In Defense of the Automobile: Automobiles Are A Solution, Not A Scourge

by | Mar 8, 2017 | Technology

It is critical to robust intellectual discussion of modern human life to acknowledge and celebrate the liberating role that the automobile has played in making this the greatest era in history for human flourishing.

Mr. Money Mustache is back at it again.

In October [of 2016] I wrote about Mr. Money Mustache’s (MMM) gaming of Colorado’s electric vehicle scheme. While I’m still awaiting his response to that piece, another article of his—this one on urban planning—has caught my attention in the meantime.

While urban planning is tangential to our work at IER, human flourishing is central to it. As I said in October, I respect a lot of the personal finance advice MMM bestows, but when he wades toward the energy sphere, I often fiercely disagree.

The thesis of MMM’s urban planning post is that modern American cities are designed around the automobile and that that makes us unhappy. Three elements of his argument are undoubtedly true:

  1. Our cities’ physical layouts have not emerged on a free market. Market distortions, such as zoning requirements, are rampant and what we experience nowadays should not be confused with a market outcome.
  2. We all despise sitting in traffic.
  3. The result of clogged streets is that we have less time to devote to other activities.

But there are some glaring weaknesses in his argument. MMM grants that cars and trucks are valuable for moving freight and traveling over long distances, but he fails to respect the enormous value that they provide for individuals and families on a daily basis. He demeans drivers throughout the piece, writing that “the reason people keep perpetuating the pointless car model is that they are unaware there is any other option,” that people are “only driving because they don’t realize there is a better way,” and that “every time you drive within a town you destroy a bit of the feeling of community.”

For someone who purports to care about community, MMM exudes a stunning amount of condescension toward his own.

In one passage MMM disparages an entire section of his municipality, Longmont, Colorado, calling it “a blighted, shitty area of town dominated by parking lots, used car dealerships, traffic, and noise.”

Let me ask you this: who’s doing more to harm the feeling of community in Longmont, the patrons of the small businesses—like Hayes Automotive and Las Palmeras Mexican Restaurant—who drive on the block singled out above or the personal finance blogger who mocks them as philistines?

There’s nothing unsophisticated about driving an automobile each day. The ways in which cars and trucks enhance our daily lives are myriad. For example:

  1. Cars are powerful machines. The alternative to driving that MMM prides himself on is riding a bicycle, which he says is a way to recharge the body and soul alike. While for many people this is an excellent option, it comes at a simple, obvious cost: it’s taxing physical work. Hopping on a bike for a little exercise is probably a prudential lifestyle decision for some, but for the millions of Americans who earn their livings as construction workers, loggers, miners, or those who commute to a job in the city, there is a lot of value in having a car or truck get them from point A to point B. Fundamentally, automobiles are machines that help us do more while working less. MMM has a benevolent view toward technology, machines, and progress generally, but it’s lost with respect to the automobile.
  1. Cars enable us to cover distances that once took hours (if not days) to travel in just minutes. This time saving is liberating and expands our productive capacity as well as leisure time. Sure, sometimes traffic grinds to a halt, but the opportunity cost is still low enough on average that millions of people choose driving as their mode of transport each day in this country.
  1. Cars provide us with other tangible benefits beyond their speed and power. They provide us shelter from the elements that makes transit just as comfortable at 25°F or 95°F as it is at 75°F. They enable us to ferry goods—groceries, sporting equipment, etc.—that exceed the mass that MMM’s fabled bike cart could handle. And, of course, they help us transport more than one person at a time.

MMM’s vision of the ideal lifestyle involves living in a tightly-knit village of sorts—one that makes life convenient by foot and bike and relegates the automobile to a more specialized role for long-distance travel or special jobs. MMM is free to pursue that vision. But it is critical to robust intellectual discussion of modern human life to acknowledge and celebrate the liberating role that the automobile has played in making this the greatest era in history for human flourishing. It’s also important to respect the varied personal preferences of real people. While Mr. Money Mustache is happiest cruising on the bike path, for others there could be nothing better than driving down the highway in the latest-model Ford Mustang. Where I’d like you to join me, MMM, is in endorsing a free market that would enable both bike enthusiasts like you and those who prefer a bit more horsepower to create the lifestyles they desire.

Jordan McGillis serves as the Deputy Director of Policy for the Institute for Energy Research.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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