Is the Car a Menace or a Miracle? Vindication for the Vilified Vehicle by 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.”


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.

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.


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.


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.

Steven Horwitz
Steven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

How About Those Dream Machines?

The North American International Auto Show, also known as The Detroit Auto Show is quite an impressive display of automotive dream machines.  Upon entering this year’s motorcar display for the recent press week, it was immediately obvious that America’s Ford motor company is not only gearing up to compete with, but even to surpass some automotive competitors.  As one ventures into the sizeable Ford exhibit, a collection of mustangs both new and vintage will both please the eye and bring about thoughts of summer drives in one of those iconic beauties. Almost all car enthusiasts will truly want to hit the road in the Shelby Mustang GT 350R.

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For a larger view click on the image. Photo by Ron Edwards.

You will also not want to leave the presence of the 2017 Ford GT Coupe.  I stood there gawking at that future classic for over ten minutes before acquiring information about it from the experts waiting to answer our litany of questions.  For starters, the 2017 Ford GT is a superb combination of old and new.  As one spokesman stated, “Its wide gauge cluster with center mounted tachometer, red starter button, metal shift nob, large toggle switches and carbon fiber seats reflect upon its earlier heritage.  Also, the Ford GT is adorned with a console made of magnesium and a unique pattern of interior lighting. Which is coupled with almost every element of high style and superior quality gadgets that combine to make this American standout very competitive on the global stage.  With a lightening fast 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, it is doubtful that the Ford GT Coupe will ever get left behind at any road race venue.”

Upon venturing over to the Buick display, I was immediately focused upon the very beautiful Avenir flagship concept vehicle. It is a very long and almost sensuous motorcar with what one expert dubbed to be “a look that combines the styling of everything, ranging from the 1954 Wildcat to the third generation Buick Riviera.”  Although I am usually not very partial to very large coupes or sedans, I must say that the Buick Avenir is a visually stunning motorcar.  Last year Buick sold 1.17 million units worldwide with over 920,000 in China alone.  Some have asked if the Avenir will be produced exclusively for the Chinese market? Buick officials said no. But such large production vehicles are hot sellers in China, not the United States of America.  By the way, the Buick Avenir will not appear in American showrooms anytime soon.

The 2015 debut of the Buick Casada convertible was met with tepid enthusiasm. The pleasant looking car is powered by a 1.6 liter 200 horse power engine that will definitely get you where you want to go with ease.


Ron Edwards at the Detroit Auto Show. Photo by Ron Edwards.

Because of lower petrol prices and a drifting away from thus status quo in auto body style offerings, fun cars like the Corvette Z06 which propel from point A to point B via a 650 horse power engine that goes from 0 to 60 MPH in 3.3 seconds. It is truly a thing of beauty.  Product specialist Ann Marie informed me that “the Corvette is more than competitive with comparable motor cars from around the world.”  It now comes with a removable roof and if you like you can start ordering a convertible version that will became available in early spring.

Not only have the lowest fuel prices since President George W. Bush was president sparked a greater interest in high performance vehicles, but the already popular big trucks could benefit from an even greater groundswell of consumer interest.  Speaking of big trucks, the massive aluminum body Ford F-150 captured the North American truck of the year, beating out the Chevrolet Colorado and the Lincoln MKC cross over.  However, my favorite truck is the Hyundai Santa Cruz concept.  Auto expert Andrew Story described it best by stating “that the Hyundai Santa Cruz is an attractive, forward thinking compact crossover pickup truck.”

Another Detroit Auto Show eye candy vehicle is the 2015 Infinity Q 60 concept coupe that closely resembles an upcoming production vehicle. One auto week writer said it best, by describing the Q 60 concept is a strong statement from Infinity designers and that exhilaration is real.”  The Q 60 will begin rolling off the assembly line next year. It will replace the rather tired Infinity G Series Coupe.  To sum it up. The 2015 Detroit Auto Show is a fun experience and a sign of many good things to come from American and international auto producers.

On a related topic, a small number of Automotive company representatives who wished to remain unidentified, expressed concern over the government’s desire to increase gasoline taxes.  It is a shame that during the slowest economic economic recovery in United States History, that those elected to represent us are chomping at the bit to eliminate a small break from high fuel prices with higher gas taxes. It seems as if “We the People” will have to enforce the concept of “governing according to Constitutional guidelines and our benefit.”