Democracy and Traffic Jams

Should you be allowed to buy a faster commute?

In two famous books, The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967), John Kenneth Galbraith argued that in modern economies, producers are mostly satisfying demands that they themselves have created. You don’t need to be persuaded to buy bread when you’re poor and hungry. This cannot be said about that home bread machine you bought.

The same is true of modern government. It is a cliché that politicians are sold like soap—though no self-respecting bar of soap would stoop to some of the advertising ploys that are common among self-regarding politicians. But increasingly, governance itself is a process of persuading people that they want some policy and then giving it to them. Who, for example, wanted a war to topple the government of Iraq? A year ago, about a dozen people. By the time the war started, a large majority of the citizenry was hungry for it. This doesn’t mean the war was wrong or the process of selling it was illegitimate. Created hungers are just as real as natural ones. I really like my George Foreman Grill, and perhaps the war on Iraq was also a good idea. The point is that demand for it did not well up naturally from the citizenry.

What would American citizens, unmolested, like from their government? Leave aside modern government’s primary function, which is accepting and writing checks. We’d all like lower taxes and higher benefits. What else? Better schools? Universal health care? Sure, but a bit high-minded. Be selfish for a moment. What could the government do for you, Mr. or Ms. Middle-Class Voter, to make your life concretely better? “Concretely” is the word, because the best answer is: solve the traffic problem. Driving to work on crowded highways is the typical voter’s main experience of government in everyday life, and it is increasingly unpleasant. Yet no national politician has seized the issue. Al Gore almost did in 2000, but he characteristically framed it in lofty terms of an overcrowded planet instead of traffic jams. Gore was probably right to fudge since there is no politically opportune solution. New highways rape the landscape and soon get as crowded as the old ones. Rapid transit is a pipe dream for this spread-out country.

But as Stein’s law (invented by the late conservative economist Herb Stein) decrees, “Anything that can’t go on, won’t.” Maybe the traffic problem is about to solve itself, via the Internet. True, telecommuting has been overhyped for years. But Bill Gates has observed that the payoff of technology is always overestimated in the short run and underestimated in the long run. The Internet may produce a significant reduction in driving just as people are getting bored with predicting it. Meanwhile, though, all eyes are on London, where the authorities have imposed an $8 daily “congestion charge” on anyone driving a car into the city center. This has had the desired effect of dramatically reducing traffic and making the drive much easier for those who choose to pay. But the experiment remains controversial.

In England, the politics of this issue are strangely topsy-turvy. When I worked for the Economist magazine 14 years ago, congestion charges were a hobbyhorse of that free-market publication. They were considered the epitome of hard-nosed business thinking about public problems. But the London plan was put in place by Mayor Ken Livingstone, a hate-figure known as “Red Ken” among British conservatives. As a consequence, the congestion charge is often attacked by conservative politicians and publications as Big Government at its worst.

In the rest of the world, we can put this confusion and other London specifics aside. The important questions are philosophical, and the philosophical debate is not complicated. The main objection is that charging for something that used to be free is unfair to those who can’t afford it or who find it a burden. Traditional toll roads are one thing: asking people to pay for the concrete under their tires. This is different. It has nothing to do with recouping a cost. This is the government charging money for the very purpose of making an activity cost more than most people are willing to spend. You can see it as making people buy something—the right to drive in the middle of town—that used to be free. Or you can see it as allowing citizens to buy something—an easy commute—that formerly was unobtainable at any price. There is a nice egalitarian quality about traffic jams. No matter how much you paid for your Jaguar, you still can’t go faster than anyone else. Two well-known books—Spheres of Justice (1983) by philosopher Michael Walzer and The End of Equality (1992) by Slate’s own Mickey Kaus—argue that the best way to a more just society isn’t to spread the money around but to make money less important. Traffic-congestion charges make money more important, and they join a wider trend. Pre-college education, for example, is an area of life where how much of it you can buy is a much bigger factor than it was 45 years ago when Galbraith’s Affluent Society tartly contrasted America’s “private splendor” and “public squalor.”

But the counterargument is also strong. It is easier to see in the case of a one-on-one deal. For example: Should a rich person who needs a kidney replacement be allowed to buy one from a healthy poor person? The answer of all the advanced democracies is: no. Human kidneys should not be part of the dollar economy. A rich person shouldn’t be able to get one of yours just because he has more money. But outlawing this deal doesn’t thwart just the rich person. It thwarts the poor one too. He thinks he’d be better off with the cash than with the second kidney. We think it’s terrible that he has to make that choice, but we’re not offering a third alternative. We’re just forcing him to take what he thinks is the worst of the current two.

The difference between kidneys and traffic charges is that only one side of the traffic deal is voluntary. You can decide for yourself if you’d rather have $8 or an easy commute. You cannot decide that you’d rather give up your share of the congestion charge revenue and have your old crowded commute back. That option has been closed off. Democracy is good for decisions that must be made collectively. But it is not as good as letting each of us decide for ourselves, where possible. Here it is not possible: No one will pay me individually to stay off the road because the disappearance of my one car isn’t going to make anyone else’s commute measurably easier. This deal is collective or not at all. It still strikes most citizens as a bad deal. But with a bit of marketing, that could change.