Viewpoint: Hatred of the Automobile


There is something about the Left that hates and reviles the automobile, and the larger and more comfortable the automobile, the worse. It's not just the recent hoopla about the "gas-guzzling monsters"—hoopla by the very same people who are forcing upon cars antipollution devices that guzzle far more gasoline than ever. It's not just the government subsidies to the highway lobby, for since when did the Left worry about government spending? No, the syndrome had surfaced as far back as the 1950's, when John Kenneth Galbraith and other left-wing worthies were going into conniption fits about the tailfins on Cadillacs. I couldn't see the drift then at all; I was not particularly enamored of tailfins, but why in hell were these people expending so much energy on a trivial matter of esthetics? The tailfins, in the course of time, disappeared, but not the anti-auto hysteria of the Left, which simply reappears from time to time in other guises and forms.

It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that we are facing not a mere abhorrence of the rococo, or a desire to conserve energy, but a deep-seated and even pathological hatred of everything that the automobile represents. Perhaps we can see the motivation more plainly if we consider what the Left wishes to put in the place of the despised automobile: what it boils down to is bicycles (like they rode in the good old days of pre-affluent Europe), and mass transit. Mass transit? You mean they want more of the filthy subways of New York City, where people are herded in like cattle? Yes, I think that is exactly the sort of transportation system that the Left wants to impose on America and the world.

Consider the contrast between the auto (especially the large auto) and mass transit (we can dismiss the bicycle as a patently bizarre attack on living standards and on the aged and infirm.) The auto is comfortable, individualistic, mobile; the driver is in command of his ship—he can start from anywhere he wishes and end up the same way. The automobile is the supreme form of individualistic transportation, catering to the comforts and wants of the individual owner. But then consider mass transit: it is tiring, uncomfortable, collectivistic. Everyone confronts everyone else, everyone is forced to rub elbows with a "cross section of democracy," as they are herded from a point set by the transit system to a goal set by it as well.

The automobile is luxury for the individual; the bus or subway packs persons into an enforced and unhappy collectivity. The idea that mass transit is more "efficient" than the individual auto because it carries more people per mile-hour, almost willfully misses the crucial point: namely that the quality of the carrying is far poorer under mass transit than under the aegis of the individual car. The Leftists emit a great deal of vague blather about the importance of "the quality of life." Can we deny that that quality would take a severe nosedive if mass transit came to replace the automobile?

But why the savage assault on the automobile? We still have not gotten to the root. We could also bring out the hypocrisy of the Leftish critics. Most of the bitter critics of the auto that I know, themselves ride around in luxurious cars, albeit of the sporty foreign variety. J.K. Galbraith has made millions out of his ferocious attacks on "excessive affluence," and is reputed to have mansions in four countries. But still we have not found the key.

I think the key may be found in the seemingly unrelated hatred by the Left of the innocent pastime of most Americans in watching professional football on television. Numerous books and articles have been written in recent years flaying the competitiveness, the "brutality," the vicarious nature of watching professional football. And there is no question about the fact that pro football flies in the face of the Left's cherished desire to remold the nature of Man: to expunge excitement, competition, and (horrors!) moneymaking from our social life. Just as the Left would like to see us all ride bicycles, so they would like to see us throw away our Sunday TV and do eurythmic dancing on the greensward. There is proper use of leisure!

Here I think we have the key—and not simply the fact that there is not one Leftist I know who spends his time doing eurythmics. H.L. Mencken once superbly defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." At the root of the savage assault by the Left on the automobile, as well as the lesser assault on pro football, is the fact that the mass of Americans enjoy both of these pursuits, that the American loves to drive his own big car and to watch pro football in his leisure hours. At the heart of Leftwing "humanitarianism," I must conclude, is a deep-seated hatred of the average person and a bitter desire to see him unhappy, to deprive him of his cherished enjoyments. The real message of the Left to the world is: "Dammit! You shouldn't want to make money, to live in a split-level house in the suburbs, to own and ride several big cars, to enjoy pro ball on color TV, to smoke cigarettes, to drink beer, to see SOUND OF MUSIC, to do all the things you like to do." What the world should like to do is hazy and unclear: eurythmics, backpacking, listening to rock, reading Galbraith…who cares so long as it doesn't enjoy them? We are forced to conclude that the Left, endlessly intoning its love of "the people," in actuality and in the concrete hates the bulk of the human race.

Murray Rothbard is professor of economics at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. Dr. Rothbard's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Tibor Machan and David Brudnoy.