Why Ray LaHood Is Wrong

You might think the Department of Transportation would be a refuge from Washington's inundation of painfully earnest and pitilessly incessant talk about "remaking" this (health care, Detroit) and "transforming" that (the energy sector, the planet's temperature). Transportation, after all, is about concrete practicalities—planes, trains and automobiles, steel, asphalt and concrete.

Furthermore, the new transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, was until January a Republican congressman practicing militant middle-of-the-roadism. He knows what plays in Peoria, and not just figuratively: He is from there. Peoria is a meatloaf, macaroni-and-cheese, down-to-earth place, home of Caterpillar, the maker of earthmoving machines for building roads, runways, dams and things.

LaHood, however, has been transformed. Indeed, about three bites into lunch, the T word lands with a thump: He says he has joined a "transformational" administration: "I think we can change people's behavior." Government "promoted driving" by building the Interstate Highway System—"you talk about changing behavior." He says, "People are getting out of their cars, they are biking to work." High-speed intercity rail, such as the proposed bullet train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, is "the wave of the future." And then, predictably, comes the P word: Look, he says, at Portland, Ore.

Riding the aforementioned wave to Portland, which liberals hope is a harbinger of America's future, has long been their aerobic activity of choice. But LaHood is a Republican, for Pete's sake, the party (before it lost its bearings) of "No, we can't" and "Actually, we shouldn't" and "Not so fast" and "Let's think this through." Now he is in full "Yes we can!" mode. Et tu, Ray?

Where to start? Does LaHood really think Americans were not avid drivers before a government highway program "promoted" driving? Does he think 0.01 percent of Americans will ever regularly bike to work? Intercity high-speed rail probably always will be the wave of the future, for cities more than 300 miles apart. And as for Portland ...

Its government has been, intermittently, as progressive as all get-out, trying to use zoning, light-rail projects and high-density housing to cool the planet by curbing automobile use. This sort of "New Urbanism" is metastasizing. Last year California's attorney general, Jerry Brown, 71, the state's once (1975–82) and, he hopes, future governor, was a prime mover behind a new law that would deny certain state aid to communities that do not adopt "smart growth" plans. They are supposed to herd Californians into higher-density living near mass-transit rail lines in order to reduce their carbon footprints (tire prints, actually).

For many generations—before automobiles were common, but trolleys ran to the edges of towns—Americans by the scores of millions have been happily trading distance for space, living farther from their jobs in order to enjoy ample backyards and other aspects of low-density living. And long before climate change became another excuse for disparaging America's "automobile culture," many liberal intellectuals were bothered by the automobile. It subverted their agenda of expanding government—meaning their—supervision of other people's lives. Drivers moving around where and when they please? Without government supervision? Depriving themselves and others of communitarian moments on mass transit? No good could come of this.

Although proponents of the "war against sprawl" think of it as newfangled, it actually is quaintly retro. In the 1950s, when liberalism took a turn toward esthetic politics, its thinkers began looking askance at middle-class America. To the herd of independent thinkers who deplored it in chorus, suburbanization was emblematic of the banality of bourgeoisie life. Then, 45 years ago this week, a Democratic president who had been in office exactly six months heeded the liberal intellectual's cri de coeur.

On May 22, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, speaking at the University of Michigan, announced plans to transform America by leading it "upward to the Great Society." Exhorting the Class of 1964 to "indignation," he said America was in danger of being "buried under unbridled growth." The implication was clear: Government must put a bridle—and a saddle and snaffle—on Americans, the better to, LBJ said, "enrich and elevate" their lives above "soulless wealth" and to serve "the desire for beauty and the hunger for community."

Once upon a time, government was supposed to defend the shores, deliver the mail and let people get on with their lives. Today's far-seeing and fastidious government, not content with designing the cars Americans drive to their homes and the lightbulbs they use in their homes (do you know that, come 2014, the incandescent lightbulb will be illegal?), wants to say where their homes can be. And to think that Republican Ray LaHood, Secretary of Behavior Modification, is an enthusiast for this, well, cozy relationship between Washington and Peoria, and everywhere else, too.

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