In the midst of the recent health care debates, opinion polls showed surprisingly strong majorities of Americans who agreed with the proposition that health care amounted to a basic human right.
But all those who affirm this entitlement—and, by implication, support the government’s role in protecting it — face an uncomfortable but inevitable challenge to their position: if citizens possess a fundamental right to health insurance, why should society stop there?
What about other basic needs that constitute pre-requisites for human dignity – like the right to food, shelter, education, jobs… and even cars? If the uninsured need and deserve medical protection, then surely the hungry should receive nourishment, the homeless ought to get housing, the unemployed require jobs and, ultimately, a compassionate nation must provide automotive transport for all who might otherwise feel trapped, immobile, hopeless and helpless with no access to the transportation they need to better their circumstances.
I raised the question of a sacred right to cars with an especially engaged and receptive audience when I delivered one of the keynote speeches last week at the annual convention of the Washington State Auto Dealers Association. These professionals understand the importance of automobiles in sustaining our national ideals of freedom and autonomy: behind the wheel of a working vehicle, with a full tank of gas to drive your dreams, you can go wherever you want whenever you choose to make the journey. Even among the 37 million Americans who officially live below the poverty line, 74% of households in this country own their own cars and an amazing 31% own two cars or more. Among the destitute, in other words, automobiles count as more common – and more necessary – than health insurance. The homeless population in every major city includes a sizable proportion that actually lives in their vehicles, often driving from place to place in hopes of changing their luck.
If government plays an ever-increasing role in guaranteeing health insurance and providing food (with university students and the homeless comprising new target groups for aggressive recruitment efforts by the SNAP/Food Stamps program), why not similar efforts to provide each individual with a car of his very own?
Of course, the notion of an expansive automotive entitlement goes against the current mania to conserve energy and avoid climate change by reducing, rather than increasing, the number of cars on the road. The trendy and prodigiously wasteful efforts to build high tech rail systems amount to command-and-control efforts to force people out of their beloved jalopies and into the shiny new mass transit boondoggles that currently operate in splendid emptiness and isolation. A recent incident in Portland, Oregon, highlighted the admirable effectiveness of this strategy: a coyote found his way into one of the fashionable new cars of the city’s light rail system and rode for much of the day without paying the proper fare. When animal control officers finally managed to coax the critter out of his comfortable seat they offered a sage psychological explanation for his extended ride: coyotes are by nature shy and skittish beasts, and will instinctively establish themselves in environments where no human beings can be found.
But even if enlightened opinion today prefers the idea of a generalized “right to transportation” to any outmoded notion of a “right to a car,” there’s still a big question about the appropriate role of car dealers. The need for mobility is surely too deep-seated and profound to tolerate the frivolous, exploitative interference of slick-talking salesmen, seductive advertisers, competing and often duplicative brands and greedy, unscrupulous dealers who care more about making a buck than satisfying the public’s crying need for transportation. Those who believe in command-and-control, centrally planned economies could easily dispense with all the gauche auto-dealers and their misleading sales and flashy marketing gimmicks and gas-wasting test drives. Wouldn’t an advanced society committed to social justice concentrate on giving the public the sturdy, sensible cars they needed rather than stimulating their animal appetites with the sleek, expensive, glitzy and ultimately impractical cars they wanted?
Actually, fifty years of melancholy Soviet-bloc history demonstrated the devastating impact of this utilitarian no-frills approach: the Russians managed to build snazzy Sputniks and formidable MIG fighter jets and highly advanced ballistic missiles but they never managed to assemble a decent car. The ubiquitous Soviet car – the clunky, noisy, gas-guzzling and notoriously unreliable Lada – became a wry national joke for its shamelessly shoddy workmanship. At least the owners who managed to secure this coveted contraption needn’t worry that their Lada would ever go out of style since the line seldom changed and never improved.
Next door to the USSR, the East Germans offered their own idea of automotive excellence. Just a short distance away from where their West German cousins churned out Porsches and Mercedes and Audis and BMW’s, the Communist East Germans crafted the Trabant: a boxy, trashy little number that, at the end of its production run in 1989 (the year the Berlin Wall fell) boasted a mighty 26 horse power, but no better mileage than comparably sized (and vastly more potent) western models. The most advanced Trabant could theoretically accelerate from 0 to 60 in a soul-stirring 21 seconds—making it less than half as frisky as even low-end economy cars in today’s automotive market. Best of all, the average waiting time for delivery of a Trabi (after a family signed up to receive it) was a mere 15 years – by which time any instinct for lead-footed hot-rodding would have been well extinguished.
The appalling record of Iron Curtain automotive experimentation stands as a stark reminder of what happens in an economy built on social entitlement rather than individual options, on need rather than want. Car dealers may have achieved a predatory reputation with their ruthless pursuit of sales, but I imagine that most Americans (at least among the male half of the population) enjoy the process of auto-shopping as much as I do. It’s fun and exciting and energizing to visit dealers and inspect the high-polish of the glistening new vehicles, to savor that inimitable aroma of carefully crafted new cars, to listen for the satisfying thunk of a solid door slamming perfectly in place, to concentrate all senses on the feel and the motor noise and whizzing scenery of an exhilarating test drive. Even the cheapest vehicles on sale in the United States today constitute miracles of technology, with safety features and amenities all-but-unimaginable to prior generations.
The point is that the quality of the vehicles connects directly to the quality and intensity of the marketing, of the advertising, of the salesmanship and the seduction. Even with Barack Obama’s takeover of GM and Chrysler (on a temporary basis, one can only hope) the competition among carmakers remains surprisingly ferocious and drives the production of ever-better vehicles at ever-lower relative cost. The market system also gives the consumer a dazzling array of options and models and equipment even once you’ve decided on the line of autos you prefer; the industry has come a long way from the days when Henry Ford used to boast that you could get the Tin Lizzie in any color you wanted, so long as it was black.
The car dealers who have survived some rocky times in an often troubled industry generally manage to sustain themselves because they provide good products and a (relatively) pleasant purchasing experience. They don’t serve the public out of a sense of idealism or through high-flown humanitarian impulses, but because they want you to come back for your next vehicle and to recommend them to your friends. This is the golden rule of the free market system --- do unto others as you would have them do unto you if they wanted more of your business.
The vast superiority of the West’s auto industries to the car production in the sad, shabby old Eastern bloc had nothing to do with better natural resources (plenty of oil in Russia, after all) or superior ethnic endowment: there’s never been any evidence that the famous German facility for precision engineering somehow expired among Teutonic populations east of the Oder River. The collectivist system failed (and will always fail) because it was based on rights rather than choice, the determination of some bureaucrat as to who deserves a car (sooner than the fifteen year waiting period), rather than the decision of each individual to make (or not to make) the necessary sacrifices to pursue his preferences.
When the government generously establishes new guarantees for its citizens (for health care, housing, food, jobs or cars) it enlarges its own power and shrinks the options for the individual; when the state provides your needs then it makes the ultimate determination of what you get. Central planners may consider it more virtuous to fulfill practical needs than to allow occasionally irrational private parties to pursue their desires, but regarding their cars and all other essentials most Americans will prefer to keep themselves, and not some bureaucrat, in the driver’s seat.