Technology

Is the Car a Menace or a Miracle?

Steven Horwitz

The “automobile” moves itself, but it also moves us. Our cars carry us along the road of human progress not just by making us freer but by making us cleaner, healthier, and better fed.

Does such a claim strike you as strange?

In our own time, cars are seen as causing pollution, as well as making us lazy and fat. Consider how many of us drive our cars to the gym, where we exercise by walking or running, two activities often replaced by driving. But if you think about what the car replaced, it’s easy to see how the car is another example of what Don Boudreaux calls being “cleaned by capitalism.”

Cleaner

How has the car, which is so vilified as a producer of pollution today, made our lives cleaner?

Before the car, transportation required animals, mostly horses. Horses, of course, produce pollutants. What we in the modern, car-centric world easily lose track of is how dirty and smelly a world of horse-driven transportation is. Cities, in particular, were full of horse urine and manure, the stench of which could be overwhelming. Those by-products of transportation were no less polluting than what comes out of the exhaust pipe of a car or truck.

What we in the modern, car-centric world easily lose track of is how dirty and smelly a world of horse-driven transportation is. 

To understand the scale of the problem of horse-related pollution, consider historian David Kyvig’s observation:

The idea of self-propelled carriages had long fascinated American inventors, not to mention the carriage-using wealthy classes. Given the problems of highly-polluting horse-drawn vehicles, especially in congested urban areas, a cleaner-running automobile had great appeal. In 1900 in New York City alone, 15,000 horses dropped dead on the streets, while those that lived deposited 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine on the streets every day.

Note that those numbers are for daily waste.

The omnipresence of horses meant that 19th-century houses were built with “boot scrapers” outside so that people could get the manure off their boots before entering a home. The waste was also a source of disease, as were the dead horses in the streets. Disposing of the horses and their by-products was costly, and as historian Stephen Davies observed in an earlier Freeman column, there were many debates about how society would deal with the even larger amount of manure the future held if the then-current growth rate in the use of horses continued.

Healthier

The car eliminated that worry by dramatically reducing the use of horses and replacing them and their waste products with the much cleaner automobile. The car produced by-products of its own, but none of them posed the direct and severe health risks that came from rotting horse carcasses and millions of pounds of manure in the streets. And whatever the smell that came from car exhaust, it was much less offensive than the odor produced by the horses. Plus, traveling in the relative discomfort of early cars was still more pleasant than sitting immediately behind the rear end of a horse.

The car also made us healthier in another, more subtle, way. One of the first people in many small towns to acquire a car was the local doctor. Having a car made it easier to make house calls, increasing the probability that he could save a life or reduce the danger from injury or illness. The car also extend the geographic range of his service, making isolated rural locations accessible in ways they might not have been before. And somewhat later, when car ownership spread to more of the population, people were able to get themselves to a doctor or hospital more quickly and easily. Cars save lives.

Better Fed

In addition to making us cleaner and healthier, the car has made us better nourished. The most obvious way it has done so is that the internal combustion engine also made possible the truck and the tractor, which revolutionized agriculture. Having tractor power rather than just animal or human power made humans much more productive. Any given farmer could produce more output per person by using tractors and trucks. Rather than hiring an army of temporary workers and putting the whole family to work at harvest time, farmers could employ machines, freeing that labor to satisfy other, more valuable human wants elsewhere.

As farmers got more productive, they could produce food more cheaply, making more and better food more accessible to more people. The car made us better fed by increasing agricultural productivity.

Wealthier

The car, the tractor, and the truck had another related effect. In a world of horse-powered transportation, the demand for horses was high, which meant land had to be devoted to producing crops to feed them. Farmers who relied on horsepower could not earn income from the portion of their harvest that fed the horses. With tractors and trucks replacing those horses, crops that previously went to horses could be sold on the market, which also helped reduce the prices of those crops.

Check Your History

The way the car is vilified in our modern world is the result of two human biases. The first is simply forgetting our history — or imagining it through a very rosy rearview mirror. Looking at historical photos, or reading historical books, or watching historical movies often only gives us a sanitized (figuratively and, in a sense, literally) version of the past. None of those depictions can allow us to smell the stench of the preautomobile world. If we don’t know what the past was really like, we can’t appreciate the present.

The second kind of bias is that we tend to get increasingly upset about a problem when only a little bit of it remains. Cigarette smoking has largely died out, but we have little toleration for the small bit of it that remains. As we solve more of the big issues of death and disease, we get increasingly frustrated with the smaller ones that remain.

But that should not allow us to overlook our real accomplishments. The car is a major reason that human life is cleaner and that we are healthier and better fed than were our horse-powered ancestors.

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