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It’s small wonder that the truckers became cultural heroes in the 1970s, a time when that ideal of independence was popular across the spectrum, from grassroots Reaganites to the Nixon-hating counterculture. The truckers were hardly the first group of self-employed workers to rebel against both state and corporate power—American history is filled with petit-bourgeois populists with similar resentments—but the drivers’ CB jargon and highway blockades captured the public imagination at a time when anti-authoritarian sentiment was surging.
The truckers’ political impact teaches an enduring lesson about deregulation: Like any other political cause, it’s more likely to succeed when there’s a mass movement behind it. There’s a less romantic lesson here as well. Trucking was deregulated not simply because independent haulers called for it, nor merely because both Naderite liberals and free market economists thought it was a good idea. Deregulation came because powerful economic interests were split on the question, with big farming operations pushing for looser rules even as the established transportation firms fought to keep the old regs in place. Such a division opens a space for market reforms, but it also shows how hard it is to adopt more sweeping changes. The trucks were deregulated, but the subsidies, regulations, and loopholes that benefit the most influential agricultural companies—and thus shape the trucking industry as well—remain in place.
From the 1930s through the end of the Carter administration, Hamilton’s history is thoughtful, detailed, and informative. After the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 is passed, though, he rushes through the Reagan years and afterward in a few superficial pages. If an author aims to explain why blue-collar constituencies would break with the old liberal coalition, it’s curious that he would ignore, for example, the Teamsters’ endorsement of Ronald Reagan in 1980. It wasn’t the first time the group had thrown its support to a Republican—notably, it had favored Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972. But surely it’s significant that one of the country’s most powerful unions would back a president whose speeches were filled with denunciations of big government.
The Teamsters’ support for Reagan was the flipside of the independent truckers’ support for opening the marketplace: It was an act of revenge against Carter for deregulation. After Reagan took office, his payoff to the union included the appointment of the Teamster-backed attorney Reese H. Taylor to run the ICC. There he promptly did all he could to throw sand in the gears of reform: firing deregulators, reinterpreting the law in more restrictive ways, and constantly butting heads with the more market-friendly commissioners.
In the long run, Taylor could only slow the process, not stop it. At the end of the decade, the trucking industry faced fewer controls than had been in place at Reagan’s inauguration. Hamilton’s portrait of the ’80s as an era of a steadily retreating state doesn’t hold up across the board, though; in other areas, from public lands to international trade, liberalization was stymied or even reversed. The regulatory order had been revised, but the maneuvering among interest groups trying to manipulate the system continued. And though it might not fit their cowboy image, the owner-operators learned to play that game along with everyone else. In the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the same Mike Parkhurst who had fought to open trucking to new entrants found himself warning against the dangers of Mexican competition.
The deregulation of trucking is a complex story without the clear-cut heroes of Convoy or Smokey and the Bandit. The world it produced has its problems, not least for those of us who’d like to see those tax-fattened factory farms face the sort of competition that swept through transportation three decades ago. But the deregulation we did get led to lower prices for consumers across America, and by prying open an 18-wheel cartel it allowed many more people to own their own businesses. If you like those changes, thank a diesel-dodging, truck-driving asphalt cowboy.
Jesse Walker (email@example.com) is managing editor of reason.