There’s a Dutch saying that goes something like: “Government forced cars on us. Now we need the government to get rid of cars so then we can get rid of the government.” Last week, Elon Musk (who looked a lot like the villian from The Fifth Element) gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he laid out a hypocritical view of the government’s role in transportation. The government, he claimed, should not be subsidizing anything. Asked about the Democrats’ transportation and social bill, he said it would be better if they did not pass.
Mr. Musk can correctly point out that if he hadn’t run an electric car company, it would have taken longer for electric cars to be a thing. But he cannot take all the credit. In Norway, electric cars make up 20% of all cars on the road, and accounted for 90% of cars bought last month. Norway stands out in this achievement compared to other countries because they offer massive government subsidies for electric cars. The first and fourth top selling cars in Norway are Teslas.
In the interview, Mr. Musk went on to say that the government shouldn’t give any subsidies to anyone for anything, including fossil fuels. The role of the government should only be to “referee” the market. His argument is that society would move better without the force of the government interfering in the market. In the same interview he also called for double-decker freeways and tunnels to counter “extreme traffic”.
In so many ways, the costs of cars are passed on to others. A “free market” does not take this into account.
This got me thinking about what our society would look like if we completely stopped subsidizing cars. From parking mandates that require you build a certain number of car parking spaces, to single-detached zoning which makes everything far away and requires most people to have to own a car to get around, to the social subsidy from a loss of community and isolation. What is the cost of our children’s lost freedom because cars are always threatening them? In so many ways, the costs of cars are passed on to others. A “free market” does not take this into account.
If we did get to a place where people paid the true cost of cars, I think we would have a much better society. I would also bet that a lot more people would ride bicycles in cities, because they are simply the best way to get around.
By calling attention to government subsidies, Musk is calling attention to all the ways our society pays for driving. Many years ago, I was waiting in line to testify against the original Columbia River Crossing bridge and talking with a self-described libertarian whose entire car was covered in Ron Paul stickers. He could not see that this massive public freeway project he was about to testify in favor of was the government interfering in the market. In the end, I guess most of us are just self-interested and can only reason so far.
In a society as complex as ours, having a representative democracy that can at least try to account for these costs might be the best solution we have. Yes, let’s subsidize electric bikes! Yes, let’s build double-decker bike lanes! Both have many positive social outcomes that are not accounted for by markets. In the long run, both of these things will make us less reliant on the government and better people too.
There is a better way to move ourselves than only in cars. But it will require a lot more good government to get us there. In the long run, we will build an urban bike utopia because cars, even electric ones, require too many finite resources. Also in the long run we will all be dead from climate change. So, before that happens let’s use good government policy to make this world a nicer place to live!
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