(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

June 22, 2020   7 mins

Matthew Crawford believes driving can be a way of being free. Driverless cars and smart cities suppress the human need to steer one’s own life, even at some risk to oneself and others. Like much in contemporary society, they consist of cleverly engineered schemes aiming to replace fallible human judgment by algorithmic certainty. There may be fewer crashes on a smart motorway, and therefore less death and injury. But any significance driving may have had for drivers has been drained away by making their agency redundant.

Applied across our lives, such schemes may deliver a narrowly defined goal of increasing social utility. At the same time they deplete our lives of meaning, and thereby of value for us. Driving is not just a means to the end of getting from one place to another. For many people it is, or can be, an important part of the good life. “To drive is to exercise one’s skill at being free,” Crawford writes at the close of Why We Drive, “and one can’t help but feel this when one gets behind the wheel. It seems a skill worth preserving.”

The case for taking more risks

By UnHerd

A research fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and a motorcycle mechanic, Crawford first presented his philosophy of human action in The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing things Feels Good (2010; published in the US as Shop Class as Soulcraft, 2009). He developed his account most systematically in The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction (2016), where he mounted an attack on what he described, provocatively but to my mind accurately, as “autistic freedom”.

In this view, which Crawford finds prefigured in Immanuel Kant’s understanding of rational autonomy, human beings are free to the extent that they are not exposed to contingency and accident. But such an idea of freedom requires an imaginary separation from our bodies, which are inherently accident-prone, and from the instinctive responses for dealing with their fragility that are built into them. Environments designed to eliminate danger from our lives impair abilities that are essential to our humanity. The need for security and risk-control is real enough, and at times overriding. But displacing human skill and agency does not always enhance safety, and when applied across society it has the dystopian effects to be expected from a technocratic ideology.

Applying this critique, Crawford is sceptical about schemes to prevent reckless driving. In one of many fascinating asides, he notes that though there are no speed limits on much of the Autobahn network in Germany, the country has one of the lowest rates of traffic fatalities in the world. The fact has an interesting backstory. In the 1930s, when the autobahns were being built, the Nazis abolished speed limits. Instead a “traffic community” would practice “chivalry” and “obedience”, and restrictions would no longer be needed. But after the adoption of the Reich Highway Code in 1934, German traffic fatalities spiralled to become the worst in Europe. By 1939 speed limits were back in place.

The lesson of the experiment, Crawford writes, is that “a traffic community cannot be created by fiat. It has to grow organically over time, as it depends on social norms that have worked their way into people’s dispositions.” This is partly a matter of individual traits such as restraint and self-control, but also involves recognising similar traits in other drivers. Low rates of fatal accidents in systems without speed limits require a community in which drivers understand and trust one another. To be sure, not the supposedly innate racial or national community the Nazis imagined. Germans had to learn how to drive fast safely, and did so in the civic order that was reconstructed during the post-war peace.

Lying behind schemes that seek to eliminate risky driving, Crawford suggests, is a dream of harmony. In support of this view, he quotes a passage from Michael Oakeshott:

They tell us that they have seen in a dream the glorious, collisionless manner of living proper to all mankind, and this dream they understand as their warrant for seeking to remove the diversities and occasions of conflict which distinguish our current manner of living…And such people understand the office of government to be to turn a private dream into a public and compulsory manner of living.

Oakeshott (1901-1990) has recently enjoyed a late celebrity as a critic of doctrinaire libertarianism. Few of those who have cited him for this reason can have read a single page of his writings.

In his seminal Rationalism in Politics and other essays (1962), he explained that by rationalism he meant the belief that a combination of scientific theorising with technical expertise can replace, and improve upon, the tacit understandings of how to live that are embodied in our habits and skills. In ethics and politics, theories and ideologies are always abbreviations of practices we learn by imitation. John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, for example, did not uncover “principles” of which the world had until then been ignorant. Locke was summarising an already emerging way of life. Books like his are distillation from practical experience, not revelations of any truths on which practice is supposedly based.

Oakeshott attacked political ideologies of all kinds, including that of his LSE colleague F.A. Hayek, whose “plan to resist all planning” he thought belonged to the same style of doctrinaire politics. But if those who cite Oakeshott as the quintessential sceptical conservative had bothered to read the Contents page of Rationalism in Politics, they would have discovered an essay entitled “The Political Economy of Freedom”, where he defends a libertarian economic programme far more radical than any contemplated by Brexiteers. (In conversations with me in the Eighties, Oakeshott expressed admiration for Enoch Powell, who he thought articulated an English tradition of limited government.) Oakeshott may have disdained doctrinaire politics, but he was himself a doctrinaire libertarian.

The point is not that Oakeshott was inconsistent, though plainly he was. Rather, a politics of practical knowledge does not fit well into familiar debates about libertarianism and state control. Crawford’s target is a certain kind of modernism, found as much on the liberal Left as on the libertarian Right, which denigrates as irrational, atavistic and doomed ways of life to which many people remain deeply attached. He captures the jargon of this modernist cult beautifully:

‘Rust Belt’ means a place that has failed to adapt to the inevitable, and therefore fell to decay and ultimate extinction. Wrong-side of history-ism is a progressive version of social Darwinism; both invoke inexorable natural processes to cast political losers in a certain light. A sense of inevitability is constantly cultivated in the announcements of the tech firms, and this seems to be a deliberate strategy to demoralize political opposition wherever it appears in response to some new incursion.

Crawford is unequivocal in his rejection of liberal modernism, but he never falls into the trap of identifying his view of practical knowledge with conservatism or libertarianism. This sensitivity to the political dimensions of his subject distinguishes Why We Drive from Robert Pirsig’s bestselling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), a semi-fictional first-person narrative with long passages exploring differences between “classical” and “romantic” styles of thinking as they apply to the author’s life. Though he writes from his own experience, Crawford is more interested in the public import of what he has learnt from driving than in how it contributed to his own self-development.

One of the most original and mind-opening studies of practical philosophy to have appeared for many years, Why We Drive spells out in vivid detail what is wrong with the prevailing idea of the human subject. Seemingly diverging from Kant’s idea of rational autonomy, a utilitarian account of human action has developed in which reason means the calculation of outcomes. In fact this is another version of the disembodied humanity Kant imagined. Most fully elaborated in economics but pervasive throughout much of today’s political discourse, it is a view in which human beings are preference-satisfying machines. These homunculi attach no intrinsic significance to how they live. The quality of their experience is relevant only insofar as it enables them to gratify their desires as efficiently as possible. It is as if their lives were simply means whereby they get from one satisfaction to another.

Rather than rehearsing philosophical arguments against this position, Crawford reveals its limitations through examples. He begins by describing riding a dirt bike off-road on a narrow, rocky, meandering trail in a wooded area in Richmond, Virginia. It is a dangerous business that demands total concentration, and as he admits, “in no way typical of the driving that we do most of the time”. Driving like this requires “a leap of faith” in one’s natural and learned abilities, but the result can be an enhanced trust in the body when it is super-attuned to the world of which it is a part. Whereas collisionless freedom is a sickly dream, steering your way through hazardous territory at high speed can be “a state of grace”.

The book proceeds by examining various automotive subcultures — a demolition derby in the American South, a desert race on southern Nevada, a scramble in Virginia, an “adult soap box derby” in Portland, Oregon. Crawford also describes how he acquired a 1975 Beetle, which over the next eight years he drove, disassembled and reassembled until all that now remains of the original is “the upper portion of the central spine, the rear torsion housing and the upper portion of the body shell”. He accepts that many — including his wife — find it hard to grasp the point of “being loyal to a heap of rusted metal”.

These rather exotic milieus and pursuits are some distance from the routines of the automotive commuter who buys and drives a car because they have no alternative. But they illustrate the need for agency that can be expressed in driving, and point to its larger reverberations. Mass protests by London taxi-drivers, Crawford writes,

expressed and contributed to the Brexit mood. This was a fight for economic sovereignty by highly trained professionals against the threat posed by foreign ride-hailing firms that rely on map software, US military satellites, and the subsistence drivers of the gig economy… These movements are partly a response, at once spirited and rational, to a creeping colonization of the space for skilled human activity.

When we recall that Crawford thinks of human freedom as a skill, we can grasp the full meaning of this observation. Green thinkers and many others tend to represent driving as a burden imposed on us by a dearth of mass public transit, and they are not wrong. But as well as being a kind of oppression, driving is also — for some people, some of the time — an assertion of their humanity.

John Gray is a political philosopher and author. His books include Seven Types of Atheism, False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism, and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia.