Looking at the World Through a Windshield

A truck-driving rebellion against the regulatory state

(Page 2 of 2)

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 (jwalker@reason.com) is managing editor of reason.

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  • John Tagliaferro||

    I have Convoy stuck in my head now. Thanks Jesse.

  • ||

    Dangit, I've got it, too. Damn that Kris Kristofferson (as an actor, not as a singer or Rhodes Scholar in this instance)!

  • Jesse Walker||

    John, how did you post a comment on this article 25 minutes before it went live?

  • ||

    Wizards.

  • ||

    It's a permanent hack. From now on, that will be the first comment to all posts here at Hit & Run.

  • brotherben||

    I was reading the article when his comment was posted, if that's any help. I didn't notice the time stamp on comment or article..

  • Lignin Warrior||

    You think Convoy is bad? I've got Rubber Duck stuck in my... well, it ain't my head.

  • Old Mexican||

    In his magazine and in testimony before Congress, Parkhurst called for a sweeping deregulation of his industry, a push that culminated with the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. The new law, sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and signed by President Jimmy Carter, radically reduced the ICC’s authority, eliminating entry barriers, price controls, and other policies that had protected a cartel of carriers from competition. Before 1980, independent truckers had been limited to transporting farm commodities. Under the new rules, thousands of new firms flooded into the remainder of the industry, driving down prices for manufacturers and consumers alike.

    My daddy the Commie told me dat dirigulation is bad.

  • ||

    Along a similar line of miseducation, i've been thinking about monopolies/anti-capitalist sentiment a lot lately.

    Here's what i've been able to come up with so far:

    School taught us that monopolies hike prices, and so monopolies are teh evil. But unions who demand wage hikes are teh good. That's US History 101.

    So, nowadays, Corporations are teh evil, due to their global reach. That's like a monopoly right? Sure, whatever. So, capitalism is bad, Mmmmkay?

    Naturally, the text books left out the part about how those Ancient Evil Monopolies (Standard Oil, etc) were enacted by the gov't. No wonder everyone confuses capitalism with corporatism.

    Best Part: Monopolies are BAD. So, yeah, lets continue to have them. Montgomery County, I'm looking in your direction.

    So, yes. Your Daddy The Commie was right. In a sense.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Using that model, government is the ultimate monopoly.

    But don't tell Chad. He'll get an upset tummy.

  • Old Mexican||

    Not long after Parkhurst founded Overdrive in 1961, he declared himself a “radical conservative,” with the emphasis on radical as much as conservative. When Hamilton tries to describe the perspective Parkhurst represented, the terms he uses include “anarcho-populist,” “anarchic libertarianism,” and “a full-fledged repudiation of all large-scale institutions.”

    Somebody needed to tell this guy that, without government, there would be no roads they could use . . . or regualtions to fight, nor Teamsters, or barriers to entry, or EPA mandates, or taxation galore, or tax-fed piggies with badges harrassing you, or . . .

    Will somebody please tell this guy that we "need" government?

  • Death Panelist||

    An article about truck-driving and not one mention of Brown?

  • Old Mexican||

    My ass is Brown.

  • TickleStick||

    Then wipe it for cryin' out loud.

  • Old Mexican||

    I already did - wanna see?

  • ||

    An article about trucking and not one mention of meth?

  • Old Mexican||

    A similar fate befell the young trucking industry. After the Motor Carrier Act of 1935, drivers who wanted to start a new trucking firm “suddenly needed much more than just a truck and trailer to start in business,” Hamilton explains. “They needed to gain operating authority as well, which the ICC granted only after lengthy and expensive proceedings meant to discourage competition.”

    But we need gunvermint!

  • ¢||

    Indeed, they refuse to make a set of demands, as though even that would be a victory for the system.

    Foucauldian truckers will [?] us all!

  • ||

    It's a shame that among the regulations those truck-driving asphalt cowboys find so onerous are speed limits and chain laws. Not to mention that pesky law of physics that says it’s probably a bad idea for a huge 18-wheeler to drive three feet behind another vehicle at 80 mph. They may not be the most dangerous drivers on the road but they're surely the biggest and most obnoxious bullies. But perhaps I'm being uncharitable; people pumped to the gills on amphetamines don't always make the most rational choices.

  • Old Mexican||

    It's a shame that among the regulations those truck-driving asphalt cowboys find so onerous are speed limits and chain laws.

    Right - I mean, it is not like it is more dangerous to suffer from auto-hypnotism by driving as fast as 55 miles per hour on a straight Texas Interstate than to drive at 80 MPH and keep your wits awake - nooooo.

  • ||

    Nice. "They have to drive like maniacs to keep from falling asleep!"

    I'm surrounded by OTR drivers all day every day. I now give them a much wider berth on the road than before I knew them. Terrifying bunch.

  • Old Mexican||

    Nice. "They have to drive like maniacs to keep from falling asleep!"

    I don't know if driving 80 on an interstate is driving like a "maniac", but driving alongside an 80,000 LB behemoth with a driver that's taking too many winks is truly terrifying.

  • ||

    Gentlemen, in addition to other businesses, I own a small, over-the-road trucking company. I support deregulation but from a philosophical perspective and long before my investment in trucks.

    From your comments, it's obvious you have no idea what you're talking about.

  • ||

    Well, glad that's settled. After all, William Walsh has spoken.

  • libertarian love story||

    William, being a libertarian means never having to know what you are talking about.

  • The Man||

    William not only do they *not* know what they're talking about---they wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. They think that government regulation begins and ends at driver safety. Personally, I feel safer driver a safe distance behind a semi that I do driving a safe distance behind a mom in her SUV.

  • new rules: I rule||

    Please tell me you have a personalized plate that says "THEMAN". I would love to teach you a little about driving safely behind my SUV.

  • Old Mexican||

    What do you mean with "They"? Being facetious is entirely different than being ignorant.

  • The Man||

    and they are notoriously thin-skinned too.

  • Mad Elf||

    I wish trucks would do 80. Around here they hardly break 65. The best is when one truck tries to pass another going up a mountain doing 50. 5 minutes later he finally gets by.

  • Jordan||

    This. A thousand times, this.

  • ||

    You should (not really) check out some trucker message boards. The sentiment is basically that everyone on two axles just needs to get the fuck outta their way.

  • wackyjack||

    ...the car driver was solely responsible for 70 percent of the fatal crashes, compared to 16 percent for the truck driver...

    Not to sound too out of line, but fuck you very much. But hey, why let facts get in the way of your ignorant rant.

  • Old Mexican||

    Consider the farm policies established during the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt’s agricultural advisers fell, roughly speaking, into two competing categories. One group, representing the old agrarian anti-monopolist tradition, wanted to level the playing field for smaller operators. The others saw big business as an ally, not an enemy[...]

    I was going to say the two camps were the Jets and the Sharks, but then I read further and I realized - they ARE the Jets and the Sharks.

    I mean, for cryin' out loud, how can it be LESS interventionist and less fatally conceited to "level the playing field" for small farms compared to being in bed with Big Business?

  • Ali MacGraw||

    I actually made Sally Field seem attractive by comparison. Am I still even alive?

  • Russ 2000||

    I owe my paychecks of the last 14 years to the Motor Carrier Act of 1980.

  • Chad||

    Those renegade truckers served, in Hamilton’s words, as the “militant vanguard of the free-market revolution

    Lol...subsidized roads, subsidized diesel, dumping garbage all over everyone else's property without having to compensate.....sure sounds like a free market to me!

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    Fuck off, Chad.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    But remember... Chad is not an elitist, even though he's better than everyone else he sees as inferior.

    Or so he says.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    True, but I'm just sick of him and his ilk. They're just as anti-liberty as Karl Rove, and they deserve every sliver of derision they get.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Wow, Chad only posted the one time. Guess he's too busy crying over the Coakley loss.

  • Free Breather||

    If you look at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/enviro.....apter3.htm you will see that diesel-powered 18-wheelers account for about half the NOx emissions in many large cities, though they are outnumbered by passenger vehicles at a very high ratio. This calls for a lot of improvement, period. Many of those big cities listed have serious air pollution problems and all these big rigs make it worse. Check out the Clean Air Act of 1970 exemptions that were granted to the trucking industry. I'm just not sure how much the government really can clean the air given all the intended consequences that tend to accompany government interventions.

  • ||

    I, too, hate truck drivers. I laugh my ass off when I see one of them upside down in the median.

    Guess what, mister truck driver- if you can't make it over the pass at eighty, then stay the fuck in the slow lane.

  • ||

    FYI: 80 mph does not qualify as high-speed driving.

  • brotherben||

    In a big truck it starts getting pretty damn dicey above about 75.

  • brotherben||

    I got my CDL in 1987 in Oregon. I drove long-haul as recently as Oct. 2007. The quality and respectability of drivers in those 20 years dropped dramatically IMO. I, as you are all too aware, can go on for hours on why I think that is. inanutshell: People these days in America don't have that streak of independance that is necessary to be a OTR driver. Long hours, seven days a week, away from home for 2-4 weeks at a time all for 35-50 thousand a year average. If I could still do that I wouldn't be on here buggin the heck outta you fine folks. I love it.

  • John Fitzgerald Kerry||

    People who drive trucks are soooo plebian. They're usually uneducated rubes who don't vote Democratic every two years, and are thus of no use other than whatever tax revenue we can squeeze out of their wallets.

    But I am NOT an elitist. I asked fer a huntin' license when I ran for president.

    Plus, I served in Vietnam.

  • Frank Zappa's Ghost||

    Truck driver divorce!
    It's very sad
    (Steel guitars Usually weep all over it)
    The bold & intelligent MASTERS OF THE ROAD,
    With their Secret Language,
    And their GIANT OVER-SIZED MECHANICAL TRANS-CONTINENTAL HOBBY-HORSE!
    Truck driver divorce!
    It's very sad!
    Oh the wife!
    Oh the kids!
    Oh the waitress!
    Oh the drive all night!

    Sometimes when you get home,
    Some ugly lookin' son-of-a-bitch
    Is trying' to pooch yer HOME-TOWN SWEETHEART!

    Oh, go ride the bull!
    Oh, go ride the bull!
    Make it go up 'n down
    'N when you fall off,
    You can eat the mattress!
    TRUCK DRIVER DIVORCE!
    IT'S VERY SAD!
    Bust yer ass
    To deliver some string beans,
    Deliver some string beans,
    Deliver some string beans,
    To
    UTAH!

  • ||

    Yep, deregulation worked wonders.

    It allowed any swinging dick with a truck to get into the business, and many did. The oversupply of trucks drove down the per-mile rate of haulage to next to nothing, where it remains today.

    Independents still exist, but the bulk of trucking is controlled by a handful of mega-carriers operating those orange, yellow and blue trucks,all of whom can underbid the independent because they get bulk rates on things like fuel, tires and equipment.

    In other words we have nearly the same situation we had pre-dereg.

    Trucking costs have exploded exponentially since dereg, but the rates remain low.

    Although the ICC is gone, the DOT has more than taken up the slack from a regulatory standpoint, not to mention every yahoo with a badge and a gun who will use the law to get into the drivers wallet at every opportunity.

    The professionalism of the old drivers is gone. Most 'drivers' today are little more than steering wheel holders whose every move is monitored and recorded by an array of in-cab and satellite tracking.

    Many good, hardworking men and women remain in the business and are trying to do the best that they can in what is a very difficult and dangerous occupation. However there seems to be a large number of them that aren't exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer. That's why I gave up trucking - I grew tired of dealing with people who think wrestling is real and the space program is fake.

  • ||

    The trucking industry is a disaster. I don't know the solution, but having people you wouldn't trust to get your fries driving 70-foot behemoths... ugh.

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