Is the American Dream getting smaller? Are we defining down the tools of opportunity and the pleasures of prosperity?
President Obama's flippant dismissal of American exceptionalism last year stirred a lot of criticism because it suggested he did not believe the United States held a special place in the world. It also suggested America's unique history is, to the president, no big deal.
Now, with fellow travelers exercising power at all levels of government, progressives can do more than just belittle the idea of American exceptionalism. They can enact policies to make America unexceptional -- diminishing our quality of life and dampening opportunities for the next generation. Of course, progressives claim their vision is better and argue, with exquisite preening, that such changes are needed for our own good.
While cap-and-trade grabs the most attention, equally threatening is the euphemistically clever "Livable Communities Act." Masked with feel-good rhetoric and lofty concepts like "smart growth" and "sustainable development," the Livable Communities Act is top-down central planning aimed at changing where we live and work and how we travel. It will be overseen by bureaucrats in the Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation and implemented through local governments. The Livable Communities Act exemplifies the progressive idea of strategic diminishment -- success is measured by the reduction of certain outcomes from today's standard. This is different from reducing outputs such as carbon emissions and pollutants, which are already declining and can be better addressed with affordable technologies rather than social engineering. But social engineering is at the heart of the Livable Communities Act, where federal planners hope to reduce personal mobility as measured in vehicle miles traveled and shift housing patterns from single-family homes in the suburbs to small apartments in cramped central cities. In a country as large and diverse as ours, some people will prefer the live-work-travel arrangements prescribed for in the Livable Communities Act, which is based on the Smart Growth planning doctrine. However, the vast majority of Americans in red and blue states alike have long aspired to live in suburban homes with a car in the garage. This quintessentially middle-class version of the American Dream has long been derided by elites and environmentalists, who recast suburbs as a wasteful sprawl and liken automobile use to a destructive addiction. They want to delegitimize this land use pattern, restrict automobile use, and make suburban housing less affordable. The Livable Communities Act is thus a hammer in the progressive toolbox. Absent from their advocacy is any acknowledgment that cars and suburbia are not just expressions of freedom, but indispensable contributors to our prosperity. For example, automobiles enable us to access more goods and services, forcing businesses to compete by offering higher quality and lower costs.
If you've ever driven past one establishment to get a better deal at another, you've personally benefited from mobility. When tens of thousands of people do this within a metropolitan area, they are fueling the creativity and innovation necessary in a market economy.
Automobiles also empower job-seekers to expand their employment range or widen the pool of potential employees for those willing to hire, both of which contribute to better wages and productivity.
Because the average citizen changes jobs more than ten times between the ages of 18 and 42, cars expand one's opportunity circle well beyond the range that can be achieved by foot, bike, or transit. Economic prosperity is only one measure in which cars provide a superior service over the Livable Community Act's preferred alternatives. Every car trip results in a transaction that is important to the user, and those transactions can be recreational, educational, cultural, social, political, financial, or religious. People often accomplish multiple tasks on trips in ways that central planners simply cannot anticipate, much less accommodate with fixed routes and scheduling.
For those seeking spiritual fulfillment, how many limit their choices to the nearest church or synagogue? How many people routinely cross towns to participate in civic organizations like the Rotary or Kiwanis clubs? How many prefer working out at the all-night gym at odd hours?
Even if these examples are not important to you, these are examples of how other people pursue happiness. In a free society, only arrogant bureaucrats and progressive reformers would seek to diminish these choices.
These and similar trips -- individualized and uncoordinated -- make up the vehicle miles we travel each year. Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles between 2008 and 2009 due to the recession and a spike in oil prices, and today, VMT is down to 2005 levels. Few would argue that our quality of life has improved as a result. Not surprisingly, those in the lowest socioeconomic status travel significantly less than middle-class drivers. The poor have what Smart Growth advocates call transportation choice, meaning they are dependent on someone else's schedule or limited to what is available within walking range of a transit hub.
Auto-mobility, by contrast, provides independence by empowering users to go where they want when they want. Walking, bicycling, and public transportation offer mobility, but only at lower levels compared to automobiles.
It is unrealistic to think central planners can retrofit cities around transit lines and bike paths to bring within range all that can be reached by automobiles, and the trade-off is diminished opportunities along with extremely high densities in crowded, stacked central cities.
Stating what we take for granted does not make one an uncritical apologist for the automobile, which still pollutes too much and results in too many fatalities each year. Yet new technologies are reducing emissions, improving performance, and increasing safety. Indeed, the future of automobiles is very promising. Cars are mobility machines designed for decision-making at the individual and family level. They are the finest expression of personal mobility yet devised and are still evolving for even greater utility.
The threat to our mobility is but one aspect of the Livable Communities Act that deserves resistance. Property rights, private enterprise, and affordable homeownership are also threatened under this command-and-control legislation, despite the clever catchphrases that soften its message.
Defending the right of every citizen to maximize his potential and pursue happiness on his own terms makes opposition to the Livable Communities Act necessary. Our country is exceptional for the simple reason that her people do not accept diminishing returns on the American Dream.