The War on the Car

The War on the Car
Vehicles drive on the 110 Freeway towards the Los Angeles skyline at the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange during rush hour traffic in Los Angeles on July 16, 2021. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)
Jeffrey A. Tucker
5/15/2024
Updated:
5/16/2024
Commentary

In past years, car maintenance problems were annoying but not really catastrophic. There were always car-repair places around and parts were in ready supply. Nothing about this issue really broke the bank. And cars kept improving, requiring fewer repairs and lasting longer.

That has changed in recent years. Now, there are problems all around. A breakage can mean many days or even weeks of waiting. Parts have to be ordered if you can find them. Mechanics are in short supply. Many retired or moved away for other lines of work during lockdowns. So most functioning repair places have long waits to get anything done.

And as with most services today, the prices you pay are utterly shocking. Inflation is a key here, and this is happening as real income declines and most households are having a hard time keeping their heads above water.

The technologies of hybrid cars and electric vehicles (EVs) don’t help. Many technicians cannot fix them, so they have to go back to the dealer, with massively inflated prices on repair. I have many friends who were fine with their hybrid or EV until they had to replace the air conditioner or get a new battery. When the bill arrives, they pass out in shock and think back to the good old days of internal combustion.

The problems are only just beginning. The Biden administration is imposing even more mandates on manufacturers to make and sell more EVs, while working to block imported models. It’s the model of a central plan. But we don’t yet live in a command economy. The basic economic structures of the U.S. economy rely fundamentally on consumers demanding and paying for the product.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that the demand side of the EV market has peaked and is now drying up. We tried them. We don’t like them. They don’t work well in cold weather. They are awful for long trips. And the savings on gas are not nearly what people hoped. Plus the resale value just isn’t there.

There will always be limited demand as a second car for urban commutes. They cannot be the standard for everyone. The highways cannot support the weight, the grid cannot support the pressure, and they are simply too inconvenient for most drivers.

That’s not stopping the Biden administration. It has a five-year plan and it is sticking to it. Some fanatics in charge right now have discerned that disabling the American car and turning it into a glorified golf cart is the best path to prepare the way for electricity rationing, 15-minute cities, and total civilian surveillance. They are thinking of the long term. It’s not really about climate change. It’s about control.

The puzzle of this whole push to truncate and throttle the traditional American car comes with a bitter historical irony attached.

After World War II, a decision came from the top that the United States should stop its focus on trains and go all-in with the individual and family car. This was marketed as consistent with American prioritization of freedom and choice even though there were other factors going on behind the scenes. The car lobby became far more powerful than the railroad lobby, and the deal was done.

The whole thing is quite puzzling. In the 19th century, the United States was the world leader in railroads. In the 30 years between 1830 and 1860, track in operation went from 30 miles to 30,000 miles. After the Civil War, railroads were a central focus of U.S. economic development. Many of the railroad companies were public–private partnerships complete with inevitable corruption, but others were entirely private.

To give one example, James J. Hill (1838–1916) was a Canadian American railroad executive who was the CEO of a family of lines headed by the Great Northern Railway, which served a substantial area of the Upper Midwest, the northern Great Plains, and the Pacific Northwest.

He was a ferocious opponent of government regulation. His story was written up by the novelist Garet Garrett in the book “The Driver.” This book became the template for one of the best-selling books of the 20th century, Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

So railroads played a huge and storied role in U.S. history. They were the foundation of many Gilded Age fortunes and a reason for population-wide optimism about the future. Even today, kids love collecting toy railroads and trains.

It’s just exceedingly strange that after WWII, the focus shifted so completely to cars and massive road systems, such that today whole generations of people in the United States have never been on a train. They are only really popularly used in the Northeast Corridor.

I admit that I had never been on a train, not that I can remember, until a few years ago. I was astonished at how wonderful they are as a mode of travel. They are steady, calming, and reliable. Unlike planes, there is no crazy kabuki dance of security theater to go through. You just arrive five minutes before, get on, and go.

They are faster than driving. And you don’t have to think at all about breaking down, getting tickets, avoiding crashes, dealing with the weather, driving in the dark, and all the other frustrations that come with cars. Driving is exhausting, exactly in proportion to which the train is relaxing.

(Balazs Busznyak/Unsplash.com)
(Balazs Busznyak/Unsplash.com)

All in all, it is a far superior mode of transportation. It’s truly bizarre that the United States abandoned its technological edge in trains to invest in cars exclusively. The ultimate expression of this was President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system. It began in 1956 and became one of the biggest boondoggles in U.S. history until that point in time.

It was the Cold War, and the government was seriously focused on the meaning of the age of the nuclear bomb. The highway system was designed to move nuclear weapons around the country and to evacuate whole cities in an emergency. Talk about bad planning: Have you ever been on a crowded highway when everyone is trying to leave the city at once?

The worst feature of the new system was how it completely redistributed wealth. The United States was already developing a charming network of roads all over the country. They moved from town to town and built up restaurants and hotels everywhere.

Those little hubs were supplemented by railroad stations, making for an organic patchwork of beauty all over the country so that travelers could sample local culture wherever they went.

The interstate highway system blew it all up. The locations of the new highway were chosen for efficiency and in response to lobbying pressure. Whole towns died. And then the railroad stations died, too. And many enterprises bit the dust along with them.

An entire new economy grew around the interstates consisting mostly of franchise stores that were newly popular in the postwar period. Now, people can drive for days on interstates and see absolutely nothing new. It’s just the same old stuff with the color drained out of the drive. This is what President Eisenhower’s big plan did.

I have a friend who is now touring Europe. He went from Barcelona to Amsterdam to Berlin to Prague to Budapest to Rome, and who knows what’s next. His mode of travel: Eurorail. On these trains, he had been able to get all his work done, eat in restaurants with polite waiters and menus with three-course meals, and get great sleep. They are luxurious, efficient, fun, and affordable for all.

How is it that Europe has this while the United States has only some regional trains and Amtraks with snack bars? How and why did the United States, perfectly suited for brilliant train travel, give it all up and invest entirely in the car? And given that we did this, why is the government now telling us that we need to give up our old-fashioned cars and buy new ones that have low functionality?

It’s truly disgraceful that so many parts of the world have fabulous train systems based on technologies that were invented here while the United States has decrepit systems of railroad used mostly for freight and most people today have never been on a train. If Americans went to Europe and observed, they would know what they are missing, but they mostly do not.

So here we are, with the Biden administration working to wreck the car too, even as the evidence piles up of declining demand for that which the government is backing right now. There is a lesson in this history. The government should stop picking winners and losers in industrial technology and just let markets work.

It’s a bit late in the day to refocus on trains now, even given their obvious superiority. The last thing we need is yet another plan to bolster the infrastructure of yet another transportation priority. It’s time to stop the nonsense and let consumers be the judge of transportation technology.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of "The Best of Ludwig von Mises." He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.
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