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Centenary of the millionth car: what's democracy got to do with it?

By Barry York - posted Monday, 14 December 2015

December 10th marks the centenary of the production of the millionth car in the United States. It rolled off Henry Ford's assembly-line in Detroit to little acclaim but soon showed how technological innovation changes society and ways of life. By 1927, more than 15 million Model-T Fords had been sold.

Prior to the introduction of the assembly-line in 1913, cars had been crafted by small teams of workers. The assembly-line, based on continuous flow, created mass production and lowered costs by reducing the time required to manufacture a car from 12 hours to less than three hours. No longer were cars out of the reach of ordinary working people; no longer a novel play-thing of the rich and powerful.

A few years ago, the number of cars on our planet reached one billion for the first time. This year alone, more than 34 million cars were manufactured around the world. In Australia, we have 13.5 million of them – up by a million since 2010.


What does this have to do with democracy?

Democracy is about personal liberty and choice, as well as elections and the rule of law. Those who favour the car tend to see it as expansive of their range of options and their spatial horizons. It frees them to do more things on a weekend, during a working day and over a lifetime, when compared to other forms of transport such as bicycles and buses and trains. The latter restrict the individual to a timetable. To those who like cars, the car is a symbol of freedom.

Take anthropologist Krystal D'Costa, for instance. Writing in The Scientific American (April 2013), she says that,

Cars have long been symbols for personal freedom. With the open road before you, you can go anywhere from behind the wheel you really take control of your destiny. In this regard, cars are empowering. Ownership means that you have the means to be independently mobile, that you own not just a vehicle but choice as well.

Democracy empowers people as individuals so, by that measure, aren't cars consistent with freedom?

Not so! says writer, James D. Schwartz at his Urbancountry website. Schwartz argues that cars 'were once a symbol of freedom – a way to achieve personal independence' but...

Things have changed. We took it too far. The freedom of mobility that made cars so desirable is exactly what now makes cars so undesirable. Too many of us wanted that freedom. Too many of us bought inexpensive real estate in places that depended on motor vehicles even to buy a carton of milk.


There are certainly arguments for and against the car and, in a democracy these can be, and are, expressed openly and sometimes passionately. Early in the last century, the conservative intellectual, W. S. Gilbert, said that pedestrians should be 'legally empowered to discharge shotguns … at all motorists who may appear to them to be driving to the common danger'.

The availability of the car to increasing numbers of people changed our way of life, especially from the 1920s – the 'Roaring Twenties' – when they, and other mass produced commodities such as telephones and radios, entered the lives of the working people for the first time. In the previous century similar major changes to the 'way of life' had been brought about by the railways. Again there was opposition, especially from the feudal aristocrats whose estates were being 'violated' by rail construction, and by the priests and parsons who feared a loss of control over their congregations now that they were no longer so bound to a specific village.

The rise of the car changed our social interactions, our shopping habits and patterns, our leisure routines and gave us greater options for places of employment. The car also posed new challenges for city planners.

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This article was first published on the blog of the Museum of Australian Democracy.

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About the Author

Barry York is an historian and writer who blogs at C21st Left. He rejects the current pseudo-left and regards himself as a leftist influenced by Marxism.

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