Commentary Magazine


The War Against the Automobile, by B. Bruce-Briggs

The Car & Its Enemies

The War Against the Automobile.
by B. Bruce-Briggs.
Dutton. 239 pp. $10.95.

Most Americans, in company with an ever-growing number of other inhabitants of the world, regard private automotive transport as a fundamental constituent of the good life, coming just after food in importance, and paid for much more cheerfully than shelter. But while Americans, and people generally, buy new new cars and new old cars with the happy persistence of cigarette smokers hooked on their habit, and then invest heavily in attachments and accessories to make these cars even more splendid, our social physicians preach incessantly that cars are killing us. We are told that we risk our lives by speeding and other avoidable hazards; that we are poisoning our lungs with the noxious effluents of the “infernal” combustion engine; and, worst of all, that we are destroying the environment, both urban and rural, by enslaving it to the demands of motor traffic.

In The War Against the Automobile, B. Bruce-Briggs undertakes at least two badly needed services. The first is to evaluate the strictures raised against the automobile by its articulate enemies. He leaves few of these standing. The second is to explain why the enemies of the automobile feel as they do. Here he is somewhat less successful.

Bruce-Briggs goes about the first task by separating what he calls the “phony costs” of the automobile from its true costs. As evidence of the former he lists a number of charges which may be described as animistic heresies, because in them the automobile is seen as embodying some peculiar anti-human quality. Thus, Bruce-Briggs dismisses the idea that automobiles discriminate against the poor and immobilize low-income families by destroying so-called mass transit. He tells us, rather, that 85 per cent of American households have the use of private automobiles, and the remaining 15 per cent are by no means all poor. Rather than immobilizing the poor, the automobile has given low-income working people access to factories which have, in an evolutionary pattern, moved away from the cramped central-city locations that mass-transit systems were designed to serve. Similarly, Bruce-Briggs derides the idea that the automobile is highly subsidized, arguing that its users pay a remarkably high proportion of the public costs of this form of transport; the taxes generated by automobile use, on the other hand, are unfairly distributed among several layers of American government. He also draws attention to the difficulty of pinning down both the external costs of the automobile (like the consumption of land for roads) which its critics point to, and its external benefits (like increases in land value) which they remain silent about.

Bruce-Briggs also deals with the “phony costs” attributable to the collective animism which automobile critics bundle under the name “Detroit.” Detroit, he says, is not a place where evil men seek to impose their will on their countrymen by misdesigning automobiles, refusing to innovate designs, and cultivating indifference to safety. Rather, American automobiles are designed to the customers’ tastes, which vary from region to region. The relatively large automobile produced in Detroit is well adapted to the long, flat, relatively curveless roads of Middle America. The annual model changes are far less wasteful than is generally supposed, and are related to the rate at which the dies and other tools of automobile manufacturing wear out. Nor does Detroit deliberately plan quick obsolescence. The average American car, in fact, provides its several owners with 100,000 miles of service. The notion that Detroit forces cars down the throats of an unwilling public, and that advertising rigidly controls popular tastes, is, in the author’s view, not in accord with the facts. It may be noteworthy that Bruce-Briggs defends Detroit’s unwillingness to concentrate on the production of small cars even though his own taste runs to them—he drives a Honda.

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The important and true costs of the automobile are three, according to the author: its effect on air quality, the toll of dead and injured from its operation, and the amount of fuel it consumes. Here, too, he asserts, critics have a poor case. For example, the evidence that automobile emissions are actually dangerous to human life is grossly insufficient to justify the large expenditure on anti-pollution devices that Congress has legislated. There is no proof that carbon monoxide, even in the concentrations found in the densest urban traffic centers, is measurably harmful to health, and as for the other major effluents, nitrogen oxides, no one knows how dangerous they are, or whether they are dangerous at all in the concentrations produced by automobiles on the street. It is, rather, the public detestation of smog, produced by the combination of carbon monoxide and the nitrogen oxides under appropriate atmospheric conditions, which has led Congress to enact standards for eliminating both from automotive exhausts. Yet, as Bruce-Briggs shows, the standards set by Congress cannot be met by present technology, and the effective date for meeting them must continually be postponed; the result is a classic case of a problem created by government attempts to regulate an issue that was misdefined in the first place.

On the question of safety, Bruce-Briggs asserts that automobile driving is less dangerous than it used to be. The actual number of injuries and deaths per passenger mile is so low that it is no wonder people are reluctant to protect themselves against hazards they can barely perceive. According to Bruce-Briggs, today’s lower accident rates are due to better drivers and better roads (and to the aging of the population), and the picture might be better still if the government did not intervene by establishing safety standards that do not address the major dangers of driving.

Bruce-Briggs is less satisfactory in his discussion of the automobile’s appetite for petroleum products. Following the analyses of the Hudson Institute (where he has been a staff member), he simply assures us that the OPEC cartel cannot last indefinitely, and that in any case the problem of fuel will eventually find some sort of solution.

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In contrast to its generally admirable treatment of the credits and debits, mostly credits, in the ledger of the automobile, this book falters somewhat in trying to explain why anti-automobile feeling has grown to the size it has in the academic and literary world, and among the social-policy elites. Bruce-Briggs argues that the economic position of the upper class has been imperiled by the mass ownership of cars, which has made it harder for the “best” people to get back and forth between town and country. In order to sustain land values, the elites have engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the public pleasure in automobile driving, and to encourage the expenditure of vast sums of government money in the construction and maintenance of inefficient rail-commuter systems.

This argument from economic determinism seems to me a bit limited. I would tend to place the emphasis rather in the realm of culture, in that same complex of anti-industrial, anti-democratic attitudes that in the modern period has greeted every new mechanical simplification of the tasks of ordinary living with a chorus of denunciation, and that has been repelled by the gross proliferation of goods available to the average household. In the case of automobiles, resentment has focused particularly on that quality for which Bruce-Briggs rightly praises them: the power they give to individuals to exercise maximum control over their own movements.

Enemies of the automobile correctly perceive that it offers unique freedoms to millions of people who would otherwise be denied such freedoms. The distribution by society of so profoundly liberating a force is bound to have a disintegrative effect on the order of things as they are, and on the order of values as they are. The tacit recognition of this truth is, I think, what lies behind the reluctance of the Soviets to allow widespread ownership of cars in their society, and also, if at a much more advanced stage, what lies behind the war against the automobile in our own. The gradually increasing list of restrictions and punitive measures which our elites seek to impose on the mass exercise of the freedom of choice offered by the automobile constitutes a kind of retaliation against democracy itself for the gifts it has conferred on us. This movement of retaliation has been late in coming, but it is now here with a vengeance.

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