“Carmageddon,” Car-Culture, and Conservatism
The LA region is preparing for the weekend closure of the 405 freeway, one of the area’s main thoroughfares, for the planned demolition of the Mulholland Bridge to add carpool lanes to a 10-mile stretch connecting the west side to the San Fernando Valley. LA officials have been working with “celebrities with large Twitter followings” to notify the public (no, really):
The LAPD said it is making contact with representatives for Lady Gaga (nearly 11.3 million followers), Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore (7 million and 3.7 million respectively) and Kim Kardashian (8 million followers). None of the celebrities have sent out warning tweets yet, but officials hope they will do so closer to the closure dates.
Area residents have dubbed the closure “carmageddon.” Because the auto-centric Los Angeles region offers few viable alternatives to highway travel, locals are anticipating the disruption of services and the closure of several area business. Many desperate Angelinos rushed to take advantage of JetBlue’s $4, 20-minute, 40-mile air shuttle between Burbank and Long Beach airports, just to get them through the weekend.
Alternative transportation advocates have seized on the opportunity to underscore the vulnerability of auto dependency. They have a point. To the extent this is an ideological question, I am probably an outlier—a conservative who leans in favor of more robust public transportation solutions. (Then again, I am often turned off when urbanism proponents couch their arguments in ideological terms.)
While discussing “carmageddon” with a friend today, I wondered if she thought it strange that I did not reflexively defend our car-culture like most conservatives do. Does the correlation of conservatism and car-culture suggest causation? Perhaps, but I don’t think that is why the association exists. Instead, there is an impression—mistaken, in my view—that people who advocate to maintain existing policies are “conservatives,” and people who advocate to change them are “liberals.” Paul Krugman suggests this in The Conscience of a Liberal, urging that the left’s defense of the new status quo effected by the New Deal makes them the “conservatives” of this generation. Erik Kain has suggested the same thing here at the League.
This approach, however, renders political theory mere sport, turning “liberalism” and “conservatism” into stand-ins for “offense” and “defense.” There must be something more to those terms. Defending our current use of automobiles, for example, as socially conservative would require more than simply arguing in favor of the status quo. It would require more, even, than arguing that we depend upon it, or that change would be tremendously difficult, or that many of our other social and economic structures would be impacted. A truly conservative defense of a social policy or institution primarily involves the argument that the social policy or institution comports with human nature, with right behavior, and with a proper ordering of society. This is why, ultimately, the conservative defense of slavery made by the likes of John Calhoun was ultimately defective: it simply did not comport with human nature or right behavior, and because of that—and despite the spirited and impassioned defense that slavery was actually good for the slaves because it taught them “their place”—it certainly was not a proper ordering of society.
Accordingly, can it be said that maintaining a car culture of the magnitude seen in Los Angeles is properly considered a conservative position? I would be very curious to hear that argument.