Running Out of Gas

The present afflictions of the automobile business—from political and financial disdain to consumer preference for small cars—are a sickness born in past strength. Like all dominant national industries—and like, for example, the British railroad industry in the mid-nineteenth century—the auto business depended for its early, glorious growth on the sustenance of social and institutional partiality. Such support provided roads, a favorable tax structure, a dispersal of cities and jobs. It encouraged the decay of alternative modes of transportation, and suspended rational calculations of the costs of auto development and auto waste: it made possible the great and sustained power of American demand for automobiles.

Automotive growth required the technological priority of Fordist mass production, and the opportunities of mass consumption, and also a favoritism of national development. Yet it is exactly this structure of social support that seems most unreliable in present auto troubles, at once the hope and the nemesis of auto development. The recent difficulties of auto selling are caused in part by the collapse of such institutional support, by new public preoccupation with the irrationality and occasional inconvenience of auto use, with the cumulative costs of past auto excesses. At the same time, the apparent inevitability of auto travel in states and cities designed for automobiles is a major force sustaining auto sales and profits—just as the “inertia of use and wont,” which Veblen found in British railroad investment and in the planning of nineteenth-century economic and urban development, was responsible for the lingering successes of the demoralized British rail industry. Meanwhile, in yet another conflicting role, this same social inertia of auto development also contributes to the business immobility of auto corporations, which, expecting continued support and continuing, if depressed, profits, are unable to change their habitual strategies.

Consumer preference for automobiles, in the context of social support for auto use, seems more soberly self-interested than mysterious and absolute. Beyond its evident qualities—in offering freedom, independence, privacy, sensations of power—auto transportation has provided the advantages of participation in a most favored sector of the national economy. There seems no need to propose an unexplainable “affinity” between Americans and automobiles: rational consumers would in any case choose to travel on socially subsidized highways, in socially favored cars.

Highway construction is only the most tangible part of such subvention. Auto and fuel taxes are used largely to encourage further auto use; the costs of auto use in pollution, destruction of cities, waste of national environmental and energy resources, have been charged, historically, to the general revenue, or to posterity. Where national planning, business incentives, and property taxation favor trucking, it is reasonable to send freight by road rather than on less wasteful railroads. Where all but a tiny percentage of citizens travel to work beyond walking distance, and where public-transit services are decayed or have disappeared, it has been reasonable for 82 percent of Americans to commute to and from work in the automobiles they support as taxpayers.

(The psychological appeal of auto transport, in this situation,…

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