Monday, January 19, 2009

Uncomfortable truths about the progressive legacy

Yesterday I was listening to the pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the radio, and one of the speakers said something that struck me as emblematic of the challenges that Barack Obama faces, though I doubt she realized the ironic significance. She was praising Theodore Roosevelt's conservationist legacy as a model for Obama, though she only touched on a small sliver of Roosevelt's environmental legacy. He definitely did cherish the environment; a timeline of his life shows that in early April 1903 he "communes with deer while writing letters in Yellowstone, WY." He was indeed a conservationist, as were many progressives at the time.

But the progressives were also something else – something that today's progressives would do well to remember: ardent planners whose plans often had grave unforeseen consequences. Just after his time communing with the deer at Yellowstone, Roosevelt traveled to St. Louis to address the 1903 Good Roads Convention. The "good roads" movement dated back to before the automobile rose to prominence, and was formed to agitate for improved roads for bicyclists and farmers. But around the time of Roosevelt's speech, the movement was hijacked by the automobile industry. Unwilling or unable to compete on their own against mass transit, the automakers sought for the government to clear and pave the roads they needed in order to sell their cars – an advantage the streetcars and railroads did not generally have. Not wanting to appear to be too blatant in their rent seeking, the automobile industry lobbied the government indirectly, giving organizations like the AAA money in exchange for influence and seats on their boards.

The nascent auto industry was not the only booster of subsidized roads – even the private railroads were not immune to the siren song of the great new progressive future. They joined the cause in the 1890s with the idea that improved roads would mean more business for railroads, unaware of the threat that the long-haul trucking industry would come to pose to their business. This new semi-public, semi-private corporatist transportation model suited the progressives as well, who believed in a statist future where "private" enterprise was directed and controlled, though not outright owned, by the government.

In the years since the 1903 Good Roads Convention, the idea that government ought to be providing "good roads" has fundamentally altered the landscape of the country in ways that Theodore Roosevelt never could have imagined. The highway lobby gathered strength throughout the early half of the 20th century, eventually culminating in the Interstate Highway System, the widespread suburbanization of America, and the deterioration of once-great American cities. Urban planners like Robert Moses razed neighborhoods and blighted the remaining barren expanses with highways that have become increasingly congested ever since. In order to stave off this inevitable overuse, planners flattened America with zoning laws and parking regulations that forced America to sprawl ever farther from its city centers, to areas reachable only by cars and trucks. A century later it's hard to imagine it happening any other way, and it's often forgotten that there was a workable free market urbanism before there was unsustainable sprawl.

Theodore Roosevelt might be more commonly remembered for his conservationist work, but it's important for people today to remember the unforeseen consequences of the progressives' other grand plans. The "good roads" path that he helped put America on has shown itself to be an enabler of global climate change and belligerent petrostates, encouraging Americans to live farther apart, travel longer distances each day, have bigger houses, and fill those houses with more things. The common telling of the roading of America is that it greased the wheels of commerce and is an integral part of the "American dream," but it's impossible to know what sort of advances in mass transit technology would have come about and how we'd be living had the government not favored the automobile and the truck over the streetcar and the train. Theodore Roosevelt's conservationist efforts are indeed praiseworthy, but might both the environment and the economy be in better shape today had the progressives not interrupted the rail-based urbanization of turn-of-the-century America and put us on the car-based sprawling sub- and exurbanization that characterizes America today?

In calling for the government to fund mass transit and urban projects, Barack Obama has shown that he recognizes the problems of America's land use configuration. But in doing so, he shows himself to be ignorant of the root causes of the crisis: government meddling in the transportation and land use industries. Just as the progressives and futurists failed to use the government to direct a more efficient transportation scheme, Obama will likely fail in using the government to fix America's energy problems. Unless he renounces the legacy of the progressives and admits to America that it needs to return to its market-based roots – at least with respect to transportation and land use policy – his campaign promises of reversing our unsustainable ways will go unfulfilled.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate someone sharing my exact feeling. I didnt know details about progressive legacy and when it started but I was sure it was driven by auto mobile company. I am so happy to have read this article.