September 2001 -- Editor's Note: This article is adapted from a lecture that Sam Kazman gave at The Atlas Society'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.
Let 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 Car
In 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 Choice
Nothing 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 Automobility
The 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.
Democratizing Mobility, Undermining Communism
Central Planning Wasn't Always Green
Morality and Automobility