Would Cars Be Legal If They Were Just Invented?

Political humorist Frank J. Fleming poses an interesting thought experiment: what if the car was not over a century old but was just invented recently? Would societies and governments permit the private, gasoline powered automobile?

Imagine if cars hadn’t been around for a century, but instead were just invented today. Is there any way they’d be approved for individual use? It’s an era of bans on incandescent bulbs; if you suggested putting millions of internal-combustion engines out there, you’d get looks like you were Hitler proposing the Final Solution.

Even aside from pollution, the government wouldn’t allow the risks to safety.

“So you’re proposing that people speed around in tons of metal? You must mean only really smart, well-trained people?”

“No. Everyone. Even stupid people.”

“Won’t millions be killed?”

“Oh, no. Not that many. Just a little more than 40,000 a year.”

“And injuries?”

“Oh . . . millions.”

There’s no way that would get approved today.

Driving is basically a grandfathered freedom from back when people cared less about pollution and danger and valued progress and liberty over safety.

Fleming’s perspective that we live in a much more constrained society is not new one, nor is it necessarily based on political ideology. Frank is on the political right. Leftist British historian A.J.P Taylor opens his English History 1914-1945 with the following passage:

Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent. of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.

Taylor was a socialist who wanted a welfare state with more government. Fleming is an advocate of free markets. Still, they both point to an era of greater freedom. Of course Fleming’s thought experiment is somewhat absurd. Much of the technological and industrial progress of the last century, much of today’s modern world, can be traced directly or indirectly to the development of the automobile. In many ways the 20th century was the Automotive Age. The auto industry also was a major factor in the developments of other technologies. One could argue that the material wealth and technologies created by the automobile and related industries made it possible to have the luxury of, for lack of a better word, nannyism. Only a rich family can afford a nanny.

It was the wealth created by the industrial revolution that paid for the creation of Taylor’s welfare state.

Three hundred years before the growth of that English welfare state, British philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that without social contracts and government man was fated to live a life that was “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”. Hobbes was describing the condition of man living in anarchy and Leviathan is indeed an argument for social contracts and governments. It’s a more sophisticated version of what Rabbi Chaninah taught in the Ethics of the Fathers: “Pray for the welfare of the government. If it were not for the fear of the government, each man would eat his neighbor alive!” Chaninah was describing the Romans and Hobbes was an advocate of monarchy. They understood that ultimately government is coercive. Hobbes said, “except they be restrained through fear of some coercive power, every man will dread and distrust each other.” Hobbes called his society of interlocking social contracts Leviathan.

Without those social contracts, the rule of law and the ability to rely on the fact that actual contracts will be enforced, the industrial revolution would most likely never have happened. Hobbes’ Leviathan seems to be necessary. The problem with Leviathan is that as it grows beyond a certain point it starts to strangle things and restrict freedom.

Taylor picked 1914 because World War One was the impetus for a tremendous growth in the size and scope of the British government. Interestingly, the automobile was introduced and considerably developed by 1914. By 1914 cars were a major industry. By the end of 1914, Henry Ford had sold three quarters of a million Model Ts, the Dodge brothers were selling their own cars (after having supplied Ford) and Billy Durant was busy using Chevrolet to buy back control of General Motors. Ford, Durant and the Dodges don’t really have modern counterparts. Those original automotive entrepreneurs operated in an era with virtually no environmental and few financial regulations. Government was a virtual non-entity in their business plans unless those plans involved miltary sales. Today’s automotive entrepreneurs, like Tesla’s Elon Musk and Fisker’s Henrik Fisker base their entire business models on government. The look to Leviathan for low cost business loans and for regulations and tax credits that favor their retail sales model.

Perhaps if the car was invented today, it could be sold, but it would probably end up being even more regulated and more expensive than a typical car is today.

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