Thursday, June 21, 2007

In Defense of the Automobile

The automobile has taken it on the chin lately. Enabler of suburban sprawl, global warmer, in need of gasoline whose purchase requires bankrolling the jihad, and all-around contributor to modern American obesity, the car is coming under scrutiny by Congress and the elite press for its consequences for humanity. Many people shudder at the thought of the Chinese and Indians taking to the car the way Americans, Europeans and Japanese have. Recognizing that the global-warming problems are almost certainly exaggerated (and even if they are not), this attitude is a mistake

I confess I was motivated to write this by overhearing a conversation in which someone criticized car ownership as causing more trouble - expense, parking hassles - than it was worth. Certainly, in a few select urban environments, that is probably true. But the prevailing anti-auto sentiment is profoundly mispalced, for the car is one of the most pro-liberty inventions in human history. For almost all of the history of civilization most people have been confined to a particular place because the costs of leaving were so high. A few adventurous soldiers or traders might wander far afield, but most people were born, lived and died within a ten-mile radius of where they were born.

More than any other form of transportation, even the airplane, the car changed all that. Commercial air travel allows you to go great distances, but only (typically) by arranging the travel well in advance, and at significant expense. Provided only that you can afford the gas, you can hit the road as the mood strikes you. And this is an astonishing breakthrough for human freedom. The Model T in particular was a spectacular human breakthrough, opening up to all possibilities once only available to the richest.

Previously, if the environment around you was hazardous or unpromising, all you could do was try, within (often severe) prevailing social constraints, to change it. Suddenly, you could leave. The ambitious young man stuck in an economically moribund region can pack up and leave for something better. The person who senses a profitable opportunity between two distant locations can use his vehicle to knit them together. Jack Kerouac can hit the road and write about whatever he was searching for. The car as vehicle, as it were, for self-expression gives us the hot rod, the low-rider, the carefully polished convertible – a manifestation of beauty every bit as valid as high fashion or other forms of expressive art. More profoundly, the Iraqi in danger because of confessional fratricide can get in a car and head for Jordan; the woman in danger from domestic violence can put the children in the car and head for someplace safe and far, rather than relying on her close neighbors (known, typically, to her abuser) for protection.

The automobile is on a par with the telegraph and central indoor climate control as an expander of what is possible. If Wikipedia is to be believed, there are about 590 million cars on the road, and there are going to be many more as global living standards rise. No matter what the urbanites isolated in their doorman buildings and the carbonphobes say, this will continue – the automobile liberates commerce, weakens the capacity to repress, and generally makes things possible that once were not. That is why we like them so.


Blogger Gledwood said...

I get your point, but surely if they had special lanes for scooters and we all rode them for normal daily business the roads would be safer and pollution would go down ...

9:39 AM  
Blogger Gledwood said...

great blog you've got here btw: you were Next Blog along from me which is how I found myself here!

9:40 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

Thanks for the praise. But scooters are much more dangerous, at least for the driver, than autos. If everyone drove scooters everyone would get into scooter accidents, and the consequences, I think, would be much worse than car accidents, just as big cars are safer than small ones.

2:12 PM  

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