How Markets Fixed the Travel Problem

I was standing outside the hotel when a gigantic bus rolled up. It was a double-decker and seemed as long as a city block. One hundred-plus people poured out. Once empty, the bus drove on. I stood there right in the path of the exhaust fumes. It was a cloud of gray, bellowing like a smokestack, filling the front entrance of the hotel with a thick haze of exhaust that lingered for what seemed like minutes.

As it happened, I had just left my hotel room, where I was researching the Obama administration’s proposed mandates on fuel economy. The standards covering Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) will be tightened on cars so much (52 mpg by 2015) that some observers can’t even begin to think their way around them. Gas-powered cars will have to become so small that we’ll all be driving around like the Italian bourgeoisie, or they will be have to be hybrids or all-electric.

Oh, and for the first time, broadly relevant standards will apply to trucks and buses, which have by and large escaped the squeeze so far. Think about this. Cars have undergone a gigantic transformation over the past 30 years because of these standards. Sure, consumers like to save gas, but at the expense of safety, elegance, and vehicle longevity? A free society would leave the right mix of these to industry and consumers. In a mixed economy like ours, the central planners think they know better.

But why have trucks and buses escaped? The loophole is so large that it is mostly responsible for the invention of this thing called the SUV. Time was when such things were only a tiny percentage of the marketplace. Now more than half the passenger vehicles sold are in this category. Depending on how you calculate it, the category of buses and trucks including SUVs is responsible for more than two-thirds of the pollutants in the air. Yet they keep targeting cars.

I became curious about this a few weeks ago when a neighbor held a party at his house. The whole block filled up with the most gigantic cars ever. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Just as the government is trying to reduce vehicle emissions, these monster cars, called trucks, are selling as never before.

I’ve not seen detailed studies on this, but just glancing at the existing reality suggests that we have yet another case of “unintended consequences” of government regulation. Instead of putting the masses of people in tiny, tin-can cars, the regs have prodded those who can afford to take the step to upgrade to these giant things they don’t need or might not even want.

But this still begs the question: Why have trucks and buses gotten away with this so far? Well, there are the lobbyists, of course, and trucking interests are powerful. But there’s another factor that seems ideological to me: The government doesn’t like individual drivers.

To the miserable bureaucrat, cars seem like too much the sign of capitalistic decadence. The car empowered us as individuals. The collectivist-oriented bureaucracies don’t like that. They want us shuffled around in big mobs from place to place, or wheeling around on bicycles as in Mao’s China. If we are to drive our own cars at all, we are supposed to “carpool” and fight over the radio dial. This is the bureaucratic/political mind at work.

Let’s think about this in bigger, longer terms. The nature of travel is one of the most changed by the advent of the capitalist economy. For most of the human history, travel was something to dread and even avoid at all cost.

Just look at the term itself. The word travel shares the same Middle English root as the word travail, which means to toil or labor. The word in Middle English was travailen, which meant something deeply unpleasant. Looking even further back in time, we find the Latin slang word travailler, which means… to torture!

Indeed, through human history, traveling has usually been torture. If you see a movie set in the Middle Ages in which one person is traveling on his own and is not being forced to do so, you can pretty much assume it is untrue. No one traveled alone. If you did, you would certainly be robbed, beaten, enslaved, or killed. You always traveled in groups, and these groups had to include people who could protect you. There was no other way. Most people stayed put.

What about modern times? Everything has changed. As usual, we take it for granted.

Michael Graham Richard did some interesting research on travel times in the United States, based on the 1932 Atlas of Historical Geography of the United States. What he found is quite revealing. It took people an entire day just to get out of New York. Going from New York to Georgia or Ohio took two weeks. If you wanted to get to Louisiana or Illinois, you had to set aside a full five weeks! That’s just to get from here to there.

But thanks to railways, all this changed half a century later. What used to take two weeks in 1800 took only a day or two by 1857. If you set aside a week, you could get to Texas — the travel time sliced to about 20% of what it was 50 years earlier. In a month, you could get to California, which was rather amazing by historical standards. Also, you wouldn’t typically be beaten, robbed, or killed, which was pretty great.

By 1932, modernity had arrived. You could go coast to coast in four days!

Of course, now you can do all of this in a few hours, thanks to planes and cars. And driving itself became more fun than ever. It’s one of the great changes in the history of the world: Travel went from torture to joy. And it happened because of technological advances working through a market system that serves people in their daily needs. Getting from here to there is one of the strongest needs that we humans have. It is what gets us all the things we rely on for the good life.

We live in times when government regulations are working to turn back the clock. They are after conveniences such as toilets, showers, washing machines, microwaves, and anything else that makes our lives just a bit happier at the margin. That includes cars.

I have some respect for the hope that our cars will emit fewer pollutants. Everyone wants cleaner air and no one really wants to contribute to environmental problems. But I do not for an instant believe that this is the real reason behind these regulations. What the bureaucrats want is to make us just a bit more miserable, dependent, and poorer, plus slightly less mobile. These people know not the meaning of human service, so they turn their powers to the opposite cause: taking away from us the things we dearly love.

They could never convince us to give up our cars by pure persuasion, so they resort to regulatory coercion to make it happen. They want us all to gather in double-decker buses and travel in packs of 100, just like those people I saw pouring out of the bus that day, all coming from the same place and all landing at the same place. This is the bureaucrat’s dream. But it is not ours.

Our dream is for flying cars. We might get there someday, but it won’t be because government pushed the idea.

A final practical note: Remember the “cash for clunkers” program that paid people to buy new cars and destroy their old ones? That ridiculous program sent the prices of used cars soaring. Well, they are falling back to normal now. Used cars on average have gone up at half the rate of the overall CPI, if you look at numbers back to 1995. It’s a good time to buy — now, before the Obama administration has its way.

Jeff Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker

Written By Jeffrey Tucker

I'm executive editor of Laissez Faire Books and the Chief Liberty Officer of Liberty.me, an innovative private society for publishing, learning, and networking. I'm the author of four books in the field of economics and one on early music. My personal twitter account @jeffreyatucker FB is @jeffrey.albert.tucker Plain old email is tucker@liberty.me

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