The Great American Fallacy Machine

Michael Dudley's picture

When it comes to urban policy issues such as public transit andsmart growth, self-identified "Conservatives" and Libertarians have turned"straw man" argumentation into an art form. Many of their positions are sotransparently fallacious that I feel compelled to take them down, (asI've done in previous Planetizen op-eds [here and here])by systematically identifying their fallacies and documenting their misleading use of data sources.

It's easy and it's fun!

To cite the latest example, the Heritage Foundation's Ernest Istook calls the automobile, The Great American Freedom Machine (posted to Planetizen as Three Cheers for the Automobile):

"They offer us enormous opportunities to go where we want, when we want...But not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of having to sacrificeour freedom of mobility because 'green' politicians chose to 'save theplanet' by hampering our country's ability to produce affordable energy."

Notice the specious rebuttal: he is deflecting the argument awayfrom the inherent futurelessness of the internal combustion engine, byinstead saying high energy prices are the fault of politicians who want to protectfragile ecosystems from oil exploration. The truth is, America can drill wherever it wants to but oil will never again be "affordable energy," thanks to growing global demand and geopolitical instability (which, not incidentally was grossly exacerbated by the war in Iraq, which most Conservatives...oh, never mind).

"Liberals also assert that it's cheaper to ride than to drive, aclaim that depends upon perspective...Public bus and rail systems get75 percent of their operating costsfrom taxpayer subsidies, and only 25 percent from riders' fares, sothat expense is simply shifted to taxpayers when people shift totransit."

Overlooking that it's not just 'Liberals' who argue this point, this is of course argument by half-truth: here Istook overlooks -- or more accurately, deliberately fails toacknowledge -- that public roadways and the externalities of theautomobile represent an enormous expense that is also heavily subsidized by taxpayers. The car could never pay its own way and still remain the "great American freedom machine."

Next he turns to arguing by selective observation:

"American buses average 4,650 BTUs per passenger mile, compared to only 3,702 for autos."

This is based on data collected in 1995. Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics show that between 1995 and 2004, the gaps between these modes narrowed to 3,509 BTUs per passenger mile for cars and 3,572 BTUs for passenger buses. It should be stressed that Istook doesn't distinguish between cars and the almost ubiquitous SUV, which consumed 4,538 BTUs in 1995 and 4,452 in 2004.

The data problem here is that he is implying that this measure is an absolutefigure, when in reality we see it changing year-to-year with actual transit useand advances in technology. If buses were running at capacity, theaverage BTUs per passenger mile would drop accordingly; with the recent surge in transit use brought about by high gas prices, subsequent data sets will likely show this. Asthe stock of transit buses is replaced with hybrid or other drives,this figure will be similarly reduced.

The fallacy though is tautalogical: more transit use -- which his argument is aimed at preventing -- would lower BTUs per passenger mile, thereby deflating his argument.

Then there's also the always-popular "taking data out of context" strategy:

"The New York Times' John Tierney reported, 'As documented by the Texas Transportation Institute, when you take population growthinto account, traffic congestion has been increasing more rapidly inthe cities that haven't been building roads.'"

Well, yes, but what he doesn't say is that the Texas Transportation Institute's Annual Urban Mobility Report for 2007 actually comes to a much more nuanced conclusion:that while maintaining a pace of roadway construction that matchespopulation and travel growth will indeed reduce congestion,

"only five of the 85 intensively studied urban areas were able toaccomplish that rate. There must be a broader set of solutions appliedto the problem, as well as more of each solution than has beenimplemented in the past, if more areas are to move into the'maintaining conditions or making progress on mobility' category."

Finally he turns to the fallacy of ideological triumphalism:

"Trying to force everyone onto mass transit will neverwork...Forcing people to use a particular mode of travel is not theAmericanway. Life is better when you have the freedom to drive, not just find aride or wait at bus stops."

"Liberals" are not now, nor ever will be "forcing" anyone out oftheir cars. The marketplace will likely take care of that as volatile oilprices continue to make car ownership less affordable. But the broaderideological paradox here is that Conservatives are supposed tobe all about allowing the market to provide choice to consumers. How isa technological monoculture -- composed entirely of cars -- supposed todo that? Public transit and active transportation investments arefilling that need by providing more choices, leaving people their hallowed freedomto continue to spend ever more of their income on their cars if they sochoose.

As it becomes more apparent to a broader constituency that the dominance of the automobile is making less sense all the time, and that real transportation choices supported by public investments are urgently needed, we can probably expect more of this sort of defensiveness from folks armed more with ideology than data.

(For a more detailed examination of the energy benefits of public transportation when comparing modes, check out "Conserving Energy and Preserving the Environment:The Role of Public Transportation" by Robert J. Shapiro, Kevin A. Hassett and Frank S. Arnold).

Michael Dudley is the Indigenous and Urban Services Librarian at the University of Winnipeg.



Let's be clear what an

Let's be clear what an ideologically consistent libertarian, one who advocates the least possible government intervention in every regard, believes.

The true libertarian would oppose many of the major causes of the land use problems that concern us.

A libertarian would have opposed the interstate highway system and all the smaller highway projects that preceded it. Without these projects, America's robust and virtually private intercity passenger rail industry would have had a fighting chance.

A libertarian, opposing almost all taxes, would oppose a tax system favoring new home construction. Without deductible mortgage interest, a major catalyst for sprawl would be gone.

A libertarian opposes eminent domain. Without this power, no highway, failed modernist urban renewal project or dangerous urban housing project could be built where residents and business owners choose not to sell their property. Without eminent domain, entire historic neighborhoods would remain intact with the classic urban fabric we espouse.

A libertarian opposes zoning. Houston's sprawl mess is not a valid counterpoint to this, since a libertarian opposes the transportation infrastructure that drives sprawl and is allowed to even more directly shape Houston's land use. Libertarians oppose the limits on density and diversity of uses imposed by zoning.

A libertarian would have opposed a municipality's power to strangle private streetcar companies by mandating fares too low to support their businesses in the face of high inflation. Without this power, private transit companies would have had a fighting chance.

A libertarian would have opposed the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which forced utility companies to divest themselves of struggling streetcar companies. Without this, private streetcar companies, with the support of their parent utility companies, might have had a fighting chance.

Let's be clear that the planning critics that either call themselves libertarian or are seen as such (e.g. Randall O'Tool) are not libertarians. Supporting public highway construction is not libertarian no matter how passionately one opposes public rail projects. A libertarian opposes government infrastructure construction altogether.

Let's be aware that opposing government action is by no means support for the status quo. This opposition includes support for the end of the governments support for our flawed land use system.

This is why I admire Libertarians the same why I admire Marxists

The way thebostonian defines it i would love to be a libertarian. I am not being facetious when I say I truly do admire the intellectual purity of libertarians. I jsut don't think their interesting thought experiment is at all possible. The same way I admired communists when I was an undergrad. Since they oppose all government intervention they can sit back and blame government for everything that goes wrong. At the same time they have the luxury of taking no responsibility for the conditions that call for government intervention in the first place. Freedom of contract is great until I am suddenly free to "allow" my underage son to work for $25 cents an hour. I've been to places with limited government, and there is little that is free about them.

If we could go back to the start line and let a libertarian designed society run forward what would happen? My very uninformed guess would be that the natural processes of amalgamation of wealth, capital, and intellectual resources would occur, and in a number of generations you would basically have feudalism. Libertarianism is ahistorical. Since it has limited regulatory framework, it also lacks any methods for self-correction. Okay no freeway system, so what about the problem that called for the interstate in the first place: increasingly urbanizing country was increasingly unable to get foodstuffs to urban marketplace.

Pure libertarianism has the same possibility for realistic implementation as pure communism. If everyone where free to do anything as long as they had all their neighbor's buy-in (freedom of contract) then it sounds like the marketplace of ideas would balance out, right. Well history is full of examples where this just isn't the case. Eventually someone will get more power and game the system or the "free" market or whatever libertarians call their utopia.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Not quite accurate history

"Okay no freeway system, so what about the problem that called for the interstate in the first place: increasingly urbanizing country was increasingly unable to get foodstuffs to urban marketplace."

If you are arguing that (even after decades of non-interstate highway construction) the absence of interstates somehow caused food shortages in the mid-1950s, I'm not sure the historical record bears that out.

Indeed, is simply not true that the interstate was intended primarily to secure the nation's food supply, except to the extent that highways facilitate the flow of goods generally.

In fact, at least some of its supporters (most notably President Eisenhower) never even intended to go through the nation's cities at all. According to a 1996 newspaper story (Albany Times Union, 6-16-96):

"He [Eisenhower] saw it as a tool of national defense -- an appropriate vision for a man who served as supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II.

But it became something more. To win the votes of urban lawmakers to get congressional approval for funding, its boosters agreed to let the interstates run near or through many cities.

Eisenhower had an inkling of the result in 1959, when -- on his way to Camp David -- he first saw the earthen gash that their construction caused in Washington's inner city. He was horror struck."

In other words, the original vision behind the interstate was to knit the nation together by connecting cities to other faraway cities- not to encourage suburb-to-city transportation.

I believe he was talking

I believe he was talking about before the Interstate highway system and even before hand in WWI where all of the nation's railroads had to be nationalized in order to get war machinery to the Atlantic coast for shipping because the roads were not adequate. This is where Eisenhower was initially annoyed, because he was in a convoy that got stuck. Before that though, part of the impetus for building roads was to allow postal carriers to deliver mail and to allow farmers to get produce to market, they were often stuck in the mud or in ruts because the roads were dirt and not paved. In Texas you have a whole system of farm to market roads.

I highly suggest Getting There by Stephen Goddard. He discusses the forces that overtook Eisenhower (the auto/oil lobby) and pushed to have the roads not tolled and go through the center of cities. I also suggest the book 20th Century Sprawl.

Another good read is Street Smart, Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century. There is a chapter in there by Scott Bernstein that discusses how city streets were actually built and maintained by the streetcar companies.

Pantograph Trolleypole


No system is ever perfect and the libertarian one is no exception. I don't claim to be a true libertarian, though I think there are some good principles there. But, in our modern day society you will have a watered-down version of whatever system we work with. So, we don't really have to debate the exact theoretical definitions or constructs of a political or economic system. We just need to debate actual policies and stop pigeonholing like Dudley. I could call Dudley a political opportunist and try to pigeonhole him as a smart-growth or anti-sprawl hack or liberal or whatever. What good does that do?

On the transportation point, I agree with Michael. There was never a real problem. Eisenhower wanted a way to transport tanks around cities in case the commies bombed them. I'm sure there were other justifications.

All that being said, I still favor a libertarian-like policy framework which embraces the free market, but at the same time recognizes its limitations - that there are externalities and public goods that require government intervention to maintain a good society, opportunity, and quality of life.


"Limited Government" usually means 'good government for people with money and bad government for people without it'. If there's any purpose to government at all it's to facilitate trade and commerce. Libertarian Capitalists want all of the protections that government has to offer without any of the liabilities. But without government taxes to pay for highways, ports and airports, to subsidize the shipping industry and to protect shipping lanes with a navy as well as to educate a workforce, large concentrations of wealth such as we know today would be next to impossible.

A purely libertarian society with a truly free (not capitalist) market would probably have a fraction of our population and none of the technological advances. People would be too busy trapping animals and fur trading as a way to put food on the table to have time to go out and invent things like light bulbs.

Pot, meet kettle

The comment below says it best so I don't need to repeat. But, in his own arrogant haste to debunk all those conservatives and libertarians, Dudley doesn't even know what a libertarian is. You would think if your main focus is to continue to write op-eds to tell people how a group builds up straw men, you would at least understand the category of people you are criticizing. So, what does he do..exactly what he is criticizing. He builds up the "libertarian" straw man by improperly defining it and claiming they support ideas which they don't. Nice. If you don't know the difference between those who are just against smart growth and planning altogether and a libertarian, do some research before you put the pen to the paper.

libertarians on the head of a pin...

Yes, there are true libertarians. There are about 1 million per free market. The rest are corporate shills in disguise.

Two elephants in the room
The carbon-auto industry has kept public transit hobbled by user-fees and uneven funding. At the same time the autosprawl system has been subsidized. The biggest subsidies are the trillions to address climate disruption and pay for oil-gas-pipeline wars. When these two elephants in the room are recognized as externalities, the autosprawl system will not be justifiable by any market analysis.

Now that we've exhausted the Libertarian digression...

What does everyone think about the main point of the article, that automobile backers (for lack of a better term) have begun the process of creating and debunking straw man arguments. I tend to find this in a lot of pro-automobile, pro-sprawl argumentation (a la Randall O'Toole). "Automobiles are useful...People prefer them...They are getting better (without govt. intervention)...therefore planners are bad for imposing (or even suggesting) alternatives." Is this interpretation a summary or my own straw man?

I am a firm supporter of transit and enjoy visiting (and enjoyed living in) cities with effective mass transit. I always owned a car in those places, but I used it much more judicially. My perception is that moderate transit supporters argue for a transit roadways balance. Defining that balance is difficult, because correcting historical imbalances means over compensating in the direction of transit. Nonetheless, I accept that the personal automobile is a great device, and I use mine often. However the free market experienced a significant failure in the 90's when cheap gas lead to the over-production and over-consumption of SUV's. In and of themselves they are not 'bad" but they do become symbolic because they are inefficient (+3,000 lbs to transport 1-4 human beings= 180-800 lbs), and impose unwarranted externalities.

So where does that leave moderate transportation policy proponents? CP, Charles, and others, your thoughts? What is a way forward that acknowledges human nature, history, and the future?

Walkability And Choice Should Be Issues

I think the New Urbanists have framed the issue very effectively (and truthfully) by saying that sprawl neighborhoods require people to drive on every trip and that they build neighborhoods that give people the choice of walking or driving.

That turns around the right-wing argument that "Forcing people to use a particular mode of travel is not the American way." It is actually the freeway/sprawl proponents who have forced people to use a particular mode of travel.

I find that people who live in sprawl neighborhoods are envious when I tell them that I had dinner with a friend, we met at my house, and we walked to the nearby shopping street where we decided which restaurant to go to. They wish that they also lived where they had the choice of walking.

Charles Siegel

good questions

I have to hand it to you. You just throw out the humdinger big picture questions that people should be asking. That's a good start.

I think the main point of the article is to lambaste and chastise people who have a different opinion than him by focusing on methodological flaws and claiming he is a champion truthfinder. But, truth be told, he probably has his own flaws in assumptions, world paradigm, methodology, etc. He is not really any smarter than a guy like Randall O'Toole, he just wants you to believe he is above the rhetoric. The reality is that both sides (if there are only two) are awash in it. We won't ever change that, but...

The way forward, in my humble opinion, should at least start with the acknowledgement that people want a lot of things, many of them conflicting. I don't doubt that Charles is right about the location and walkability envy in some cases, but the guy who said it lives on a 1/2 acre in a distant suburb. See the problem? So, to go forward, we balance the things that people want - individual rights, less sprawl, more open space, transportation options, lots of services, low taxes, a big yard, clean environment, etc.

How do we do that. Of course, my answer says we use and manipulate the market, which is the most effective rationing system of which I'm aware. Let people, generally speaking, have their way while public policy manipulates choices by taxing bads and subsidizing goods. And while we are at it, eliminate the subsidies for "bads". In the end, we won't have unlimited freedoms or a perfect environment or the perfect transportation system, but we would probably have a balance of all these things that society as a whole is willing to live with.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Not sure I disagree, but to be fair...

There is a lot of stuff out there on anarchocapitalism.
(see links at bottom for online stuff;
also, one of the books listed, Murray Rothbard's For A New Liberty, is worth reading).

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.

Wear your city with style!

100% silk scarves feature detailed city maps. Choose from five cities with red or blue trim.
Melissa and Doug Town Blocks Wooden Play Set

Block play meets role play

New! Town block set from Melissa and Doug Toys