Who killed the car of the future?
Was tomorrow’s automotive tech slain by an unholy alliance of Big Oil and the Bush administration? That’s the answer a semi-famous 2006 enviro-documentary clubs over its viewers’ heads.
Or do fancy prototypes fail to scale up because they are vanity projects designed to delight the rich people who fund them, and thus devoid of real market appeal? That’s the conventional conservative claim, followed up with a chuckle and words of praise for the Ford F-150.
They’re both wrong. The next big thing in transit was neither smothered in its cradle by corporate power nor coddled to death by eccentric elites. It was killed ruthlessly, brazenly, and in cold blood on a sunny day last June. And one politician did it. The guilty party was none other than Washington DC’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton. She’s the one who hit the kill switch. Literally:
Norton did a particularly good job of testing the car’s bright-red “kill” button—which, as captured by WRC-TV’s cameras, killed the car to the point that it could not proceed with the test ride.
‘Oh, no, don’t push it!’ an engineer from Carnegie Mellon University cried after Norton pounded the mushroom button. ‘It shuts everything down.’
Norton said in a statement that she believes ‘driverless cars have a future as soon as they can be measured by the same safety standards we apply to traditional vehicles.’
The schadenfreude from the Right was swift and palpable. In recent months, after all, conservatives have worked to win new attention for their argument that entrenched interests wield the levers of government to depress consumer choice and innovation. Sometimes this critique is directed at crony capitalism: conservatives highlight uses of state power that explicitly elevate particular corporations or interest groups.
Other times, the critique makes a broader claim. Even if an expansive regulatory state applies its mandates evenly and doesn’t explicitly pick favorites, conservatives say it will still tend to suppress dynamism. That’s because, by sheer virtue of their design, complex and particularistic regulations necessarily codify the status quo. Even rules and requirements that seem perfectly sensible today are rendered costly, complex, and counterproductive when new technologies—whose very purpose is to end-run around old procedures—are forced to comply with the old set of dictates.
That’s why Norton’s closing quote is so disturbing. We, your wise overlords, will permit this breathtaking new technology to move forward just as soon as it satisfies a set of standards developed long before anything like it was imaginable.
Why Conservatives Are Optimistic
If you follow the conservative movement, you know that many of its leading lights are extremely bullish on what this argument can do for their cause. These optimists love to contrast the staggering customizability and optionality that modern life places at our fingertips with the sclerotic, one-size-fits-all state-centered solutions that the political Left is eager to ship. That stark contrast, they feel, is likely to drive young Americans away from the party of leviathan policies and expensive government acronyms, and towards the party that champions entrepreneurial churn.
This generation has been raised on Netflix! They can watch any movie they want, whenever they want it! How could they possibly be down for government bureaucrats dictating the terms of their healthcare and their retirement? We’ve all heard versions of this a thousand times. One of the most eloquent articulations of it came in Paul Ryan’s speech to the 2012 Republican convention:
None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers–a dull, adventure-less journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us (bold added).
Ryan focused on entitlements as how big government supposedly sucks the fun and the energy out of life. Today, conservatives still make the same general case, but they have chosen a slightly different field of battle. In 2014, the fun-sucking boogeymen aren’t Social Security and Medicare—they’re the regulators who want to shutter all the cool stuff that Americans want.
That’s why Republicans make constant mention of services like Uber and AirBnb. These are Internet-based marketplaces, operated for profit by entrepreneurs, that provide a space for private individuals to contract amongst themselves. In Uber’s case, private drivers flip on their digital “For hire” light and are automatically matched with a nearby customer who needs a ride. AirBnb accomplishes the same thing but for lodging: it matches homeowners and urban renters with a bedroom to spare and travelers who want something cheaper or more unique than a hotel.
Regulatory assaults on both these popular firms have dominated headlines of late. Taxicab unions and the lodging industry are entrenched political power players with tremendous influence in many cities. And naturally, they are working overtime to persuade regulators that they need to crack down on these plucky young competitors who are short-circuiting ancient licensing regimes and providing unprecedented convenience at unprecedentedly low prices. Ditto for food trucks versus entrenched restaurateurs.
All these anecdotes provide tidy examples of mayors and city councils who want to take away the twenty-somethings’ cool stuff. And to hear many right-wingers tell it, this is just the beginning. As smartphones and e-commerce continue to evolve, this clash will iterate over and over again, and Millennials will gradually become die-hard free-marketers.
A whole new generation of Uberservatives, innately skeptical of the state. What could be better for the GOP?
It Could Be Simple Self-Centeredness
I am not convinced. Perhaps I’m a natural cynic. Perhaps I simply know too many of my fellow Millenials to believe that millions of young people who hang on Jon Stewart’s every word will convert to Milton Friedman if it becomes marginally more expensive to get home on a Friday night.
In any event, I think there is an equally plausible and much more pessimistic story about Uber, economic liberty, and the youth vote that can explain the state of play. I laid out my hypothesis last June, when I interviewed Newt Gingrich, himself a famous techno-optimist.
AQ: Mr. Speaker, a lot of people who share your views say that things like Uber, things like Airbnb—issues where the sclerotic, old-style bureaucracy is actually impinging on the lifestyles that Millennials want—this will bring them around to our side. They’ll oppose big government.
A more pessimistic take might be that Millennials are just materialistic. They like things! And once they’re on track for entitlement programs, where the government is the one giving them stuff instead of just taking away things like Uber and Airbnb, maybe Millennials won’t be so anti-government on the whole.
Newt’s response was interesting. He expressed skepticism about the notion of a Millennial rush to the Right, particularly because of the left-wing monotony in which their time in academia has steeped them. But Gingrich then leapt directly into the optimistic view that we’ve just sketched out above:
NG:[They’ll] keep running into all the prison guards of the Left, who want you to be comfortable with things being slower, dumber, more expensive, less effective. You have the Food and Drug Administration, for example, which wants to regulate the 93,000 health apps on your smartphone. My guess is the average Millennial is going to think that’s stupid.
I don’t doubt that most Millennials will. But will that eye-rolling translate into votes for Republicans? I’m less optimistic. Does Occam’s Razor—a line of reasoning that says the simplest answer is probably correct—really suggest that young Americans are first and foremost these spiritually libertarian choice-a-holics who will declare ideological war on a bureaucracy that denies them a few novelties? Or does Occam’s Razor suggest that they’re simply self-interested actors who want nice things, however they might come by them?
A brand new Reason-Rupe poll offers a clue. The survey offers datapoints that seem to reinforce the optimistic view. Sixty-three percent of Millennials say “government regulators favor special interests over the public interest,” and majorities support laissez-faire in lifestyle issues such as food truck regulation and e-cigarettes. But in many other ways, the generation still looks conventionally liberal. By and large, the generation still supports raising taxes to finance more government benefits, and they believe government should guarantee universal access to healthcare and higher education. And—as we might expect—enthusiasm for tax-and-spend policies is high among low-income respondents and tapers off as Millennials get older and wealthier.
This doesn’t look much like a generation that is primed to develop a consistently conservative philosophy based on a few high-profile regulatory issues. Instead, the poll paints a picture of a generation that is politically confused—and one whose views track suspiciously close to whatever cocktail of big- and small-government policies would be the most advantageous for them where they presently stand.
What do you think? Would you say that most of the twenty-somethings you know are passionately principled, or pragmatic and a little bit materialistic? If it’s the latter, be very careful about transmitting the message that some “cool stuff” calculus is a morally acceptable way to make up your mind at the ballot box.
The Left offers young people a thousand expensive policies that offer us a gentle, cushy ramp into the real world. This in addition to a vast array of cultural touchstones that make voting for Republicans seem almost unimaginable to many, many Millenials. If conservatives accept the premise that it is right to view politics as a materialistic bidding war and try to fight Progressives on that ground, I expect the result will be slaughter.
I am all for grabbing the low-hanging fruit. If what pro-regulation Progressives—what Newt calls the “prison guards of the past”—want to crack down on Millenials’ favorite new toys, we should absolutely make a little hay. But there is simply too much optimism in conservative circles about the broader significance of these skirmishes.
If the modern Right is to replicate Ronald Reagan’s feat and win the youth vote, we will need to articulate a holistic story about where America is headed that appeals to both their policy interests and their broad cultural sensibilities. We’ll never get that done if we delude ourselves with the fantasy that Uber will do the job for us.