The libertarian journalist and satirist P.J. O’Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic, the H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute, a contributor to magazines ranging from Rolling Stone to The American Spectator, and the best-selling author of 12 books, the latest of which is Driving Like Crazy: 30 Years of Vehicular Hell-Bending (Atlantic Monthly Press). The new book touts itself as “celebrating America the way it’s supposed to be—with an oil well in every backyard, a Cadillac Escalade in every carport, and the chairman of the Federal Reserve mowing our lawn.” In June, reason.tv’s Ted Balaker spoke with O’Rourke at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California. Video of the interview can be seen at reason.tv.
Q: Does it bother you when you hear people say we’re “addicted” to automobiles?
A: It doesn’t bother me. I want to strangle them. It’s a little bit beyond bother. I want to stuff them in their Prius and lock the doors. They just don’t know what they’re talking about. Americans were able to create the life that we have in America by being able to get out of the big cities. Can you imagine New York in August before the car was invented? Whatever you may think about smog, can you imagine what New York smelled like with traffic as heavy as it is today, but it’s all horses? Can you imagine the stink, the flies, the disease of that place?
And it wasn’t just the urban environment that we were battling with the cars. It was the corruption of the urban political machines, lousy public schools, insane municipal bureaucracies. The reason we live in the suburbs is because we were able to escape those things. And the reason we were able to escape those things—it wasn’t the train. It was the car that allowed us to get far enough away from that stuff to build a decent life.
Q: Do you think there’s a danger that the American love affair with the automobile could be replaced with a love of trains?
A: Yes, there’s something romantic about the train. But try getting the tracks to come to your house. When it’s time to unload the groceries, the romance with the train disappears immediately. Try taking the train through the drive-in window at the In-N-Out burger. It makes a big mess.
Q: Maybe it’s just the politicians who love trains.
A: Why do politicians love trains? Because they can tell where the tracks go. They know where everybody’s going. It’s all about control. It is all about power. Politics itself is nothing but an attempt to achieve power and prestige without merit. That is the definition of politics. Politicians hate cars. They have always hated cars, because cars make people free. Not only free in the sense that they can go anywhere they want, which bugs politicians in the first place, but they can move out of the political district that the politician represents.
[New York Mayor] Mike Bloomberg pointed this out, when they were trying to raise taxes on the very rich in Manhattan. He pointed out that the whole budget of New York City is based on about 30,000 super-high-[income] taxpayers. And Bloomberg said: They can move. They’re not in businesses with bricks and mortar. They don’t have any production lines with any huge, big, heavy machines. They can just get in their car—their BMW—and drive to Greenwich and live there. And then what are you going to do?
Q: Do you think it’s patriotic to buy an American car?
A: Of course not! In the first place, most American cars aren’t actually American cars. There’s no such thing as an American car; all cars are international cars now. On the other hand, the To-yota you buy may be made in the United States. The Honda you buy definitely would be made in the United States. The BMW you buy would be made in the United States. Volkswagens too. So you don’t know whether you’re buying an American car or not. Just buy a good car. Buy the car you want, and to heck with the rest of it.