The Car and the State

The other reason I started writing this blog is because I have become convinced that much of the growth of the State, especially its most obnoxious expansions, is the fault of the car.

With some things it’s obvious — the United States federal government has repeatedly used the witholding or the threat of witholding highway funds as a way of bludgeoning state governments to bring their policies in line with federal goals. Highways, bridges and other car-only transportation projects are also classic pork-barrel projects, since they will extend through multiple congressional districts and even states, assured of a wide-range of support. They would also, intentionally or not, benefit from effects like induced demand.

The federal government has also bailed out failing auto-makers on more than one occassion and persecuted potential competitors like Preston Tucker. The car-dependent design of post-war suburbs is also partially the fault of programs set up under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations to promote homeownership. The worst sort of “urban renewal”, such as the destruction of the West End in Boston and the building of all those tower-in-a-park affordable housing developments, were also thanks to federal funds.

But I would argue that it goes further than that: the consequences of promoting car-dependence have also enabled the growth of government. For instance, the environmental consequences of suburban sprawl and car dependency have contributed to the raison d’etre for the Environmental Protection Agency, which is frequently attacked as a major source of onerous regulations. The health effects of obesity, the prevalence of which has been alleged as resulting from car-dependency, have been a driving force of many government programs and food regulations.

Even more controversially, the general decline of American participation in civic life, like political parties, service clubs and so on, which once were so common and provided such services as life, health and unemployment insurance, has been linked to suburban anomie and the way driving cars isolate each other. If that hyp[othesis is correct, then it means that the government has grown so much in the past hundred years to compensate for the civic society eroded by the car.

On the other hand, many clubs that offered insurance policies were bankrupted in the Great Depression and participation in civic activities actually increased among early suburbanites. Even today, voter turnout is higher in suburbs. Similarly, the decline of political parties could be attributed to “good government” reforms in the various levels of government and the tools of mass media and big money making politicians independent of their party.

And yet it seems to me that the car ought to have wrought identifiable changes in government and society, having wrought such havoc on the way we live and work.

Maybe I need a research grant.

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