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Davis, California

Friday, April 19, 2024

Column: Fast cars and freedom

There is perhaps nothing so quintessentially American as the automobile. For generations, cars have represented independence, the open road and the exhilarating freedom to drive into the sunset of your choice. The old Cadillac slogan sums it up perfectly. There’s nothing more American than “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit.”

Unfortunately, for every good thing in life, there is a group of mirthless killjoys dedicated to ruining that good thing. In the case of the automobile, the opposition is a motley collection of budget-padding bureaucrats, intellectual elites of the enviro-zealot persuasion, and well-intentioned but misguided believers in the benevolent power of social engineering. One is reminded of H.L. Mencken’s famous quip: “A Puritan is someone who is deathly afraid that someone, somewhere, is having fun.” The reasoning of these particular modern-day Puritans is simple: Cars are anathema because they pollute, are wasteful and are just too difficult to control.

The solution as seen by motorphobes is equally simple. If local, state and federal governments make it hell on earth to drive, fewer people will do it. Take for instance a recent article in Time Magazine which blithely asserts, “It makes sense that if you make driving more inconvenient, fewer people will want to do so. After all, who doesn’t detest searching for a parking spot?” The author sheds few tears for the inconvenience of the car-dependent hoi polloi, concluding, “Basically, whether people are annoyed with parking due to lack of available spots or due to outlandish prices doesn’t matter. As long as they are frustrated enough not to drive, the environment will be better off.”

And to ensure that drivers will indeed be frustrated, automobile detractors have a full toolbox of coercive policy proposals. The European model, implemented selectively in some U.S. cities, emphasizes blocking off city streets to vehicles, reducing the number of available parking spots, shortening green lights while lengthening reds, and hitting commuters with congestion taxes, increased bridge tolls and high parking fees.

Others have proposed higher gas taxes, which already place a strain on millions of families but have the pleasing characteristic of enhancing budget funds for the huge transportation bureaucracies. One proposal, the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax, would have drivers paying the Feds for each mile traveled, as if every car was a government taxicab with an unstoppable meter. This latter proposal was even included in the President’s 2011 budget draft before public outrage forced a hasty reassessment.

But wait, should our own government be dedicating itself to making our lives worse? The miseries of congestion, scarce parking and long commutes would seem to be disincentive enough without elected leaders intentionally adding quicksand to the quagmire. And what about those living in rural areas or commuting long distances who cannot avoid driving? As a rural-to-urban commuter myself, I already suffer from unavoidable commuting stresses that negatively affect my quality of life. Should my government seek to increase those stresses? That’s a pretty poor version of government by the people and for the people.

One of the biggest problems with automobile restrictions is that they penalize the poor disproportionately. For a comfortably middle-class environmental studies professor to pay a VMT tax to drive his Prius to the local farmer’s market, it’s a mild inconvenience. To a small contractor commuting two hours each way to remodel an old Victorian in San Francisco, it’s a deal-breaker. It’s also a deal-breaker for the traveling musician, the migrating farm worker, the administrative assistant commuting to the city and countless others.

Don’t get me wrong, I love bikes just about as much as anyone else. Living in a small college town (like Davis) or a dense urban area, cars are relatively superfluous and incredibly inconvenient. But the vast majority of Americans, who don’t have the luxury of living in college towns or expensive urban centers, don’t have those options. If you care about the environment, you should ride your own bike and persuade your neighbor to ride his. Using the coercive power of government to penalize those who don’t live as you do isn’t the answer.

Unfortunately, the ruling class seems to care little for the convenience and sanity of the harassed commuter or the joy of the enthusiast. The formula is a standard one for government: more taxes, more tolls, less freedom and less fun.

SAM HOEL is a law student at the UC Davis School of Law and can be reached at swhoel@ucdavis.edu.


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