hither and yon
June 18, 2011, 12:40 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

We trust trains, perhaps because they have no choice but to go where they are going.

~Alastair Reid

Cars are inviolably and inextricably linked to freedom; and, with no less conviction, to solvency.  Of course they are:  you can hop in anytime and go anywhere you want when you have a car.  You can take the top down to let the sun on your face and the wind in your hair on your way to the beach or the country; or you can gear up with a sleeping bag and a camper stove and put the back seat down and live in your car.  And, regarding solvency, pick a payment plan; car and gas companies make it that easy.

There is mounting – mountains – of evidence to suggest that the kind of freedom that cars give us has a rather dark underbelly:  the catalyst for unforgiving and isolating and unsustainable environments among other things.  Darker still is the issue of solvency:  our car ways are financed by systems of debt financing.  The fantastic irony of American life on the road is that the car lifestyle – universally heralded as the hallmark of American market freedom and of choice – is actuallyunderwritten with government money.

In his article High Speed Insolvency, excerpted below, George Will relates the tired old story:  cars give us freedom and are the cornerstone of the proper economy; and trains will make us dependent on experts and government officials and will lead to debt, he says.

But it is always the money, the solvency issue, that sheds the most light on a huckster like Will.  His numbers don’t work, so he concocts a myth:  that progressives are insolvent and furthermore that they are trying to jam their insolvency down our tax paying, car loving, gas guzzling, responsible citizen throats.  Progressives always want to modify other people’s behavior, it’s part of their DNA, says Will.   And forcing people to use trains in lieu of cars is their new pet project.

It’s too easy to cripple this argument by asking a simple question:  is it modifying people’s behavior to force them to use cars in lieu of trains?  This is not a cute hypothetical:  corporations replaced street cars with buses in order to increase car and road use during the 1930s in many large American cities.  Their reason for dismantling the existing street car network:  ‘one subway car or electric rail car can take the place of from 50 to 100 automobiles’ (Snell, 1974).  Street cars were too efficient and they decided to engineer people’s public lives by transitioning to the less efficient and much more lucrative car and road system.

The road lobby – National Highway Users Conference, a General Motors baby – then made sure vastly more public money was flowing to cars to ensure the death of efficient rail, and the US Highway Trust Fund was formed at whose munificent teat we have collectively sucked for over half a century.

All of this history suggests that in America it’s drivers, not train riders, who are the subjects of government behavior modification.  The capitalists are the social engineers, not the progressives.  And they are not making real markets.  And perhaps most significantly, they’re not contributing to our relative freedom either.

Here is the excerpt from Will’s argument:

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they–unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted–are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Time was, the progressive cry was “Workers of the world unite!” or “Power to the people!” Now it is less resonant: “All aboard!”

High Speed Insolvency, George Will

3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Interesting post – gets to the heart of a lot of what we feel about cars.
But more importantly – I hadn’t heard the phrase hither and yon for ages.

Comment by blackwatertown

Back in the days of the Railroad Barons, even conservatives liked trains. 🙂

Comment by Mark

Yes, and the barons may be shifting back again to trains. Buffet is now investing in rail; he’s realized trucking isn’t nearly as efficient.

Comment by Peter Rudd

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