Woodrow Wilson, Henry Ford, and the Dispute Over the Automobile

May 28, 2020 Updated: May 31, 2020


During the coronavirus crisis, we have gotten a dismaying preview on a temporary basis of what socialism would feel like on a permanent basis, from empty shelves, shortages, and limits on basic commodities, a wholesale assault on our civil liberties, and invasions of our privacy to restrictions on our freedom of assembly and religious expression.

Of course, this is not full-scale socialism, but it’s undoubtedly a movement in the direction of socialism. This movement is driven by progressive Democrats, who have opted this year for the “creeping socialism” of Joe Biden over the explicit socialism of Bernie Sanders. Even so, Biden has embraced many of the policies favored by Sanders and the socialist Squad, from free college to the Green New Deal.

The impetus for socialism derives from the conviction that socialists and progressives are better custodians of society as a whole than entrepreneurs. While the entrepreneur narrowly looks out for his own interest, progressives look out for the public interest. Entrepreneurs care about profit, while progressives care about larger principles such as freedom and social mobility. Their angle of vision is larger, and thus, they see the future more clearly.

The very name “progressive” is intended to indicate an apostle of social progress.

But is this progressive boast valid? We can answer this question by considering a century-old dispute between a leading progressive, Woodrow Wilson, and a leading entrepreneur, Henry Ford. The subject of the dispute was a new invention, the car. The wrangle over the car, and the outcome, shows us whether progressivism or capitalism is a better instrument of freedom, mobility, and social progress.

Wilson, America’s first progressive president, opposed cars. The automobile, he said, was the “picture of arrogance and wealth.” He warned that cars in the United States would lead to socialism. “Nothing has spread socialistic feeling more than the use of the automobile.”

Notice that Wilson isn’t merely expressing a personal aversion to driving a car. He doesn’t think anyone should have a car. They’re a rich man’s toy. They exist only for ostentatious display. They create class resentment. Who really needs a car for personal transportation, when we already have the horse and buggy?

True, Wilson made this statement in 1906, six years before his presidency, while he was president of Princeton University. True, the cars he observed on the streets of New York were rich men’s toys. They were crafted by hand from custom-order parts, some of them imported from Europe. There were dozens of companies producing their own versions of the automobile. Each type was different, and in some cases, companies made cars to the individual specifications of a prospective wealthy buyer.

And at the dawn of the 20th century, cars weren’t much faster than horses.

Wilson, however, lacked vision. His argument against the car may be termed the argument from personal incredulity. I get this phrase from the biologist Richard Dawkins, who used it in a different context.

Here is how the argument works: “What’s the point of a car? Can I think of any good reason why anyone would want to own a car? Here, sitting in my office and twiddling my thumbs, I cannot. Clearly, there’s no good reason why anyone should want a car. Therefore, cars should not exist.”

It may seem that I’m singling out Wilson for special abuse, but actually this is a common progressive mode of argument. To take a contemporary example: “Fracking is such a bad idea. Who knows what it’s doing to the environment? It could be causing earthquakes, for all we know. Here, sitting in my office and twiddling my thumbs, I cannot personally think of a single good reason for fracking. Fracking should not exist.”

This is the same progressive sensibility, operating in pretty much the same way, more than a century later.

Wilson saw the car only as it was, not as it could be. He viewed the entrepreneurs making cars as useless dabblers, catering to the pretensions of the upper class. Wilson viewed himself more as a man of the people; not one of them, certainly, but an objective administrator of the people’s genuine interests. He knew what they wanted, and just as importantly, what they ought to want. He was there to show them how, under his leadership, their lives could be better.

This was true democracy—democracy under adult supervision. Here is the familiar pose of the enlightened progressive intellectual.

It’s helpful to contrast Wilson with one of the objects of his contempt, Henry Ford. It’s tempting for me to say that Ford had a better understanding of what people wanted than Wilson, that Ford, in other words, recognized consumer demand whereas Wilson didn’t. But in reality, there was no consumer demand for cars. Ford himself said that had he consulted the customers beforehand to ask them what they wanted, they would have told him they wanted a faster horse.

So, Ford’s genius was to envision a society in which not only the rich but also pretty much everybody would own and drive cars. He could see consumer demand that didn’t exist then but would develop later, after people saw what Ford had made for them. We customarily think of demand preceding supply, but with transforming innovations, such as the car and the iPhone, it’s typically the opposite way around: supply precedes demand. If we make it, they will come.

Ford knew he had to make it right. He didn’t have a Princeton education, but he didn’t think he needed one. Observation and practice were more important: “It is not possible to learn from books how everything is made. … Machines are to a mechanic what books are to a writer. He gets ideas from them.”

Before he started work on the automobile, Ford worked as an apprentice in a machine shop, then in the engine room of a shipbuilding firm, then at a power plant.

Ford built his cars using two important innovations: interchangeable parts, and the moving assembly line. Interchangeable parts enabled Ford to make a standardized product. He didn’t care about customization; later he would say that you could buy his Model T in any color you wanted, “so long as it is black.” Ford got his idea for a moving assembly line from what he observed in the giant slaughterhouses of the Chicago stockyards. By bringing this concept to the factory floor, Ford found a way to mass-produce cars. Then he added a marketing innovation, the car dealership, where cars could not only be purchased but also regularly serviced.

While cars were initially selling for around $3,000—a fortune in those days—Ford sold his first cars for under $1,000. He reinvested his profits to make a better, cheaper product. It’s important to recognize here that Wilson’s bogeymen, the rich showoffs who paid the higher initial price, ended up subsidizing the research and development that brought car prices lower. By 1916, Ford’s Model T was selling for less than $400.

What started out as a rich man’s toy became the aspiration of every working family in the United States, and then the world. Ford created the culture of the automobile that transformed American society. The prototypical entrepreneur had a much greater impact than the prototypical progressive statist.

Moreover—and this is the crushing point—the car was perhaps the most democratizing force in history. Ford did far more to promote social mobility, social equality, and social justice than his disdainful detractor. If the word “progress” has any meaning, Ford was the progressive, Wilson the regressive.

Dinesh D’Souza has had a prominent career as a writer, scholar, and public intellectual, and has also become an award-winning filmmaker.

This article is adapted from Dinesh D’Souza’s new book “United States of Socialism,” published by St. Martin’s Press.

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