Looking at the World Through a Windshield

A truck-driving rebellion against the regulatory state


Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy, by Shane Hamilton, Princeton University Press, 305 pages, $29.95

At some point between Sputnik and Watergate, the men who drive trucks entered the cultural corner once reserved for the men who ride horses. In 1970, when Sleepy LaBeef recorded a rockabilly song about a "diesel-dodging, truck-driving asphalt cowboy," he mostly meant it as a joke, but it was a joke with the power of myth behind it: "His smokestack gives the signals / His air horn tells the tale / Roll on little doggies / On down that asphalt trail."

In the 1970s especially, the independent trucker played the role of the stoic cowboy in records, films, and news reports. In some songs and stories, he rode high in the saddle, living a life of joyful independence: "It takes a special breed to be a truck driving man," Merle Haggard sang, "and a steady hand to pull that load behind." The loneliness of the cowboy's life, the solitude and instability, had its big-rig echoes as well. Another Haggard record describes the driver's wanderlust as "a sickness born down deep within my soul," adding: "I've been from coast to coast a hundred times or more / And I ain't found one single place where I ain't been before." When Paul Cowan of The Village Voice covered a turbulent truck blockade in 1973, he portrayed the protesters as "latter-day cowboys, rootless men" who led "a lonely, punishing life" but "can't stand the idea of settling down."

Yet there was one place where the two archetypes diverged. Like their truck-touting descendants, the classic western movies, ballads, and pulp fiction tales were filled with heroic outlaws; it's a short hop from the bandit Jesse James to the Bandit in Smokey and the Bandit. But the pop culture trucker took his rebellion a step further, evolving into a full-fledged revolutionary. In Sam Peckinpah's 1978 film Convoy, a mile-long caravan of vehicles defies the corrupt authorities to call for…well, they never do enunciate a political program. Indeed, they refuse to make a set of demands, as though even that would be a victory for the system.

Though there isn't much realism in Convoy, the movie didn't invent the idea of the driver as a political rebel. The shutdown that Paul Cowan covered for The Village Voice was one of several angry, violent mass actions by independent truckers throughout the decade, cresting with a nationwide eruption in 1979. This wasn't the aimless, existential rebellion of the Peckinpah picture. These were organized protests with a particular set of grievances: high fuel prices, low speed limits, intrusive regulations. And they were launched by leaders with a detailed political agenda.

One of those figures was Mike Parkhurst, a trucker turned reporter whose magazine, Overdrive, aspired to speak for the independent owner-operator; it was filled with exposés and editorials attacking the Teamsters union, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), and the maze of state and federal rules that befuddled and burdened the ordinary driver. 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.

Parkhurst is one of the central figures in Trucking Country, a fascinating study of the hauling business by the University of Georgia historian Shane Hamilton. Those renegade truckers served, in Hamilton's words, as the "militant vanguard of the free-market revolution": a grassroots, blue-collar revolt against the New Deal order. For Hamilton, the drivers were "a firm rebuttal to social commentators who see modern conservatism as a devil's bargain between culturally conservative working-class Americans and economic conservatives in the modern Republican Party." Taking issue especially with the liberal writer Thomas Frank, author of the much-discussed 2004 book What's the Matter with Kansas?, Hamilton argues that "pocketbook politics, not cultural conservatism, framed truckers' disdain for liberalism in the 1970s."

Hamilton is a liberal himself. He speaks favorably, for example, about World War II–era price controls on meat, despite the rationing that necessarily followed; he understands the economics, but he thinks the tradeoff was worth it. Yet unlike Frank, who writes with nostalgia about the New Deal and attributes the rebellion against regulation to a right-wing propaganda blitz, Hamilton has a nuanced understanding of how bureaucracies work in practice. Trucking Country is no brief for deregulation, but the book has few illusions about regulation either. Hamilton's readers, unlike Frank's, will have no trouble discerning why the have-nots haven't always been pleased with the federal apparatus.

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; they believed, as Hamilton puts it, that the feds should "cooperate with monopolistic meatpackers and milk distributors to achieve efficiencies in the mass production and mass distribution of food." The second group quickly became dominant, and the policies that followed encouraged consolidation and privilege: Price supports fed the biggest agricultural interests, dairy regulations locked a milk cartel into place, and acreage reduction requirements led to evictions of tenant farmers.

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." There was one bright spot in the law, though—a rare victory for the populist elements of the administration. Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace "recognized that independent truckers might undermine the monopoly power of railroad-based food processors," so he endorsed an exemption to the ICC's restrictions on the trucking trade. Drivers hauling farm products would be relatively unregulated, a decision that allowed a fleet of tiny trucking firms to flourish. Meanwhile, in the rest of the industry, the government's rules favored large, established companies—and, later, the Teamsters, who negotiated sweetheart contracts with the cartel while disdaining independent drivers.

The exemption expanded in the 1950s, thanks largely to Dwight Eisenhower's secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson. Like Wallace, though in a different philosophical direction, Benson was an ideological outlier in Washington: A Mormon with roots in the Old Right and the farm cooperative movement, he would eventually join the John Birch Society and write that government should be little more than "a mechanism for defense against bodily harm, theft and involuntary servitude." Benson had been appointed as a sop to pro-market Republicans who had favored Robert Taft over Eisenhower for the presidential nomination. Once in office, he attempted to erase the entire system of crop subsidies, a setup he derided as socialist.

That crusade flopped, and in the end the secretary did not reduce the role of government in agriculture so much as he redirected it. Benson poured public money into technical and marketing research; as industrial agribusiness emerged, his department aimed to help such firms sell their products to more people. Hamilton calls this corporate welfare, and he's right.

But when it came to trucks, Benson made another push for deregulation. Trucks are more flexible than trains, so they could play a substantial role in expanding the big farms' consumer base—especially after Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System, launching a federal road-building spree. Benson's department argued that frozen foods should be considered a farm product, not a "manufactured" commodity, and thus should fall under the same exemption that allowed unregulated rigs to carry produce. The battle set two captive agencies against each other: the U.S. Department of Agriculture, representing the interests of agribusiness, vs. the Interstate Commerce Commission, representing the transit cartels. In 1956 the Supreme Court ruled in the USDA's favor, and independent truckers soon had more goods to carry.

Two years later, Congress passed a law returning the exemption to its previous dimensions. The lineup on each side of the issue had shifted; some of the frozen food manufacturers who initially favored the change discovered that new competition could injure their interests as well. (If you preferred the stability and high-end equipment of a large trucking firm but didn't want your rivals to take advantage of the smaller companies' lower costs, regulatory barriers could be a boon.) It was a setback for the owner-operators, but as more and more shipping shifted from rails to roads they still saw their market grow.

The independent truckers weren't just an industry but a subculture, one with its own distinctive worldview. 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." For Parkhurst, the owner-operated truck was a potential alternative to big government, big business, and a corrupt labor union that was in bed with both.

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.