Freedom and the Car

Self-Directedness Is Intrinsic to Automobility


Loren Lomasky teaches philosophy at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. This essay was originally produced as a working paper for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. A longer version appeared in Independent Review.

Years before the automobile evolved into a transportation necessity, before meandering mudded ruts were replaced by multilaned asphalt, pioneering motorists took to the roads for pleasure. Today tens of millions still drive for pleasure, but increasingly it is a guilty pleasure. From a multitude of quarters motorists are indicted for the harms they leave in their wake. Drivers generate suburban sprawl, exacerbate the trade deficit while imperiling national security, foul lungs and warm the atmosphere with their noxious emissions, give up the ghosts of their vehicles to unsightly graveyards of rubber and steel, leave human road kill in their wake, trap each other in mazes of gridlock, and, adding insult to injury, commandeer a comfy subsidy from the general public. It is only the presence of unconverted cigarette smokers that deprive them of the title Public Nuisance Number One.

Barring a radical re-engineering of America, there is no prospect that we will any time soon toss away our car keys. Cars (and trucks) are here to stay. But as the automobile enters its second century of transporting Americans from here to there, momentum for curbing its depredations grows. Construction of significant additions to the interstate highway system has ground to a halt. Lanes on urban roads are declared off-limits to solo motorists. Federal fuel-efficiency standards require automakers to alter their mix of product to emphasize lighter, less gasoline-hungry cars. Taxes on fuel have been increased only modestly, but if critics of automobiles have their way, America will emulate Europe and the tax will go up by a dollar or more per gallon. The revenues will be directed toward more mass transit, pollution relief, and research on alternate modes of transportation. Some argue that employer-provided parking should be taxed as income to the employee or disallowed as a business expense to the provider. Others advocate following the model of Amsterdam by barring nearly all automobiles from entry into the center city. And supplementing policy proposals is moral suasion. In the name of social responsibility, individuals are urged to carpool or avail themselves of public transportation; scrap their older, fuel-intensive vehicles; and to eschew unnecessary automobile trips.

Why this assault on the automobile? I have no wish to deny that some of the charges advanced by critics are true. Automobile carnage is indeed dreadful. The number of people killed each year on our roadways far exceeds the total who succumb to AIDS. Automobiles do pollute, all to some extent, some much worse than others. Anyone who has ever been trapped in rush-hour gridlock, fuming inside at the delay while being engulfed by the fumes outside spewing from ten thousand tailpipes, knows that the simple job of getting from here to there in one’s automobile can be the most stressful part of the day.

But even accepting all the above, it does not seem sufficient to explain the intensity of opposition directed toward the automobile. There are costs associated with any large-scale enterprise, and so a critique that merely reminds us of the nature and extent of these costs is only half useful. What is also required is, of course, a statement of the benefits derived from the enterprise and a plausible accounting of whether those benefits do or do not exceed the costs. How to identify and measure costs and benefits of automobile usage poses very difficult methodological problems that I shall not address here. I do note that the overwhelming popularity of the automobile is itself prima facie evidence that, from the perspective of ordinary American motorists, the liabilities of operating a motor vehicle are more than compensated by the benefits. Just as theorists speak of people “voting with their feet,” we can count those who vote with their tires. And the vote is overwhelmingly pro-automobile.

Critics may contend, though, that the election has been rigged. They can maintain that it is the absence of public transportation and compact neighborhoods integrating commerce, industry, and housing that force us so often into our cars. And even if it is the case that each of us values the options and mobility that automobile transport affords, we might disvalue yet more the stress, delay, and pollution imposed on us by others.

There is at least this much merit to the critic’s case: a purely behavioristic appraisal of automobile usage is insufficient for evaluating it. We need also to think more intently about how to classify and understand as a distinctive human practice the action of driving a car. Opponents of the automobile argue that the most telling way in which to understand this is: creating a public bad. That is the appraisal I shall dispute in this essay. My focus will not be on the many practical uses to which the automobile is put (driving to work, car-pooling the kids, buying groceries). Rather, I shall concentrate on what is intrinsic to automobility. As such, automobility is complementary with autonomy: the distinctively human capacity to be self-directing. To be autonomous is, minimally, to hold values—ends taken to be good as such—and to have the capacity to direct oneself to the realization or furtherance of those ends through actions expressly chosen for that purpose. This is what motorists do. Therefore, insofar as we have reason to regard self-directedness as a valuable human trait, we have reason to think well of driving automobiles.

I am making a strong claim. Automobility is not just something for which people in their ingenuity or idiosyncrasy might happen to hanker. Rather, automobile transport is a good for people in virtue of its intrinsic features. Because automobility is a mode of extending the scope and magnitude of self-direction, it is worthwhile.

Moreover, the value of automobility is strongly complementary to other core values of our culture, such as freedom of association, pursuit of knowledge, economic advancement, privacy, even the expression of religious commitments and love. If these contentions are even partially cogent, then opponents of the automobile must take on and surmount a stronger burden of proof than they have heretofore acknowledged; for they must show not only that instrumental costs of marginal automobile usage outweigh the benefits, but they also must additionally establish that these costs outweigh the inherent good of the exercise of free mobility. That heightened burden will be difficult indeed to satisfy.

Movement, Choice, and Human Potential

Concern about automobiles may be a modern phenomena, but analysis of the distinctive nature of automobility is not. For Aristotle, being a self-mover is the crucial feature distinguishing animals from plants and, thus, higher forms of life from lower. That distinction is itself preceded by a yet more basic one that separates the organic realm from that which is lifeless. To be alive is to be possessed of an internal animating force, psyche. The customary translation is “soul,” but in the context of Greek biology that is misleading. For us “soul” tends to carry a theological and thus elevated sense, but in classical Greek thought it marks the divide between inert things and those imbued with a vital principle. At the highest level is the rational soul, the intelligence exhibited among the animals only by man.

The conception of motion has a wider scope than traveling from place to place. We retain residual traces of this broader meaning in expressions such as “a moving experience” and in the etymological history of “emotion,” but in the philosophical language of the Greeks the more inclusive sense is primary. Any transformation of a subject from the potential to the actual with regard to some quality is deemed motion. Movement, therefore, is not simply descriptive of getting from here to there but is normatively rich. To move is to progress—though, of course, it can also be to backslide. For people there is not only a better and worse but a chosen better or worse toward which we deliberately direct ourselves. Crucial to the elevated status of human beings as compared to other beings is intelligent automobility.

Commuting and Community

Automobility is, by definition, promoted by the automobile. The complementary nature of autonomy and the automobile is only slightly less evident. Being a self-mover in the latter part of the twentieth century is, to a significant extent, being a motorist. Because we have cars to drive we can, more than any other people in history, choose where we will live, where we will work, and separate these two choices from each other. We are more able to avail ourselves of near and distant pleasures and to do so at a schedule tailored to individual preference. We are less constrained in our choice of friends and associates by accidents of geography. Our ability to experience an extended immediate environment is notably enhanced. The automobile is, arguably, rivaled only by the printing press (and perhaps within a few more years by the microchip) as an autonomy-enhancing contrivance of technology.

No one who has ever been caught up in rush-hour gridlock will maintain that commuting to and from work is unalloyed joy. Competing with tens of thousands of other motorists for scarce expanses of asphalt can be reminiscent of the Hobbesian war of all against all. For critics of the automobile this is not a negligible point. But neither are its implications entirely clear-cut. Just as worthy of notice is how many people voluntarily subject themselves to that ordeal. Have they not realized how much time they are wasting behind their steering wheels? Such inadvertence isn’t plausible. In their judgment, the costs of commuting are amply compensated by the benefits. The more the critics emphasize the magnitude of the costs, the more these critics underscore, knowingly or otherwise, the extent of the benefits.

Commentators from the Greek philosophers to Adam Smith to Karl Marx have noted that the nature of the work one does largely shapes the quality of life one leads. To do work suited to oneself in a satisfactory environment is for nearly all of us a great good, while to perform alienating labor under unfriendly and unhealthy conditions is a correspondingly great evil. Similarly, to reside in a comfortable and functional dwelling situated in a neighborhood one finds hospitable is also a considerable good. For most people throughout human history, neither occupation nor place of residence has afforded more than a negligible range of choice. One did the work one’s father or mother did, or to which one had been apprenticed, or which was the kind of work available in that place. And one lived where one must or where one could.

The increased affluence and openness of liberal capitalist society has vastly expanded the range of choice. Previously one either lived close to one’s work or else on a commuter rail line. But motorists are not bound by the geography of the New York, New Haven & Hartford tracks. Depending on how much time they are willing to invest in transit, they can live at considerable distance from where they work while also being emancipated from mass-transit rigidities. Cultured despisers of suburban existence can and do decry this circumstance, but millions of Americans (and, increasingly, the rest of the world) disagree. It can hardly be denied that the suburbs are an object of choice by those who live there. To respect the autonomy of persons is to acknowledge that expanding their options with regard to work and residence is a plus.

Nineteenth-century socialist reformers decried industrial capitalism’s exploitation of workers. Although it could reasonably be contended (as F. A. Hayek famously did in Capitalism and the Historians) that workers voluntarily abandoned their rural domiciles for the factory town only because they regarded it as a net improvement, it must nonetheless be conceded that their situation was not enviable. The work was grueling, and opportunities for self-directed choice were minimal.

Yet no syndicalist scheme or string of workers’ cooperatives remotely approaches the automobile as an instrument of emancipation. Insofar as it extended the feasible range of commuting between residence and work place, the coming of the motor car augmented the bargaining power enjoyed by workers. In theory, under a legal regime of free contract, workers always enjoyed the right to terminate their employment when they wished to do so, but in practice this liberty often proved discouragingly costly. Automobility significantly lowered those costs. Detroit has done more for the liberation and dignity of labor than all the Socialist Internationals combined.

Liberation can also be observed when viewing the employment-residence nexus from the other direction. The ability to choose where one will live makes a considerable difference to the exercise of self-determination. Life in the suburbs is not inherently better than life in the central city, but it is different. To the extent that one possesses a real opportunity to choose between them, one is thereby able to give effect to significant values that shape a life. If one is mobile, the question of where to live is answered by an act of positive choice rather than through inertia or extraneous constraints such as the location of one’s place of employment.

Choice of residence is a major avenue through which Americans exercise their right to free association. One thereby decides with whom one will live. And perhaps even more importantly, one decides with whom one won’t live. An ethic that endorses autonomy must acknowledge that, the content of individual choices aside, it is a good thing that people are able to make up their own minds and then act on that decision concerning where they will live.

Mobility and Knowledge

For much the same reasons that automobility and autonomy are good things, so too is knowledge. Like self-moving, knowing affords us a firmer grip on our world. Indeed, choice and knowledge are complementary. We might say that choice without knowledge is blind; knowledge without choice is impotent.

Automobiles enhance mobility, and mobility enhances knowledge. Insofar as the area within which one is able to move is increased, so too is the range of one’s knowledge-gathering capacities. Knowledge need not be grand or profound to be valuable in itself and as a complement to choice. If I drive north along the lake to see how the autumn leaves have turned and whether the Canada geese are still milling or have flown, then I may have gained experience that I take to be inherently valuable. Driving through the various neighborhoods of a city reveals where the bakeries and hairdressers and Thai restaurants are located, who is having a garage sale this week, and which parts of town are becoming distinctly seedier.

When the range within which one moves about becomes extended, so too does the range of one’s potential base of knowledge. And the automobile is the quintessential range extender, not only by lengthening the trips one can take but also by multiplying the number of available routes. Cars do not only go to malls and theme parks but also to libraries, universities, and museums. Urban centers of learning are rendered accessible on a regular basis to those who live many miles distant.

The Wheels of Privacy

Another complement to autonomy is privacy. Some quantum of privacy is requisite for self-determination. The automobile is for twentieth-century American society the quintessential bastion of privacy. For many of us it’s the Honda rather than the home that is the castle. Ironically or not, those minutes between home and office on a freeway clogged past capacity with tens of thousands of other cars may be one’s most private time of the day.

Social planners are wont to gnash their teeth at the number of motorists who could arrange to carpool to work but instead “inefficiently” take up roadway space with a solitary-occupant car that could carry several times as many people. Diamond lanes and other inducements have only a limited effect on average occupancy statistics. This may be viewed as a failure of policy, but it can also be seen as a reasonable and in some ways estimable response to the valid human desire for privacy. Privacy in virtually all its forms, including that afforded by the automobile, is a good to which significant costs come attached. I shall not dispute here whether the costs incidental to automotive privacy exceed the benefits; my point is that there are genuine benefits from driving solo. Any cost-benefit analysis that aims to be unbiased must acknowledge that privacy is a good and then proceed from there.

Being alone is one aspect of privacy, but it is not, I believe, the most central. What is more salient is a (re)gaining of control over one’s immediate environment. I may be surrounded by other people, but if I am able to determine to a significant degree what they shall be allowed to perceive of me and know about me and impose on me, then to that extent I have retained a private self. Surely one reason for the fondness people often hold for their cars and for automobility in general is the scope afforded with regard to that sort of control. Pushing one button turns on the radio. Pushing another changes the station, lowers the volume, turns off the radio and switches to the tape player. It is one’s own choice whether to listen to news reports, Beethoven, Beatles, or nothing at all. Next to the switches for the stereo are those for climate control, windshield washing, blinking one’s lights, perhaps even a cellular phone. Individuals exercise control over the internal environment of their cars in a manner that is not possible with any alternate mode of getting around. Once we focus attentively on the good that is privacy, it will no longer appear obvious that rush-hour gridlock on highways is an unacceptably high price to pay for the opportunity to be one’s own man or woman behind the wheel of one’s own car.

The Road from Serfdom

In light of all these considerations, why has motoring fallen under such a cloud? Three possible reasons suggest themselves. First, although the critics acknowledge the range of goods afforded by automobility, they have identified accompanying evils that in their view drastically outweigh the goods. Second, the critics may be oblivious to the various autonomy-enhancing features of automobility. Third, they may recognize these features but regard them as goods of a much lesser status than I have claimed or, indeed, even as detriments.

Could the automobile’s critics have failed to observe that cars support autonomy? If these effects were slight and subtle that might be a reasonable supposition. But we have seen that they are not, that when compared with alternate means of transportation the automobile stands out as the vehicle of self-directedness par excellence. Not to observe this would be like visiting the mammal area at the zoo and failing to notice that the elephants are rather larger than the zebras, camels, and wart hogs.

I am convinced that the automobile’s most strident critics are well aware of the fact that automobility promotes autonomy—and that is precisely why they are so wary of it. To be in the business of formulating policy is to be professionally predisposed to consider people as so many knights, rooks, and pawns to be moved around on the social chessboard in the service of one’s grand strategy. Not all analysts succumb to this temptation, but many do.

People who drive automobiles upset the patterns spun from the policy intellectual’s brain. The precise urban design that he has concocted loses out to suburban sprawl. If people rode buses and trains whenever they could, less oil would be burned and fewer acres of countryside would be paved over. Perhaps communities of an old-fashioned sort would be restored. Perhaps the central city would come alive again other than between the hours of 9 and 5. Perhaps. . . . But why go on? These lovely visions are blocked by the free choices of men and women who resist all blandishments to leave their cars in the garage. They wish to drive. Automobile motoring is good because people wish to engage in it, and they wish to engage in it because it is inherently good. So the intellectuals sulk in their tents and grumpily call to mind utopias that might have been.


December 1997

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