Would You Buy a New Car from Procrustes?

During his remarkable adventures, the Greek hero Theseus ranged through beautiful vistas, formed valuable alliances, and battled incomprehensible monsters from beyond the edge of creation. One of the most horrifying was a determined sociopath named Procrustes, whose sole desire was to insure that travelers who slept in his home had no trouble fitting into his beds. Those who were too short were stretched on the rack. If they were too long, he cut off their feet.

Theseus dispatched the horrific creature with ease, moving unfazed to new adversaries and exploits in the landscape of Greek mythology.

In the contemporary world of American politics, he might not have such success, because the philosophy of Procrustes has been reborn in an army of often-incomprehensible figures carrying out their deeds in the U.S. Congress.

Procrustes was infamous for taking what would normally be a mundane, inconsequential matter of bed size-a decision based on an individual sleeper’s own choice and preference-and turning it into an arcane, bizarre exercise in coercion. Choice to him was unthinkable. He had one size bed, and he made people fit it, rather than making his bed choices vary to accommodate his patrons. The majority of modern politicians view the marketplace in much the same way. To them, variation reflects risk; choice indicates danger. Competition, volition, and freedom are words to be feared, corrupted, or banished from our contemporary lexicon; and the idea that a business should be allowed to cater to the demands of consumers is verboten.

Therein lies the deviant inspiration for the government’s latest creation, the ironically titled "Freedom CAR."

Touted as a great leap forward in government efficiency, the Freedom CAR project (CAR stands for Cooperative Automotive Research) was created to replace a Clinton administration program. Under President Clinton, the less colorfully titled "Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles" (PNGV) had as its original objective to develop an affordable, 80-mpg family vehicle by 2004.

Most objective observers predicted that the program was not going to achieve its goal. That the PNGV targets for emissions were set higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s low, stringent goals for autos in 2004 might have been a strong indication of trouble. That the government has spent $814 million on PNGV since its inception on September 29, 1993, with no discernible results, is also significant.

In remarks on the Freedom CAR program delivered in Detroit last January, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham explained that the goal of the "public-private partnership" is to "promote the development of hydrogen as a primary fuel for cars and trucks, as part of our effort to reduce American dependence on foreign oil."

"Under this new program," he continued, "the government and the private sector will fund research into advanced fuel cell technology which uses hydrogen to power automobiles without creating any pollution."

In touting the benefits of the new program, Abraham was led to admit the failures of the old one. "[I]t wasn’t at all clear this vehicle would appeal to consumer tastes," he confessed.

This is no surprise. If it were clear that an 80-mpg auto would appeal to the consumer, there would have been no need for government to fund its development. Private entrepreneurs with the ability to recognize the benefits of providing such a product, and with the honor to risk their own money on the venture, would have been working on it themselves if there were any potential benefit to consumers. The fact that there was insufficient interest to inspire such product development on a large scale reveals the backward ethics of taking the money of Americans for something they would not have voluntarily bought.

According to Abraham, Freedom CAR will mean "more fuel-efficient cars and trucks that are cheaper to operate." Thanks to Freedom CAR, families will be able to drive right through to Utopia, picking up Thomas More as he hitchhikes along the way.

Efficient at What?

Unfortunately for Mr. Abraham, and for every U.S. taxpayer, the true concept of efficiency is completely lost in the bombast of the contemporary bureaucrat. The measurement of "efficiency" has many different applications, and its calculation is not only composed of multitudinous factors, it is purely subjective. The concept of fuel efficiency cannot be separated from the principle of economic efficiency, and economic efficiency can only be properly determined by the individual who owns the money, and/or property, involved. Only he, operating on his own prerogatives, can make the proper determinations as to what expenditure of his time, energy, skill, or money will be most productive toward achieving his goals.

By initiating the Freedom CAR program, Abraham overwhelms the interests of the individual with his own. Ironically, the decision to fund the Freedom CAR with taxpayer money means that the freedom of consumers to make their own choices has been curtailed.

As with the PNGV, if the Freedom CAR program were an efficient use of capital, there would be no need to use money coerced from individuals to pay for any of it. The development of a hydrogen-cell engine would be supported by entrepreneurs and investors willing to invest in something economically productive. Economic efficiency is only, and can only be, determined by individual consumers making their own decisions with their own cash.

Supporters of government-developed "alternative fuels" cite two benefits of their agenda. The first is that these mandated alternatives will help reduce our dependence on foreign oil. According to Abraham, America currently uses approximately 10 million barrels of foreign oil each day. Additionally, boosters of the government approach believe that increased use of alternative fuels will reduce air pollution and the "greenhouse effect" supposedly caused by the burning of carbon-based petrochemicals. Government subsidies of, and regulations favoring, the corn-based panacea ethanol are all the rage among agribusinesses and left-wing environmental groups lobbying in Congress.

But what they overlook is the market and its ability to reflect the individual interests and concerns of real people. In the real world, oil is still the most cost-effective source of energy. When the costs of using oil (including environmental impacts) affect productivity to the extent that developing alternative fuels becomes economically more productive, the spontaneous response of people working for their own benefit will push that development. Until then, any government choices that supersede individual choices with one’s own money are, by their nature, less efficient.

They are also dangerous. Implementing government solutions over large populations of people with unique needs is fraught with troubles. Ethanol is actually a net energy loser, requiring more fuel to manage the soil, grow and harvest the corn, and refine than it actually produces for consumers.1 In addition, while it reduces air pollution in warmer climates and seasons, it increases smog in colder weather.2 Until it becomes more economically efficient to produce, and less problematic when used, people will wisely not spend vast amounts of their money on ethanol-based energy. Meanwhile, in the classic tradition of Procrustes, the government feels compelled to force these detrimental "solutions" on everyone.

Secretary Abraham has said that in addition to providing huge savings and more efficient vehicles, "[A] vision like Freedom CAR will bring consumers more choice." He ought to learn that choice is only reflected in a free and open marketplace, unshackled by government dictates and preferences that distort the true flow of useable capital.

Until he understands that fundamental rule, he will continue to operate like a modern Procrustes, forcing his preferences on everyone else. Let’s hope he and his political associates never go into the hotel industry. That could be truly painful.

Gardner Goldsmith is an independent journalist and screenwriter in New Hampshire.


  1. 1. See Edmund Contoski, Makers and Takers (Minneapolis, Minn.: American Liberty Publishers, 1997), pp. 197-99.
  2. 2. Leon Drouin Keith, "California Sues EPA Over Ethanol," Associated Press, August 13, 2001.

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