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Cars Cause Libertarianism

by Chris Kulczycki Thu Jan 5th, 2006 at 06:28:37 PM EST

from the front page --Jérôme

George Monbiot, one of my favorite Guardian columnists and author of several best-selling books, equates car use with neo-conservatism. Furthermore, he says that unfettered motoring actually causes neo-conservatism (or neo-liberalism) .

Anybody can see that the red areas on the American political map are, for the most part, rural and suburban, places, or non-places, as J.H. Kunstler would say. They are where extensive motoring is mandatory. We also know that our progressive political base is largely in cities and towns where alternative transport most likely exists. But is it a stretch to infer a cause and effect relationship between driving and libertarianism, toryism, or even republicanism?

They call themselves libertarians; I think they're antisocial bastards

..... It is about the rise of the antisocial bastards who believe they should be allowed to do what they want, whenever they want, regardless of the consequences. I believe that while there are many reasons for the growth of individualism in the UK, the extreme libertarianism now beginning to take hold here begins on the road. When you drive, society becomes an obstacle. Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away. The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become. The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation that recognises only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people's actions. We drive on the left in Britain, but we are being driven to the right.

Certainly moving about in a metal and glass environmentally controlled armored pod encourages isolation from those around us. In fact the modern luxury car that so many aspire to is simply a device still better at separating us from the world outside. With climate control, sound proofing, interior air filters, a cocoon of air bags and a concert class stereo there is darn little to connect the passenger to the outside world. But can the isolation of driving really turn Brits into, gasp, Americans?

Driving down a typical American suburban collector road during rush hour will convince anyone that most drivers do see the world as an obstacle. And sitting at a traffic light watching them pick their noses, apply makeup, or stuff egg sandwiches into their faces demonstrates the regard they have for their counterparts. These are not members of polite society. Such a civil disconnect cannot be anything but a manifestation of hyper-individualism run amok.

It is strange to see how the car has been overlooked as an agent of political change. We know that the breaking of the unions, the dismantling of the welfare state and the sale of council houses that Margaret Thatcher pioneered made us more individualistic. But the way in which the transition from individualism to the next phase of neoliberalism - libertarianism - was assisted by her transport policies has been largely ignored. She knew what she was doing. She spoke of "the great car-owning democracy", and asserted that "a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure". Her road-building programme was an exercise in both civil and social engineering. "Economics are the method," she told us, "the object is to change the soul." The slowly shifting consciousness of the millions who spend much of their day sitting in traffic makes interventionist government ever harder...

The American example is interesting. Over the past few decades, as car ownership became cheaper, public transport became scarcer, and homes were built further from cities, the populace swung to the right.

I told a conservative friend that I often rode a bicycle to the store. He said, "Around here only the destitute do that." Hmmm.

It shouldn't be hard to see how politically foolish are the current government's transport policies. The £11.4bn that it is spending on road building is an £11.4bn subsidy to the Conservative party. However much Blair seeks to accommodate the new libertarianism, he cannot consistently position himself to the right of the opposition. The longer he sustains Thatcher's programme of social engineering, the more trouble he stores up for his successors. Every branch line that is closed, every bus that is taken off the road, every new lane that is added to a motorway hastens the day when the Tories get back behind the wheel.

So there you have it, when we build new roads instead of public transportation systems we also build the opposition. Do you agree?

I fully agree.

I need to do a post about the policies pushed by the Green-Socialist municipality team in Paris, as they have had an explicit goal to make it harder for cars to drive in the city: reducing the number of lanes on major thoroughfares, adding big buslanes that take the space, creating 30kph zones. Traffic is down, but pollution is not, and the population is grumbling. The problem is also that Paris city makes up only the central bit of the Paris metropolitan area; most of the cars in Paris come from the suburbs (a record 60% of Paris city households have no cars), and most of the traffic is now between suburbs, where public transport is terribly insufficient. So the relationship between Paris (pop. 2M) and the neighboring cities (pop. 6 to 9M depending on where you put the limits) are not easy...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Jan 3rd, 2006 at 04:05:23 PM EST
I wrote my friends and family this op-ed piece after I spent the holiday in posession of a car (an SUV, no less).  

We've had the car all week, and at first it was nice, but today we finally hate it.  We went shopping, to use all these gift gards to Kohls and Target and JCPenney and Walmart we've been hoarding for years because we need a car to drive out to bfe to shop at these places.  It was pretty depressing, all the driving and department stores full of overpriced stuff.  Oy. Then when we got home we had to park blocks from our place, and we just decided that we'd made the right decision, living in the city and walking/biking/taking the el everywhere.  

I thought a car might make life easier.  It does, but you don't realize how much it keeps you from interacting with the world...  Matthew thinks there is a big conspiracy to make everyone dependant on cars and oil and big department stores and strip malls full of junk.  Keeps you in a constant state of consuming things and gets rid of the whole concept of community and small business.  Anyway, that's my diatribe.  Sell your car!  Bike to work!  Walk to the local corner store!  Woo Hoo!  :)

There are places in this country where people drive 1 block because of the social stigma of walking down the street.

Also, if you all read BooMan's "On Courage" I think you can see how the isolation in the lives of most Americans is directly related to conservative ideology.

Anyway, I agree, agree, agree.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Tue Jan 3rd, 2006 at 05:22:47 PM EST

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Jan 3rd, 2006 at 08:54:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Right on, Chris.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Tue Jan 3rd, 2006 at 05:32:56 PM EST
I find two problems with this argument.

First, even at the height of train travel in the 1930s it was neither pleasant nor fast. For example, in books about car competition in England in the 1930s it's not unusual to read stuff along the lines of "because our car was broken in the event, we had to take the train home; after four changes and 12 hours we finished a trip that would have taken two hours by car." Furthermore, there are lots of places that you simply can't get to in a reasonable amount of time by train. People went to Brighton for holiday because that was as far as you could get from London by train without spending the whole weekend (and your life's savings) just on the travel.

Second, there is an incorrect assumption about the energy efficiency associated with train travel. It is very hard to make a fair comparison because trains frequently run with very low load factors (passengers divided by available seats) because you have to go all the way to the end of the line. This works in cities, but is pretty horrible on long trips; try taking the train from DC to Boston some time (the most heavily traveled route in the US) and observe the number of empty seats by the time you arrive. Also, cars are, or can be, quite light in weight, while trains are comparatively heavy. Acela, for example, weighs over two tons per seat, while small passenger cars weigh about 1/4 ton per seat.

I like trains as much as anybody, but I don't harbor any romantic notions about them being better than cars. The ability of the automobile to travel to practically any point, the independent scheduling, and the energy efficiency, make trains a losing cause except in special cases where trip density is very high.

by asdf on Tue Jan 3rd, 2006 at 10:17:19 PM EST
My husband and I have often discussed this, but not so comprehensively or so elegantly. We never made the leap from cars causing recklessly solipsistic behavior, to political parties encouraging that behavior to build their base.
by northsylvania on Tue Jan 3rd, 2006 at 10:49:41 PM EST
I still can't make the leap even after reading that.

And, I'm a big fan of isolating one's self. What's so wrong with isolation? Isn't that a very Buddhist thing to do?

In my opinion, the metaphors in this article are too mixed.

Driving cars is undoubtedly bad for the environment and it causes energy dependence leading to you now what.

But as for political temperments, there are a whole host of better explanations for them than the automobile. When looking at the American suburbs, think "race" not automobiles. Race explains America.

by Upstate NY on Wed Jan 4th, 2006 at 10:40:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A few points to consider:

The rapid expansion of American suburbs based on easy highway access took place in the 1950s and 1960s, and largely coincided with the shift from Eisenhower-era Republican conformity toward the Johnson Great Society era, which saw the greatest Democratic majorities in the U.S. since the New Deal.  Those suburban regions, traditionally staunchly Republican (having fled from the inner cities), have themselves been trending more and more Democratic of late.  Indeed, it is now the most fertile ground for Democratic pickups in House and state/local races.

Urban dwellers are intimately aware of the high costs associated with sophisticated infrastructure development and maintenance, and are thus more inclined to be accepting of higher taxes required for those services.  Rural and suburban residents are often ignorant of the degree to which their lifestyles are still dependent upon large government spending.

Many Americans fled the cities in search of lower taxes and "safer" neighborhoods; for more than a generation, the GOP has thrived on law & order and tax reduction (Nixon's "Silent Majority" and Reagan's supply-siders).  In a more general sense, the urban vs. suburban/rural political dynamic has been around for well over a century, both in the U.S. and in Europe, long before automobiles even existed.

At least in the U.S., it would be hard to claim that the cost of car-ownership has become cheaper, certainly not over the past 30 years or so.  The cost of an average vehicle is much larger relative to income now than it was a generation ago (one of the reasons why leasing has become so endemic).  While I can't readily get the figures for as far back as I'd like, the average expenditures for transportation among urban residents rose 74.4% from 1984-2003, while it increased by 123.1% for rural residents.  (Source: BLS data for transportation, type of area, urban and rural.)

We could go on and on.  While there's definitely a degree of correlation between driving and libertarianism, I would doubt very strongly that the former causes the latter.  If, say, a columnist alleged causation between the proportion of darker-skinned people and crime in a community, he/she would rightly be denounced as an unreformed racist.  One can dress it up however one pleases, but it amounts to little more than anecdotal pop psychology.

(If I sound cranky, my apologies.  A large amount of work descended unexpectedly late this afternoon, and I'm dreading the consequences of it for the next couple of weeks.)

by The Maven on Tue Jan 3rd, 2006 at 11:10:56 PM EST
I agree in general, but think you underestimate the impact of the automobile on rural life long before 1950. The program of development of good roads began early in the lifetime of auto transportation, right after the first world war. People living in rural areas were extremely isolated before cars became available, and the success of the Model T Ford was largely due to the huge demand for rural transportation.

Here's an interesting description of the "Park to Park Highway" project started in 1920. The idea was to have a paved road that connected most of the National Parks in the western US. It was a giant loop starting in Colorado and circling around to California and Oregon and back through Wyoming, "meandering around for 5,590 miles through the eleven moun­tain and desert states. It was dedicated with a tour that started in Denver on August 26, 1920, returning on November 9."

by asdf on Wed Jan 4th, 2006 at 12:30:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting thought. But what about LA?

Los Angeles is the most car-chocking city in the world, yet it is liberal.

by das monde on Wed Jan 4th, 2006 at 12:58:04 AM EST
Do I agree? I do.

Monbiot's article seems to me right about Britain, and I've seen a similar development over the years in France. Partly, the point is how the private car has "improved": the more people are shut away (often alone) in sound-insulated, air-conditioned shells giving the illusion of separateness and security, the less they feel they are sharing a public space with other citizens. (I'm comparing back to a time when drivers could hear a lot more of surrounding sounds, and often had their windows down, and might, in some countries at least, indulge in yelling at each other, which at least was a form of social interaction...)

The modern car gives a huge extension of instantly-available power to the driver's body and psyche, at the same time as the illusion of privacy, security, untouchableness, even impunity. It turns our way of living in public into a way of living publicly in private. It's the public realm that suffers in the process, and it's not at all surprising that the "philosophy of life" people are attracted by is one that tends to place the private and individual above the public and the common.

I sometimes think the car is a medium that does more than the other mass media to shape mass consciousness. More influential than TV? Across the social board, yes, I think so.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jan 4th, 2006 at 02:36:21 AM EST
Cars don't make people right wing.  

Rather, cars are almost always more convenient, more comfortable, and faster than public transportation, the sole exception being the central cores of large cities.  So people outside said central cores will always choose them, given a chance.  

But cars are also much more expensive than public transport or bicycle.  So they are driven more by richer people, who tend to be more right-wing.  Poor people often move to central cores because they cannot afford to own a car, hence urban areas tend to be more left-wing than rural or suburban areas.

Correlation is not causation.

by tyronen on Wed Jan 4th, 2006 at 07:02:37 PM EST
This is true in Europe, but in the US even the poorest own cars. There are many homeless who own cars.

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
Czeslaw Milosz
by Chris Kulczycki on Thu Jan 5th, 2006 at 08:16:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Cars tend to be cheaper because they do not pay for (i) their externalities (pollution, associated police forces, emergency vehicles, ER service, long term costs of dead young people and handicapped people) and (ii) the construction of the infrastructure they need and (iii) the use of extremely valuable land in many places - especially in cities.

Public transport pays a bigger share of its infrastructure and has a lot fewer externalities.

Let's get the full price in (tolls for road use, emissions taxes, and full insurance payments for all healthcare associated at least with car accidents) and let's see what happens then.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Jan 6th, 2006 at 02:12:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That is true in the US, but I'd guess that European levels of gas taxes do in fact cover these externalities.

One problem with arbitrarily raising the gas tax in a country like the US, with minimal public transport and low minimum wages, is that it would be very regressive, and might actually drive poor people out of the labor market.  Some kind of rebate would be necessary.

by tyronen on Fri Jan 6th, 2006 at 05:12:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In the 1920's General Motors set up some front companies to buy up urban light rail system (trolleys). They also "leaned" on legislators to change the policies towards surface transit.

Once the companies and policies were in place, the trolleys were replaced by "modern" buses and private autos. The buses were, of course, made by GM.

Even now as fringe communities are expanding the first thoughts are to expanding highway capacity. There is no consideration of building mass transit. There has been a small recovery of light rail in some urban areas, but still no sign in the exurbs.

Libertarianism or corporate self interest?

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Fri Jan 6th, 2006 at 10:56:34 AM EST
Just a note... iirc the first improvements of metalled surface on US intercity roads were made at the request of cyclists, prior to Mr Ford's vulgarisation of the motorcar.  The aggressive, popular and energetic Wheelmen's Clubs of the time had no idea that they were literally paving the way for a transport technology that would become the number one killer of cyclists and pedestrians, and would eventually displace cyclists from many major roadways and highways.  At the time it was the "scorchers" on their newfangled pedalling machines who were considered the threat to public (i.e. pedestrian and horse) safety and who demanded wider, safer, well-surfaced roads so they could ride faster and more comfortably...

... also, most correlations within culture are not linear, but more like recirculating feedback loops -- ouroborean -- so there is seldom a clear "ante" and "post" as in Cause and Effect.  

certainly US culture was deliberately shaped towards car dependency for a number of reasons some of which were rightist, and certainly the automobile-dependent culture easily adapts to and reinforces many rightist memes.  among them the tendency towards futile arms races (a failure to solve the prisoners' dilemma), sociopathy, conspicuous wastefulness as a signifier of status and privilege (cf Veblen), the related desire to look down on an underclass from one's chariot (US cars get taller and taller), fantasies of escape from the stifling schedules of industrialism, and cherished symbols of mythic male potency.  the style and substance of US automobile promotion and design is what you would expect from an imperial power on the cusp of decline.  the H2 kind of sums it all up.

the Th!nk Car and the Sparrow (Euro designs, yes?) may be seen as suggesting that a car culture could reflect different values (minimising the space occupied and the fuel consumed, presenting a modest and nonthreatening outer appearance, etc).   there would still be larger social justice and sustainability issues with any car culture imho, since the road and parking infrastructure alone (even w/o the cars and their emissions and lethality) represents an unsustainable burden on biotic systems...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Jan 6th, 2006 at 06:06:07 PM EST
1.  When do we expect a law (as if there are not enough) from all-knowing-all-powerful-all-caring nanny state to abolish cars?

God forbid if you drive a car you might vote for the   libertarian candidates, and we can't have that.  

2.  Just like Albert Gore (former US Senator, former VP, former Presidential candidate) - the internal combustion engine is the greatest evil facing our civilization.  Who would have thought?  And misguided souls might think that Islamofascism that murders people is the greatest evil.


by ilg37c on Sat Jan 7th, 2006 at 02:16:04 AM EST

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