Driverless Cars and the Open Road to Serfdom

February 6, 2019 Updated: February 24, 2019


About once a week, I pull my phone out to send a text message and someone will explode with surprise, exclaiming, “Whoa! Is that a Razr flip-phone? I used to have that!” Evidently, I am one of the two out of 10 people in the United States who doesn’t own a smartphone.

I do have an iPad, which is basically a giant smartphone, but my favorite feature is that it can’t fit into my pocket. I like the distance it puts between me and the imperious vortex we call the internet. Even though it costs me a little convenience, I believe it helps me retain some liberty.  

Most people, though, like the convenience of a smartphone. Who am I kidding? They love the convenience. And more and more they need it. This drive for convenience is rapidly taking new forms. With driverless cars and smart-cities on the horizon, soon we may not have the option to choose inconvenience. This prospect makes it important to consider the question: What is the difference between convenience and happiness?

Security and Liberty

The caravans of migrants risking life and limb to come to the United States are a testament to the blessing of the rule of law that we have in our country and the misery that prevails among those in want of it. It’s easy to forget that corrupt government and the rule of thugs is the historical norm, and the rule of law the exception. Civil society provides safety through well-enforced laws. Every law, however, limits what we can do. Even so—as the horror stories of recent immigrants remind us—we gladly give up some liberty in order to gain necessary safety.

Having life and liberty secure allows us to pursue happiness or the good life. As the Declaration of Independence asserts, all three of these are purposes for which people consent to government.

There is a point, however, when measures to secure safety frustrate liberty to such an extent that they prevent any pursuit of happiness. China, for example, employs face-tracking technology, combined with a “social credit” system, in order to control the minutiae of citizens’ lives. This technology allows the government to regulate everything from jay-walking to how much toilet paper you can use in public restrooms. They say it’s all done for the sake of improving safety, of course, but we all know that it’s also used to crack down on political dissent.

This raises the point that, while maintaining mere life is, of course, necessary, it is ultimately a means to the higher goal of living a good life, or pursuing happiness. Furthermore, the example of China shows that, with the capabilities of modern technology, certain means destroy the very ends they exist to serve. There must be a balance between liberty and security.

Americans are famously paranoid about the government taking away their liberty. Hence, the fervor surrounding the Second Amendment. This is generally healthy for a republic. Founding Father James Madison described this American feature, declaring that “it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties,” adding, “we hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution.”

Liberty and Convenience

These days, however, there are lots of temptations to give up a little liberty to gain, not security, but convenience. Who bothers to read the fine print that details all the rights we waive when we sign up for Facebook or agree to an update on an iPhone? Most people probably assume that Google is tracking them through their smartphone and that Amazon is listening to them through their smart-speaker. Less and less, though, do people care.

Matthew Crawford, author of “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” is currently writing a book about driverless cars and what we may unwittingly be relinquishing by giving up the wheel. A theme in Crawford’s writings is a concern for preserving individual agency in a world that increasingly confuses mere efficiency for excellence. The virtue of a human isn’t the same as the virtue of a robot.

Agency involves the freedom to do and to act. Yet, the more agency we hand over to what Crawford describes as a “cartel” of a few tech companies in exchange for more convenience, the less scope we have to exercise judgment. Further, giving up agency to an oligarchy of tech companies is different in kind from giving up liberty to a republican government that is guided, in part, by our own political judgment. The result is that we give up not just agency, but autonomy, or self-government.

Madison wrote that our Constitution is consistent with “that honorable determination” in the American character “to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” This determination, though, might be slipping.

Once driverless cars are readily available, you can bet that tech companies will lobby lawmakers to ban traditional cars. They will cite legitimate statistics showing how many lives may be saved with driverless cars. What they won’t be able to measure, however, is how much scope for self-government will be lost, not only in the physical space of the road, but in the character of the people themselves, their capacity for self-government.

Benjamin Franklin supposedly wrote that “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” This seems even more true with regard to convenience. Preserving individual agency and scope for judgment by refusing technology that is available is very difficult, but it just might be in accord with nature. Liberty is indeed inconvenient sometimes, but then tyranny is even more inconvenient.

Real happiness includes the ability to make choices that are in accord with our best self. Take the opportunity for choice away, and though we may experience a kind of satisfaction—the kind an animal may feel after a hearty meal—it’s impossible to be happy.

Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.