Matthew Crawford’s new book, Why We Drive: Towards a Philosophy of the Open Road, casts a skeptical eye towards the efforts to “manage” our lives—a trend we see anywhere from the open road to modern philanthropy.
An awkward and mildly dangerous three-way intersection near my house was recently replaced with a big new roundabout. In the weeks that followed, watching drivers navigate their cars through the roundabout was almost hypnotic. Where once there had been flagrant disregard for stop signs and turn-taking, now there was a more-or-less uninterrupted and orderly flow of traffic. It’s also safer for me to cross the street while walking my kids to the park.
Dumb drivers still do dumb and dangerous things, but the roundabout seems to be having its intended effect: creating a safer roadway. In a small way, the roundabout invites us to consider the possibility that, contra the relentless boosterism for self-driving cars, driving is not an activity that needs to be offloaded to computers in order for humanity to move through the world safely and responsibly.
Matthew Crawford, whose newest book is all about driving, would also have us consider another possibility. What if our interactions with other drivers—signaling to change lanes on the highway, waving someone ahead at an intersection, getting out of the way for an ambulance—are small exercises of the same skills we exercise in the practice of democratic self-governance? What if driving fosters the kind of enthusiastic associations that Tocqueville had in mind when he observed, approvingly, that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite”?
Maybe you’re thinking, Excuse me? I hate cars. They break down, they hurt people, they make our cities ugly, and they’re at the heart of our fossil fuel dependence.
You wouldn’t be wrong. And there is something ironic about a book that cites Jane Jacobs and Ivan Illich in defense of driving. But we ought to hear Crawford out. His goal is not so much to offer arguments for why everyone should love driving. It’s to interrogate the motives of those who seek to control our roadways. He hopes to illuminate “broader questions—the fate of human agency and the prospects for democratic governance, not least.”
Is driving essential for the flourishing of civil society? No, probably not. But the push for self-driving cars is symptomatic of a larger desire to render human life as orderly and rationalized as possible. Such a desire, when played out on a large enough scale in enough domains of civic life, would erode the very things that make associational life so vital: trust between freely acting individuals, informal transmission of knowledge, mastery of skills.
There is an ascendant mind-set, Crawford suggests, in which “the world presents as a series of problems to be solved.” This is the managerial outlook, one that is common in the world of philanthropy, though it is not confined to philanthropy. It pervades Silicon Valley. It is bubbling beneath the surface when government officials discuss new techniques for administration.
“To see a problem that needs fixing often stems from a failure to see that a solution has already been achieved—through the skill and intelligence of ordinary people,” Crawford writes.
You know how distracted driving is a leading cause of traffic accidents? Rather than restructure roadways and build cars that generate a terabyte of data every hour, why don’t we just disable cell phones in cars? Reams of studies show that making roads narrower increases safety (not to mention ancillary benefits, like reducing the cost of maintenance, and leaving more room for pedestrians). Roundabouts like the one in my neighborhood are a safer, more efficient, and cheaper alternative to stoplights.
What these solutions have in common is that they acknowledge human behavior (how people drive) and facilitate improved driving practices. What they also have in common is that they’re not revolutionary, they probably won’t be discussed by a panel at the Aspen Institute, and they don’t provide an obvious means for anyone to make money.
When it comes to self-driving cars, Crawford says we’ve fallen under the grip of “futurism,” a “genre of mythmaking that seeks to generate a feeling of inevitability around some desired outcome, a picture that is offered as though it were a prediction…One must accept the future rather than ‘cling to the past.’”
Futurism is diametrically opposed to Michael Oakeshott’s elegant notion of conservatism: “not hankering after the past nor fear of the future, but rather affection for the present. One cherishes what actually exists, because one sees the value in it.” Crawford seems to see in such conservatism the seeds of resistance to actors who, motivated by profit, would monitor and orchestrate our lives under the guise of safety, convenience, and order.
Such conservatism is also a tonic for the bitter remedies cooked up by so much modern philanthropy. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard a philanthropist talk about the coming “solutions” that will be enabled by “big data,” or if you’ve ever been promised that we’re “on the cusp” of a “new era” in some realm of life.
Too often, the prophecies of philanthropists seem rooted in quiet contempt for way we live—for our habits, affections, and rituals, not to mention our so-called inefficiencies and irrationalities. Don’t get me wrong. You would have to be a fool to look at the world and not conclude that things are deeply out of whack. To believe in the fundamental adequacy of the present is not to hate progress, nor is it to excuse current injustices. But it does demand that we look askance at wooly-minded declarations from “thought leaders” about the bright shining future just over the horizon, the one that we’ll reach when we’ve beaten all the kinks out of human nature.
“The common good may be understood in this way, as something enacted by particular people who are fully awake,” writes Crawford, echoing Illich. We all have different ideas of what it means to be awake. For Crawford, it entails leaning into turns on his motorcycle. For you, it probably requires some other practice. Whatever it looks like, it’s rooted in affection and engagement. It’s something you do.
No one can be awake for you. The common good is not something that can be managed or constructed or cleverly programmed on your behalf. You must contribute to your particular piece of it, in your own particular way. As must I. If we don’t, cars will likely be the least of our problems, no matter who’s driving.