When Friedrich Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom, it seemed like that was the road that civilization was truly taking. But it is clear now that we are on a different road, a road from serfdom. For many people that road starts as a footpath; it starts as one that they take on their bloodied feet. For lots of us, though, that road eventually turns into an actual highway. That’s what is in the balance in this debate. As convenient as driving may be, it is much, much more than that. It is a lovely activity, and a moral activity, and control over it is one of the last things you would want to give up to any government.