What if the government provided your vehicle?


I saw this tweet from Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) a few days ago, then read the linked blog:

Recommended. The LA Times follows up here, pointing out that we’ve reached “Peak Freakonomics” where our two authors seem to have run out of innovative ways at looking at subjects and should probably try to find a new niche to market.

But I was thinking about Yglesias’s proposition: What if the government bought your cars for you? How would that work? So here’s a thought experiment for that:

First, no frills. No leather seats, no iPhone dock, no super-quiet engine. There’s nothing wrong with those sorts of luxuries, but taxpayers won’t swing for them, so they’re out. If you want a DVD player for your kids to watch a movie, you have to spring for that yourself.

Second, how much will you be using your vehicle? Look, the government will be happy to give you a car to transport you places, but does it need to be idle all night while you sleep? Do you need to have it sit on your corporate campus for nine hours while you’re at work?

It would probably be cheaper for the government to pay for a chauffeur who would drive you to work, then go drive other people who needed rides, then pick you up after your shift. In fact, it doesn’t even need to be the same chauffeur!

Third, what if it’s not a one-person vehicle? Why should the chauffeur drive you and you alone to your destination when there are probably quite a few people who work where you work, or who would like to shop at that mall? Single-occupancy vehicles are wasteful and cause traffic jams. The government could streamline things by carrying several people at once.

Larger vehicles would be called for, ones with the capacity to move lots of people around. Perhaps some sort of schedule could be devised (and routes established) to maximize the movement of users.

Fourth, what about free-loaders? Obviously, there are those who want a car just for the thrill of driving. Would the American taxpayer be willing to subsidize that sort of purely-pleasurable but unproductive pastime? Considering how they act when food-stamp recipients buy soda, I doubt it.

Perhaps some sort of small co-pay could be required to discourage joy riding. We could call it a “fare.”

And you know where that takes us? To public transportation, which is certainly not perfect but is still used by millions of people every day. How would the Freakonomics guys feel if we increased its funding? I wish my transit system had more dollars.

Because the government is never going to allow people to walk into a car dealership and pick out any car they like. It’s ridiculous to even offer that as a thought experiment. But if the government thinks it’s important for people to have access to a minimum standard of health care, they will work that out. And if the government thinks people should be able to move around a community without driving a car of their own, they’ll work that out, too.

It won’t be extravagant, but it might make your society run better.