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The End of History and the Fast Man. Bidding farewell to America’s car culture — and its democratic virtues

By early 1967, just months after Ronald Reagan’s election as governor, James Q. Wilson had already tired of East-Coasters’ new favorite pastime, “Explaining California.” So the California-born Harvard professor penned a firsthand account of growing up in Long Beach, “to try to explain what it was like at least in general terms, and how what it was like is relevant to what is happening there today.” As Wilson explained in “A Guide to Reagan Country,” Reaganism reflected a southern Californian individualism focused not on changing the world but on improving your own small part of it — your home, your yard, and, before you were old enough for any of that, your car.

“Driving. Driving everywhere, over great distances, with scarcely any thought to the enormous mileages they were logging. A car was the absolutely essential piece of social overhead capital,” he recalled. You needed the car to “get a job, meet a girl, hang around with the boys,” go to the movies, to the beach, to Hollywood.

In the decades after writing that essay for Commentary, Wilson became the nation’s most insightful political scientist. From his early essays on city politics, to his studies of bureaucracy and police behavior, to his writings on morality and character in American life, Wilson saw more keenly than anyone else the relationships between American character and American institutions. And throughout his career, he returned time and again to cars — in California, in America, and in the crosshairs of progressive technocrats.*

His consideration of cars was more than academic. The son of an auto-parts dealer, Wilson loved to drive “very fast,” Christopher DeMuth remembered, “preferably with his wife Roberta at his side to share the thrill.” In Cambridge he shunned the standard-issue Harvard-prof Volvo — as a 1970s protester’s sign once complained, “James Q. Wilson Drives a Porsche.”

By early 1967, just months after Ronald Reagan’s election as governor, James Q. Wilson had already tired of East-Coasters’ new favorite pastime, “Explaining California.” So the California-born Harvard professor penned a firsthand account of growing up in Long Beach, “to try to explain what it was like at least in general terms, and how what it was like is relevant to what is happening there today.” As Wilson explained in “A Guide to Reagan Country,” Reaganism reflected a southern Californian individualism focused not on changing the world but on improving your own small part of it — your home, your yard, and, before you were old enough for any of that, your car.

“Driving. Driving everywhere, over great distances, with scarcely any thought to the enormous mileages they were logging. A car was the absolutely essential piece of social overhead capital,” he recalled. You needed the car to “get a job, meet a girl, hang around with the boys,” go to the movies, to the beach, to Hollywood.

In the decades after writing that essay for Commentary, Wilson became the nation’s most insightful political scientist. From his early essays on city politics, to his studies of bureaucracy and police behavior, to his writings on morality and character in American life, Wilson saw more keenly than anyone else the relationships between American character and American institutions. And throughout his career, he returned time and again to cars — in California, in America, and in the crosshairs of progressive technocrats.*

His consideration of cars was more than academic. The son of an auto-parts dealer, Wilson loved to drive “very fast,” Christopher DeMuth remembered, “preferably with his wife Roberta at his side to share the thrill.” In Cambridge he shunned the standard-issue Harvard-prof Volvo — as a 1970s protester’s sign once complained, “James Q. Wilson Drives a Porsche.”

Two decades after James Q. Wilson’s Commentary essay on cars, he wrote perhaps his most famous work, Bureaucracy (1989). After three hundred pages’ analysis of various aspects of bureaucracies, Wilson turned to the question of why nations differ in their tendency toward or against bureaucratic control. His analysis began by looking at each citizenry’s degree of “habitual ­deference.”

In Sweden, for example, Wilson traced a history of cultural deference to a modern politics in which the people “accord government officials high status, do not participate (except by voting) in many political associations, and believe that experts and specialists are best qualified to make governmental decisions.” This culture was not exclusive to Sweden, of course; “elements of it can be found in all Scandinavian nations, in Germany, and in Great Britain.” But not in America:

American political culture could hardly be described as deferential. Americans value expertise but they do not defer to it; an expert who takes an unpopular position or acts contrary to the self-­interest of an individual or a group will be treated as roughly as any other adversary. Americans admire their form of government but do not admire or accord high status to the officials who work for it….

And that culture was the foundation upon which our political institutions were footed: An adversarial political culture is not unique to the United States, but it is in the United States that the political institutions — the separation of powers, judicial review, and federalism — allow it full expression and reinforce its central features. Everywhere, of course, institutions and the incentives they create interact with culture and the habits it fosters. American political culture and institutions are remarkably congruent, however, so much so that it is hard to imagine parliamentary institutions being transplanted here.

Well, maybe it was hard in Wilson’s time. In our own, however, it is much easier to imagine our constitutional institutions being supplanted by new ones — if not parliamentary, then technocratic and bureaucratic. It is easier because it has already happened, or at least is happening now.

Fukuyama has popularized the notion that all nations, in their development of political institutions, seem to be “getting to Denmark.” In driverless cars we will get there faster. The more we welcome technology’s rational control in our daily lives, the more we will welcome it — even demand it — of our political institutions. Driverless cars will take us down many roads, including the one to serfdom — unless books like Why We Drive convince us to steer to the off-ramp.

Adam J. White, a New Atlantis contributing editor, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of George Mason University’s C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State.

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