If the Tea Party applied its supposed ideas consistently it would take up the slogan: “Oppose big government, say no to cars.” Or for the more fervent among them: “The automobile is a socialist plot.”
Does any other technology demand more government involvement than the car? Not according to Washington. A few decades ago, the U.S, government reported that “the average American citizen (has) more direct dealings with government through licensing and regulation of the automobile than through any other single public activity.”
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Some tea partiers complained about the recent bailout of GM and Chrysler, but the amount of government money spent saving these bankrupt companies is peanuts compared to what is plowed into roads each year. For the first three decades of car travel basically none of this money came from users and today less than half does.
Licensing, bailouts and roads are relatively obvious examples of the government-car symbiosis. So is curbside parking, which sucks up tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies each year. Less obvious are the ways in which cars spurred the modern administrative state. Norman Damon explains: “State officials concerned with building roads, licensing drivers and their vehicles, enforcing traffic laws, as well as concerned with school and college education, early organized to deal with common problems. Thus, the American Association of State Highway Officials came into being in Washington, D. C. in 1914; the Institute of Traffic Engineers was founded in Pittsburgh in 1930 …; the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators in Chicago in 1932; the State and Provincial Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police at Toronto in 1938; and the National Commission on Safety Education at Washington, D. C. in 1943.”
Early on the automobile demanded aggressive social engineering. Traffic lights are now taken for granted, but pedestrians don’t need them and cyclists would do fine with a lot fewer lights. To make way for cars most cities and town were restructured in the 1910s and 20s. Influential architect and city planner, Le Corbusier, captured the sentiment of the automobilists at the time. “WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE! The city of today is dying because it is not constructed geometrically, the needs of traffic also demanded total demolition: ‘Statistics show us that business is conducted in the centre. This means that wide avenues must be driven through the centre of our towns. Therefore the existing centres must come down. To save itself, every great city must rebuild its centre.”
Tea Partiers claim an “originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution” that would see severe limits to government power. But I’ve yet to hear one right-wing speaker mention how the car era ushered in zoning regulations, which radically changed legal thinking about property rights. To facilitate automobility and corporate real estate ventures the administrative state was massively expanded through zoning regulations that usually prescribed detailed controls on living quarters and various uses for different parts of the city.
It’s a Sprawl World After All describes the effect of these regulations. “Zoning laws make it illegal to build anything but sprawl in America. Although it may seem hard to believe, since World War II it has been against the law to build community-oriented small towns complete with main streets, nearby homes, and schools within walking distance.”
From 1916 to 1936 the number of U.S. cities following zoning rules rose from none to 1322. In 1926 the Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision, ruling 6 to 3 in favor of a Cleveland suburb’s ordinance dividing itself into areas for single-family homes and commercial spaces. The lead judgment legalizing zoning admitted the historically determinant nature of the decision. “Even half a century ago [zoning regulations], probably would have been rejected as arbitrary and oppressive [violations of property rights]. Such regulations are sustained, under the complex conditions of our day, for reasons analogous to those which justify traffic regulations, which, before the advent of automobiles and rapid transit street railways, would have been condemned as fatally arbitrary and unreasonable.”
The Supreme Court’s decision is peppered with other references to the auto age. This shift in interpretation of property rights was designed “to reduce … congestion, … expedite local transportation … and the enforcement of traffic … regulations.” The Supreme Court even discussed “cheaper pavement”. “The construction and repair of streets may be rendered easier and less expensive, by confining the greater part of the heavy traffic to the streets where business is carried on.”
In Republic of Drivers Cotten Seiler argues that one of the reasons for the car’s rise to dominance is that driving formed “the right kind of American subjects.” Car travel legitimated “the power structures of managed, administered, modern liberalism” (or state capitalism) all the while preserving “the symbolic figures of Republican political culture.” Driving can engender “sensations of agency, self-determination, entitlement, privacy, sovereignty, transgression and speed”. But, this is made possible by massive government intervention.
The sense of freedom that cars create is inextricably intertwined with huge profits for mega corporations, which work hand in glove with government. These corporations just happen to be some of the sources of Tea Party funding.
That’s why the Tea Partiers would never dare challenge them.
Yves Engler and Bianca Mugyenyi's “Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay” will be published in early 2011. Anyone interested in organizing a talk as part of a book tour please e-mail: yvesengler(at)hotmail.com