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Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

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Making Economic Sense
by Murray Rothbard
(Contents by Publication Date)

Chapter 55
The War on The Car

One of the fascinating features of the current political scene is its bitter, and nearly unprecedented, polarization. One the one hand, there has been welling up in recent months a palpable, intense, and very extensive popular grass-roots movement of deep-seated loathing for President Clinton the man, for his ideology and for his politics, for all those associated with Clinton, and for the Leviathan government in Washington.

This movement is remarkably broad-based, stretching from rural citizens to customarily moderate intellectuals and professors.  The movement is reflected in all indicators, from personal conversations to grass-roots activity, to public opinion polls.

The bizarre new element is that usually, in response to such an intense popular movement, the other side, in this case, the Clinton administration, would pull in its horns and tack to the wind. Instead, they are barreling ahead, heedlessly, and thereby helping to create, more and more, a virtual social crisis and what the Marxists would call a "revolutionary situation."

Response of the Clinton administration has been to try to suppress, literally, the freedom of speech of its opponents. Two prominent recent examples: the Clinton bill to expand the definition of lobbying (which would mean coerced registration and other onerous regulations) to include virtually all grass-roots political activity. Fortunately, this "lobbying reform" bill was killed by "obstructionists" in the Senate after passing the House.

Second, was the federal Housing and Urban Development's systematic legal action to crack down on the freedom of political speech and assembly of those opposing public housing developments for the "homeless" in their neighborhoods. It turns out that this elemental political activity of free men and women was "discriminatory," and therefore "illegal," and HUD legal harassment of these citizens was only pulled back under the glare of severe public criticism. And even then, HUD never admitted that it was wrong.

The latest Clintonian march toward totalitarianism has not yet been unleashed. It seems that the White House has established an advisory panel known as the "White House Car Talks" committee, slated to submit its recommendations for action in September. The need for "car talks" is supposed to be the menace of the automobile as polluter.

The fact that the demonized chemical element, lead, has already been eliminated from gasoline, or that federal mandates have repeatedly made auto engines more "fuel efficient" at the expense of car safety, cuts no ice with these people. It is impossible to appease an aggressive movement bent on full-scale collectivism: gains or concessions simply encourage them and whet their appetite for escalating their demands. And so to the car talkers, automobile pollution remains as severe a menace as ever. 

The Car Talks panel consists of the usual suspects: Clintonian officials, environmentalists, sympathetic economists, and a few stooges from the automobile industry. Some of the innovative ideas under discussion, in addition to higher taxes on "gas-guzzling" cars and trucks (query: does any car ever sip daintily instead of "guzzle?"):

establishing a higher minimum age for drivers' licenses;

forcing drivers over a maximum age to give up their licenses;

placing maximum limits on how many cars any family will be allowed to own;

enforcing alternative driving days for car commuters.

In short, the coercive rationing of automobiles, by forcing some groups to stop driving altogether, and by forcing others to stop using the cars they are still graciously allowed to possess.

If that isn't totalitarianism, what exactly would qualify? If the American public is enraged about "gun-grabbers," and they indeed are, wait until they realize that Leviathan is coming to grab their cars!

Now, of course, the White House aide who discussed these ideas with the press admitted that some of the "wilder ideas" will get killed in committee. Is that all we can rely on to preserve our liberty?

Meanwhile, as usual, the only public criticism of these ruminations has come from the Left, griping that the Car Talkers are not acting fast enough. Dan Becker, of the Sierra Club, complains that "each second this yammering goes on in the White house," hundreds of gallons of pollution are being sent into the air. Who knows? Maybe Dr. David Kessler, apparently the permanent head of the Food and Drug Administration, can issue a finding that the fuel emissions are "toxic," and the administration can then ban all cars overnight.

We should realize that the war against the car did not begin with the discovery of pollution. Hatred of the private automobile has been endemic among left- liberals for decades. It first surfaced in the disproportionate hysteria over what seemed to be a minor esthetic complaint: tail-fins on Cadillacs in the 1950s. The amount of ink and energy expended on attacking the horrors of tailfins was prodigious. 

But it soon emerged that the left-liberal complaint against automobiles had little to do either with tailfins or pollution. What they hate, with a purple passion, is the private car as a deeply individualistic, comfortable, and even luxurious mode of transportation.

In contrast to the railroad, the automobile liberated Americans from the collectivist tyranny of mass transit: of being forced to rub elbows with a "cross-section of democracy" on bus or train, of being dominated by fixed timetables and fixed terminals. Instead, the private automobile made each individual "King of the Road"; he could ride wherever and whenever he wanted, with no compulsion to clear it with his neighbors or his "community."

And furthermore, the driver and car-owner could perform all these miracles in comfort and luxury, in an ambiance far more pleasurable than in jostling his fellow "democrats" for hours at a time.

And so the systemic war on private automobiles began and moved into high gear. If they couldn't get our cars straight away, they could, in the name of "fuel efficiency," "pollution," the joys of physical exercise, or even esthetics, persuade and coerce us into using cars that were costlier, smaller, lighter, and therefore less safe, and less luxurious and even less comfortable.

If they grudgingly and temporarily allowed us to keep our cars, they could punish us by making the ride more difficult. But now, the Clintonians, in a multi-faceted drive toward collectivism from health to gun-grabbing to assaults on free speech, and on the rights of smokers have demonstrated that they never give up.

Unlike previous administrations, they are tireless, implacable, and overlook nothing. Yesterday, the slogan: "If you let them come for our cigarettes or for our guns, next they will come for our cars," would have seemed like absurd hyperbole. Now, that prospect is becoming all too much a sober portrayal of political reality. 

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