The War Against the Car

Worth A Look, Urbanization, Frontier Centre

A few years ago, I made a presentation to my second-grader’s
social studies class, asking the kids what was the worst invention
in history. I was shocked when a number of them answered “the car.”
When I asked why, they replied that cars destroy the
environment. Distressed by the Green indoctrination already visited
upon seven-year-olds, I was at least reassured in knowing that
once these youngsters got their drivers’ licenses, their attitudes
would change.

It’s one thing for second-graders to hold such childish notions,
but quite another for presumably educated adults to argue
that automobiles are economically and environmentally
unsustainable “axles of evil.” But with higher gas prices, as
well as Malthusian-sounding warnings about catastrophic global
warming and the planet running out of oil, the tirade has taken
on a new plausibility. Maybe Al Gore had it right all along when
he warned that the car and the combustible engine are “a mortal
threat . . . more deadly than any military enemy.”

Welcome to the modern-day Luddite movement, which once raged
against the machine, but now targets the automobile. Just last
month, environmentalists organized a “world car-free day,”
celebrated in more than 40 cities in the U.S. and Europe. In
the left’s vision of utopia, cars have been banished — replaced
by bicycles and mass transit systems. There is no smog or
road congestion. And America has been liberated from those
sociopathic, gas-guzzling, greenhouse-gas-emitting SUVs and
Hummers that Jesus would never drive.

It all sounds idyllic, but in real life this fairy tale has a
tragic ending. As Fred Smith, president of the Competitive
Enterprise Institute, reminds us, if the “no car garage” had been
a reality in New Orleans in August, we wouldn’t have
suffered 1,000 Katrina fatalities, but 10,000 or more. The
automobile, especially those dreaded all-terrain four-wheel
drive SUVs (ideal for driving through floodwaters) saved more
lives during the Katrina disaster than all the combined relief
efforts of FEMA, local police and fire squads, churches, the
Salvation Army and the Red Cross. If every poor family had had a
car and not a transit token, few would have had to be warehoused
in the hellhole of the Superdome.

This month we paid honor to the heroism of Rosa Parks for
fighting racism through the bus boycott in Montgomery. What
helped sustain that historic freedom cause was that hundreds
of blacks owned cars and trucks that they used to carpool
others around the city.

A strong argument could be made that the automobile is one of
the two most liberating inventions of the past century, ranking
only behind the microchip. The car allowed even the common
working man total freedom of mobility — the means to go
anywhere, anytime, for any reason. In many ways, the automobile
is the most egalitarian invention in history, dramatically
bridging the quality-of-life gap between rich and poor. The
car stands for individualism; mass transit for collectivism.
Philosopher Waldemar Hanasz, who grew up in communist Poland,
noted in his 1999 essay “Engines of Liberty” that Soviet leaders
in the 1940s showed the movie “The Grapes of Wrath” all over
the country as propaganda against the evils of U.S. capitalism
and the oppression of farmers. The scheme backfired because “far
from being appalled, the Soviet viewers were envious; in America,
it seemed, even the poorest had cars and trucks.”

It’s not hard to imagine life in America without cars. If you travel
to any Third World Country today, cars are scarce and the city
streets are crammed with hundreds of thousands of bicycles, buses
and scooters — and peasant workers all sharing the aspiration
of someday owning a car. But in America and other developed
nations, the environmental elitists are intent on flipping
economic development on its head: Progress is being measured by
how many cars can be traded in for mass transit systems and bikes,
not vice versa. The recently passed highway bill establishes
a first-ever office of bicycle advocacy inside the
Transportation Department. The bicycle enthusiasts seem to
believe that no one ever has far to go, that it never rains,
that families don’t have three or more kids to transport, and
that mom never needs to bring home three bags of groceries.

Similarly, there is now a nearly maniacal obsession among policy
makers and the Greens to conserve energy rather than to produce it.
Even many of the oil companies are running ad campaigns on the
virtues of using less energy (do the shareholders know about
this?) — which would be like McDonald’s advising Americans to
eat fewer hamburgers because a cow is a terrible thing to
lose. A perverse logic has taken hold among the intelligentsia
that progress can be measured by how much of the earth’s fuels
we save, when in fact the history of human economic advancement,
dating back to the invention of the wheel, has been defined by
our ability to substitute technology and energy use for the
planet’s one truly finite resource: human energy.

It is because we have continually found inventive ways to harness
the planet’s energy sources at ever-declining costs — through
such sinister inventions as the car — that the average American
today produces what 200 men could before the industrial
revolution began. Studies confirm that the more, not less,
energy a nation uses and the more, not fewer, cars that it has,
the more productive the workers, the richer the society, and
the healthier the citizens as measured by life expectancy. When
Albania abolished cars, it quickly became one of the very
poorest nations in Europe.

The simplistic notion taught to our second-graders, that the car
is an environmental doomsday machine, reveals an ignorance of
history. When Henry Ford first started rolling his Black Model
Ts off the assembly line at the start of the 20th century, the
auto was hailed as one of the greatest environmental inventions
of all time. That’s because the horse, which it replaced,
was a prodigious polluter, dropping 40 pounds of waste a day.
Imagine what a city like St. Louis smelled like on a steamy
summer afternoon when the streets were congested with horses
and piled with manure.

The good news is that environmental groups and politicians aren’t
likely to break Americans from their love affair with cars —
big, convenient, safe cars — no matter how guilty they try to
make us feel for driving them. Instead they are using more subtle
forms of coercion. The left is now pining for a $1-a-gallon gas
tax to make driving unaffordable. Washington has also wasted
over $60 billion of federal gas tax money on mass transit
systems, yet fewer Americans ride them now than before the
deluge of subsidies began. When the voters in car-crazed
Los Angeles opted to fund an ill-fated subway system, most
drivers who voted “yes” said they did so because they hoped
it would compel other people off the crowded highways.

To be sure, if the entire membership of the Sierra Club and
Greenpeace surrendered their cars, the world and the highways
might very well be a better place. But for the rest of us the
car is indispensable — it is our exoskeleton. There’s a
perfectly good reason that the roads are crammed with tens of
millions of cars and that Americans drive eight billion miles
a year while spurning buses, trains, bicycles and subways.
Americans are rugged individualists who don’t want to cram
aboard buses and subways. We want more open roads and highways,
and we want energy policies that will make gas cheaper, not
more expensive. We want to travel down the road from serfdom
and the car is what will take us there.

Mr. Moore is a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial