Thursday, June 5

The automobile and freedom

In America since the 1950's, the car has joined the bald eagle as one of our primary emblems of freedom. That open road through the desert has been imprinted into our imagination through scores of books, songs, and movies. Libertarians such as Frank Lloyd Wright hailed the advent of the automobile as a way to reorient the city around individual liberty. The automobile's ability to confer freedom has even worked its way into our cultural experience of the life-cycle. Turning 16 and receiving a license is the entry point into the adult world (certainly more so than gaining the ability to vote at 18), and the point at which the children take away the car keys from their elderly parents signifies the end of their independence. These are some powerful associations.

However, with several decades of hindsight, it's worth taking stock of the whole situation. Have automobiles really enhanced our freedom?

Loss of Freedom

Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher of modernity, has written about the dominance of "instrumental reason" in the modern world. This is the tendency to ground most of our decisions in a cost-benefit calculation which requires all aspects of life to be reduced to quantifiable units.

From the Malaise of Modernity:

"The society structured around instrumental reason can be seen as imposing a great loss of freedom, on both individuals and the group - because it is not just our social decisions which are shaped by these forces. An individual lifestyle is hard to sustain against the grain. For instance, the whole design of some modern cities makes it hard to function without a car, particularly where public transport has been eroded in favour of the private automobile."

The problem is that, while the automobile did initially expand an individual's range of mobility, the essential infrastructure of society also expanded accordingly, leaving the individual back where he started, only now completely dependent upon the enabling piece of technology. In other words, the various activities that we organize our lives around (eating, sleeping, working, shopping, worshiping, schooling, socializing) have become that much more removed from each other now that it can be expected that we will possess an automobile to traverse the distance.

The results would be simply neutral, except that cars are expensive in a number of ways. As Christopher Alexander points out, their biggest expense is the space they take up. They are also expensive in terms of carbon output and use of finite natural resources. These costs are mostly incurred socially, but the IRS has calculated that the average individual cost of driving amounts to 50.5 cents per mile. Every dollar that goes toward our private modes of transportation is a dollar that we are not at liberty to spend on something else. Every acre of asphalt is an acre that we are not free to use for something else.

But the larger issue that Taylor is getting at is really the exclusion of individuals from civic engagement. Virtually everywhere in America, it is difficult for those who either choose to or are forced to live without an automobile to become full participants in society. This is evident in the American life-cycle narrative. Why is being able to drive celebrated by teenagers? Why is the loss of that ability mourned by the elderly? It's evident that those on the margins of the life-cycle are quite severely restrained in the choices available to them. As is true for those who simply can't afford an automobile or are prevented from driving by a disability.

Furthermore, the freedom granted by automobiles is not cumulative. Each new person who achieves this freedom takes some of it away from somebody else. Remember that it is the open road that seizes our instinct for liberty. As more people are added into the equation, the open road quickly becomes a traffic jam and we feel confined and powerless. As we are approaching the hard limits of land and of energy, as well as enjoying the continuing enfranchisement of more and more people, it's clear that whatever freedom the automobile may have granted to those who are able to own one has a very dim prospect into the future.


J.W. said...

This is a fantastic piece. I especially like the price assessment vis a vis the amount of space that cars take up. I was reading in The Plan of Nashville the other day that the urban interchange between 24/40 and 65 in E. Nashville takes up approx. 93 acres, all of which would become valuable real estate for public and private development (not to mention an important connector between downtown and the east side of the city--the sector is currently very blighted and congested because of the interchange) if the interchange were removed. Instead of receiving the revenue that medium to high residential and commercial development in the area would bring, the city and county spend hundreds of thousands per year maintaining the interchange. This all represents subsidization of suburban living and the automotive culture.

Daniel Nairn said...

Good to see you're already reading up on the Nashville situation. You must be getting read for the move pretty soon. Or maybe you're already there.

Elliott Broidy said...


Unknown said...

Your post was very nicely written. I’ll be back in the future for sure, new driver insurance

Alex moner said...
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Star said...
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