The War Against the Car

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.

Another irritating article by an ill informed conservitive making some lame arguments based on anecdotal examples.

Published November 11th 2005 :: Wall Street Journal

By Stephen Moore :: USA



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 board.