Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Driving, much worse than nose-picking

From today's Post:

Motorists continue to grumble about record high gas prices, but a new study suggests there is at least one benefit: Fewer traffic fatalities.


Nationwide, traffic deaths last dipped below 37,000 in 1961. The number peaked in 1972, at about 55,000, and in recent years has hovered near 42,000, Sivak said.

High gas prices have changed the habits of commuters across the country. People are using public transportation, scooters and motorcycles, and working from home.

Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said he experienced the changes firsthand during a recent drive to Richmond. Traffic moved at a mere 70 mph.

"I can't remember when somewhere around 70 miles per hour was the average speed of traffic on 95," Anderson said of the interstate. "There are certainly many drivers out there who have taken some steps to reduce the amount of gas they are burning. . . . That is one of the few good sides to very high gas prices: That if people drive less, we're going to save lives."

But that's pretty important, life that is. And driving kills us in a lot of ways, from air pollution to unwalkable cities. Plus there are the other negative externalities which maybe don't kill us but detract from the quality of life, e.g. the isolating and anti-social nature of driving. I'm wondering why we have to wait for gas prices to curb this behavior. What happened to social disapprobation? Why is nose-picking in public not OK but driving is just fine, so long as you don't nose-pick while driving?

I believe it is because too many are confused about freedom, and particularly the connection between political and social freedom. We are too often willing to fight for social freedom, i.e. freedom from disapprobation, even at the expense of political freedom. Yes, this is a conservative position. It means I support Al Gore's disapprobation of driving, yet not his calls for government enforced higher gas mileage standards. Too many conservatives are not willing to make the trade off.

And too many libertarians don't even believe there is a trade off. Just more or less freedom. In fact, we can never be totally free. Instead, political and social freedom are substitutes to a large extent. This is why the socially restrictive Victorian era coincided with the greatest political freedom we've known, and the socially free 1960's coincided with the high tide of Marxism/Statism/Socialism.

But that's not to say there is no progress, or that libertarians are completely off base. Sometimes society gets more of both social and political freedom, and it is worth striving for. And I believe in constitutional guarantees of political freedom, precisely because politics is the most effective means of social progress. That is, many of our most unjust social traditions, e.g. slavery, ultimately had to be overcome in the political sphere. It took an Abe Lincoln to orchestrate emancipation. It took a Gandi to break down the unjust traditions of Hinduism. And maybe it takes an Al Gore or Obama or McCain to point out the injustice of environmental degradation. All of this entails political force, less political freedom. Without political power as the focal point, it seems social progress is terribly slow.

The bottomline is we must acknowledge the trade off, but favor political freedom over social freedom through heavy reliance on constitutional guarantees. Nose-picking is optional.

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