Friday, September 05, 2008

The freedom of the automobile, by the grace of the state

In Australia, and elsewhere in the world, a debate about transport has been brought about by an infernal mix of congestion, fuel costs and global warming. Central to this debate is the role the car plays in our transport options, particularly in urban environments. Unfortunately, as with many debates on policy, the discussion often degenerates into bomb throwing between commentators whom would be better placed barracking at football matches, and whom see the car as a symbolic issue on how society
One set of cheerleaders declare that other options are woolly socialist thinking and knee-jerk hatred of the successes of Western Civilisation. Did we not win the cold war? Wasn’t the Trabant the emblem of socialism’s failure before the Mercedes glowing example of enterprise. Isn’t the control of a vehicle and the freedom of movement by an individual the epitome of the sanctity of the person before the whole as opposed to the cattle herding of public transport?
Another set of cheerleaders sees the car and its consequences as encapsulating the failures of neoliberalism. Is there a better way to showcase how selfish individualism aggregates poorly than global warming, or a traffic snarl filled with honking monsters whom would otherwise be people? And aren’t the absurd amounts of money and love spent on the car classic signs of affluenza and conspicuous consumption.
Both these views are reliant on the idea that the car culture is somehow the result of free enterprise, of user pays and of consumer sovereignty. This idea is very hard to justify. The car, if a symbol of anything, is a symbol of government and industry collaboration. The Great Mid 20th Century Handshake that lingers with us still.
It is illustrative to look at the epitome of car culture, the United States, and particularly LA. There was a time when transport was ruled by lassaiz faire, before the depression soured the public and politicians to the idea, and subsequently LA was ruled by street cars, run by a polyglot of firms bursting into life, dying, selling to each other. This echoed the amazing outburst of entrepreneurial zeal which had endowed America with railways in the previous century and which had elsewhere built the London underground and provided Sydney with it’s first passenger railway (now the Inner West line). This street car system was the most extensive in the world, and the mobility it gave the residents of LA was responsible for allowing the city to become the great sprawling mass it is.
It came to an end obviously. It has often been blamed on the insidious plots of General Motors, but this was but a small element in the wave of public, political and commercial sentiment that followed the Great Depression and more importantly, the war economy. This led to a great growth in manufacturing, particularly planes (giving Boeing an ascendency it still holds) and automobiles, and it gave a promise of a new system. The street cars could not survive in this world.
Post war, the Great Handshake was in full swing. The cars rolling off factory line enlarged by war spending drove on Eisenhower’s new Interstate Highway System. This in turn was born of the great 20th century faith in public works and also provided for the greater mobility of the government’s armed forces. These in turn were administered by the former GM president and Defence Secretary Charles Wilson whom captured the sentiment by declaring he “thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa". Just to be fair, a Ford president in Robert McNamara was given the job the next time around. The companies were happy selling their cars, the public was happy to buy them and zoom off to the suburbs (and new “teenagers” to sexual experimentation) and away from urban centres hamstrung by planning laws designed for that very purpose. The government was happy if the first two were happy. Eisenhower may have closed his presidency with a warning about a “military-industrial complex”, but why spoil a good thing?
The oil shock and consequent and subsequent chaos spoiled this faith in the American system, but it did not destroy the handshake, nor its child the motor car. It merely shifted it, first to the growing might of the Zaibatsu manufacturers such as Mitsubishi and Honda, deeply enmeshed with their own government through Japan Inc, and later their brethren in the Korean Chaebol.
Even today the largest car maker, Toyota, is part of this marriage with the state and elsewhere governments fight to keep motor industries alive. Zappa may have declared the need for a beer and an airline, but a motorcar industry seems to be seen as a far more potent sign of national virility. Why else would Malaysia pour so many resources into Proton. Why else is the Australian car industry still shielded by tariffs when the rest of country responds to globalisation, and why else is it such a recipient of government largesse when competition is the watchword?
The car culture hasn’t been the result of free enterprise, but could it have been anyway? Afterall a car is only as good as the roads on which it drives, it only takes you where the roads go and as fast as they let you. And the roads are public goods.
Private companies have (and are) building roads, but these are reliant on the modern manifestation of the Great Handshake called, obviously, the “Private Public Partnership”. Unfortunately, even with this partnership the exercise is producing losses in examples such as the Lane Cove Tunnel and Cross City Tunnel, and these companies may not return. How would they succeed without the assistance of government?
Otherwise roads are provided by government with little regard for user pays or market forces. Whilst there are registration costs, these go but a small way to covering the expenditure on roads and furthermore these costs are the same regardless of whether one drives once a week on an unpaved public road, or everyday on an elaborately engineered freeway. The pricing mechanisms on which most of capitalism rests holds little sway. When a market mechanism is suggested such as congestion pricing, it is howled down and when it exists in some form is it subject to poplist counter measures, such as the M4 cashback.
The free roads are then governed not by the market but by a mix of norms and the law.
Most quieter roads run mainly on the former, a complex and tacitly understood web of what should and should not be done, when one should give way and is entitled to cut in. The law is in theory in force, but the enforcers are unlikely to catch an infringer, and the social enforcement of driving peers is paramount. This honestly works surprisingly well, but is reliant on social values and sharing, and not on the enlightened self interest of capitalism.
When this society breaks down on major roads is when authority comes into play. Speed cameras, traffic cops, more lights and road markers and signs and fines. This may also work to some extent, but isn’t managing a system by force of authority rather than the aggregation of individual actions the antithesis of free enterprise?
So the car is not the result of free enterprise, nor could a car culture emerge or operate under free enterprise. So if cars are not a symbol of free enterprise and capitalism, what then are they a symbol of?
The answer is “nothing”.
We simply need to recognise that in modern society, and form of transport will be reliant on the provisions of government (even walking requires a footpath). No transport system, whether cars, public transport, bicycles or walking are independent of either enterprise, the state or social norms.
Advocacy of any transport system should only be viewed in light of its merits and not in light of an apparent world view.