An Auto Love Affair Gone Too Far?

A philosopher rationalizes his twice-weekly, 30-second car trip to the tennis court

TWICE a week, Loren Lomasky climbs into his beat-up Lincoln and drives from his office at Bowling Green State University to the campus tennis center - a trip that takes about 30 seconds.

Dr. Lomasky is a kind of car potato, a unique breed of automobile addict who makes environmentalists and gym teachers purple with rage. He admits America's slavish devotion to automobiles creates a multitude of problems ranging from pollution and protruding waistlines, to suburban sprawl.

But this philosophy professor says that people who use their cars for frivolous trips are making an important statement about freedom.

In a 22-page paper delivered last week at a press conference hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, Lomasky took his off-beat message to the home of politicians and lobbyists who make a handsome living protecting the interests of fossil-fuel vehicle manufacturers.

Lomasky notes that while "policy" types denounce cars as a public nuisance, more Americans are driving than ever before.

More than any other mode of transportation, Lomasky argues, automobiles enhance "the core values of our culture," like privacy, free enterprise, and the freedom of association.

Cars "allow us to choose where we will live, and where we will work," Lomasky says, and to separate those decisions from one another. Cars offer a chance to explore the world in a way that books and bus tours can't match.

And unlike trains and subways, they afford us the privacy to sing Whitney Houston songs without provoking a fistfight.

Lomasky is not the first philosopher to come down on the side of the car culture. The word "automobile," he says, is a variation on the term "automobility," which was coined back in ox-cart days by Aristotle.

According to Aristotle, automobility is the power of free and unprovoked movement: one of the essential traits that distinguishes humans from, say, cucumbers.

Lomasky explains it this way: "To be autonomous is, minimally, to be a valuer with ends taken to be good as such, and to have the capacity as an agent to direct oneself to the realization or furtherance of these ends through actions expressly chosen for that purpose."

Possible translation: Humans are different from cucumbers because they can develop a craving for Fritos, hop in the car at midnight, and drive two blocks to the Quickie Mart.

Lomasky elevates autos to the same "freedom-enhancing" level as the printing press and the microchip. The most serious problem with them, he says, is that critics fail to figure this sense of freedom into their cost-benefit analyses.

But even Lomasky admits that the American love affair with the automobile has produced, with government subsidies, some homely children. Among them: clouds of carbon monoxide, heaps of rusting scrap, thousands of fatal crashes, rush-hour gridlock, and lookalike subdivisions that are solely accessible by car.

Lomasky notes, ruefully, that policymakers seem to be taking note. Improvements on the federal highway system have slowed, lanes barring solo motorists are popping up all over, and federal fuel efficiency standards are forcing manufacturers to make fewer gas guzzlers. California has made a law mandating that some cars must be electric by the end of the century, and talk of a gasoline tax is common in Washington.

Lomasky's comments prompt another auto philosopher, of sorts, Tom Magliozzi, to weigh into the discussion. Mr. Magliozzi, co-host of the syndicated radio show "Car Talk," says the American passion for four-wheeled motion amounts to a Faustian bargain.

"Sure, cars give us freedom," he says. "But as my favorite philosopher, Benjamin Franklin, always said: 'There is no such thing as freedom without responsibility,' and we have ignored the responsibility." A good start, he says, would be to limit the number of cars on the road.

But Lomasky would probably brand Magliozzi as a heretic or at least un-American. The man who makes a living talking about cars doesn't drive one to work: "I ride my bike," says Magliozzi.

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