Cars, Individualism, and the Paradox of Freedom in a Mass Society


Note:  This post is taken from a book in progress, The Paradox of Freedom:  The Making of Modern America, coauthored with Peter Field.

In America, the 19th century had been the great age of independence, of the individual who depends upon his own wits, his own skills and luck.  Paradoxically, the great transportation system of that century was the train, which served as a genuinely “public” form of transportation.  In the century of the individual the transportation system was communal.  In the twentieth century the situation was reversed. An age of increasing hierarchy and bureaucracy, when people depended on large impersonal forces for their survival and when Americans had accepted a provider state to take care of them, was also the age of the car.  The automobile was the antithesis of public transportation—it was individual, serving the whims and changing transportation desires of the person.  A car owner need not worry about train schedules, or of taking a predetermined route through various out of the way locations to get to his destination.  He could leave at 10 am, or he could leave at 10:15 am.  He was master of his time.  He could take one route to work on Monday and then choose a more scenic route on Tuesday.  To Americans at mid-century, the car, perhaps more than any other object, represented freedom—the freedom of the individual.

Symbols of individual freedom and distinctive identity become more important as individuals lose their economic independence.  During the Great Depression and World War II Americans emphasized solidarity, the working together as a nation to overcome huge obstacles.  During the 15 years that followed that age of crisis Americans strove to craft private lives, remembering the sacrifices they had to make to create an age of abundance, but otherwise turning to the task of carving out a private enclave in a mass society.  But there was no going back, and in the new age of confidence, of prosperity, Americans nonetheless discovered that they lived in an age dominated by big business, big government, an age of prefabricated houses, of mass-produced entertainment—an age, in short, where there is no room for flinty independence. The automobile could not give one freedom from government bureaucracy, or from the economic power of the corporations, but it could give a person a freedom of mobility and an ability, within the confines of mass-production, of making a statement to the world about one’s personality.

The automobile squared perfectly with a distinctive American ideal of freedom—freedom of mobility.  Always a restless nation, with complex migratory patterns throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the car came just as a certain kind of mobility had reached an end with the closing of the frontier. But the restlessness had not ended, and the car allowed control of space like no other form of transportation.  One of the interesting uses to which people put their car was the Sunday drive—a drive with no particular place to go, freedom of motion. The car also required a wasteful use of space since cars required roads, and roads that lead to the particular destination of each driver.  Trains have rails that lead to cities, cars have roads that lead to every house.  But while American have always squandered their space—having such a vast expanse at their disposal—they have been very stingy with their time*. For Americans cars provide one of the most important freedoms of all—freedom to control one’s time.  One goes when one wants to go.

Cars began shaping American society and culture in the 1920s—by the end of that decade twice as many people owned cars as owned radios.  The Depression, of course, brought a decline in sales and ownership, but barely–and only briefly.  By 1935 car sales and ownership reached 1929 levels and grew throughout the remaining years of the Depression.  Given the costs of cars and the great hardships of the Depression, the refusal to give up this form of private transportation demonstrates how Americans value this form of independence.  During the war years America produced no civilian automobiles, creating intense demand for them in 1945 and throughout the 1950s.

After the war Detroit produced millions of cars each year (in many years exceeding 7 million) and the millions of consumers were encouraged in their purchases by inexpensive gasoline (below $.30 a gallon), by government-built roads, and by countless accommodations to their lives in cars.  Drive-in theaters sprang up in almost every town, as did drive-in restaurants.  Shopping centers opened with the auto-driver in mind, new motels catering to the car-traveler popped up along desolate highways, and any number of new amusement destinations, from Disneyland to Rock City, opened to take advantage of a nation vacationing on wheels.  But while the car had promised so much freedom, so much excitement, it paradoxically created a new form of dependency.  A car gave a father the freedom to buy a house in the suburb while keeping his job in the city.  After years of commuting this same father was likely to feel trapped.  He couldn’t possibly give up his car since he had organized his life around it.  Freedom lost.  So too his wife, who had grown dependent on a car (usually a station wagon) because her suburban home required a car to get the children to and from their activities, to go grocery shopping, to run the many errands of modern life.  American wastefulness about space had created a spread-out society requiring a car.  By the 1950s, with the exceptions of teenagers, few people went for Sunday drives anymore.

Closely related to the freedom Americans wanted from their cars was a sense that their car reflected something about themselves.  A car purchase could declare one’s self to an otherwise indifferent society.  Car buyers—almost exclusively men in those years—were intensely brand conscious and brand loyal.  To be a “Buick man” was to establish a vague but real sense of one’s station and one’s values.  Because car buyers were men the auto-makers catered to their weaknesses—in this case for ever more powerful engines, for more ostentatious chrome, for huge and useless fins, and for ever larger behemoths that suggest power.  The 1950s witnessed the most outrageous car designs that, in the absence of taste, employed gaudiness to suggest success.  Certainly for a generation that had sacrificed so much, the huge, gas-guzzling, chrome-covered car represented triumph and reward.

From the Great Depression through World War II to the great abundance of the 1950s, Americans had entered a world no longer organized around the individual.  While this generation had accepted the need for sacrifice and for solidarity, they yearned also for individual freedom.  They loved the prosperity of this new age, but they chafed at the economic dependencies of a corporate and government controlled economy.  The car represented the individual freedom for which they yearned, but it also represented a government and corporate power from which there was no easy escape.  If Americans loved their cars, by the 1950s they had become dependent on them, and had their lives altered by them.  Even in matters of personal identity Americans looked to express themselves in the gaudy objects of mass production.


* John Lukacs is particularly good at exploring the relationship Americans have with time and space in his book Outgrowing Democracy.


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Ted McAllister is a native of Oklahoma, now living in Moorpark, California with his wife, Dena, and his two children, Elisa and Luke. He yearns for his own chunk of land and for those bits of nature that please him, but not for farming or for unnecessary drudgery of the sort that involves physical labor.  He is an aesthetic agrarian, not a practicing one. Educated as an Intellectual and Cultural Historian at Vanderbilt University, he now teaches at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy where he pursues with his students the enduring questions rather than the particular answers.  His book, Revolt Against Modernity:  Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Post-Liberal Order launched him into the study of political philosophy, though his epistemological orientation is much shaped by his training as a historian.  Working presently on Walter Lippmann as well as a US History textbook, he expects soon to write a multi-volume history of the Baby-boomers.


  1. Once again, you penetrate the prevailing shibboleths McAllister. The mirage of independence related to the the ever-increasing dependence upon our technological gadgets is becoming increasingly pronounced. An apotheosis of sorts is currently being bandied about on the airwaves. The media always enjoys a good tale about human idiocy. Some poor innocents actually felt themselves trapped in a Corn Maze and called 911 to be rescued less than 200′ to a roadway. They might not have had a GPS program on their cell phones or enough wits to simply dead reckon their way out a few acres of corn. Boo Hoo Hoo.

    The car is one of the greater vehicles of mass yearning and conformity out there.

    But, I still treasure my 60 LeSabre Convertible and 55 Buick Special with its nice Chrome rack out front. They have been known to stick me in remote places on occasion though, for arcane reasons like the horn relay going bad and causing a charge to be absent after a bit of diner food on a road trip. Funny but 911 never came to mind . Gee, maybe the Vikings would have discovered Newfoundland sooner had they possessed a GPS.

    Technology is the emerging wildcard in the concept of individualism in the species.

  2. I hope your book is well-grounded in historical research. It sounds as though it might be. Also, thank you for that John Lukacs reference. It looks like something I should read.

  3. “Symbols of individual freedom and distinctive identity become more important as individuals lose their economic independence.” Good line. Seems to me the preoccupation with sexual freedom/identity fits here. I recall raising this point at Harvard Divinity School. The violence of the reaction told me I had struck a nerve.

  4. ‘ ” I’m not sure he’s wrong about automobiles,” he said. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization — that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can’t have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles ‘had no business to be invented.’ ” ‘

    from “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1918) by Booth Tarkington.

  5. Last night after reading this post I re-watched Eldar Ryazanov’s 1966 film, “Beware of the Automobile.” I paid a little more attention this time to the points that were made about the way the ownership of a car transformed peoples’ lives. And the film didn’t even get much into the use of a car as transportation. This was in a country in which ownership of automobiles had lagged far behind the U.S. If you’re inclined to watch it, be sure to watch for the ironic commentary starting about 13:00. (I like to watch for Ryazanov’s way of interjecting a portrayal of the then-latest western consumer technology in his films. In Beware of the Car, the people who sell the stuff on the black market are bad guys. By the early 1980s, his films were showing them to be good guys. His portrayal of private ownership of automobiles changed by then, too, and got to be a little more neutral.)

  6. Fascinating perspective on how car ownership has affected the United States. It’s interesting to note that, owing to their historically high densities, Europe and East Asia have been able to develop the same level of mobility via high-speed mass transit. Judging by the way in which family breakdown is far more advanced in Europe and East Asia than in the US, mass transit, which in most European cities is almost entirely funded by government, is even more effective at causing community breakdowns than private cars, even if it is much more efficient environmentally. Then you look at Canada and New Zealand, who really have the worst of both worlds – polluting cars and family breakdown due to the radically egalitarian attitudes of their first settlers from the 1850s. Does the book look at this?

  7. “Judging by the way in which family breakdown is far more advanced in Europe and East Asia than in the US, mass transit, which in most European cities is almost entirely funded by government, is even more effective at causing community breakdowns than private cars, even if it is much more efficient environmentally. ”

    Is there really a cause-and-effect relationship here?

  8. I don’t think mass transit facilitates social breakdown, but I can see the automobile doing so. The characteristics are far different. I think he was simply noting that it is not the one factor.

  9. I have said it before and will say it again: All discussions of American car culture lead back to Tom Wolfe’s 1965 Esquire piece about Junior Johnson.

    “To a great many good old boys a hot car was a symbol of heating up life itself. The war! Money even for country boys! And the money bought cars. In California they suddenly found kids of all sorts involved in vast drag racing orgies and couldn’t figure out what was going on. But in the South the mania for cars was even more intense, although much less publicized. To millions of good old boys, and girls, the automobile represented not only liberation from what was still pretty much a land-bound form of social organization but also a great leap forward into twentieth-century glamour… A lot of other kids, who weren’t basically wild, would be driving like hell every morning and every night, driving to jobs perhaps thirty or forty miles away, jobs that were available only because of automobiles. … In the hollows, sometimes one would come upon the most incredible tar-paper hovels, down near the stream, and out front would be an incredible automobile creation, a late-model car with aerials, continental kit overhangs in the back … After the war there was a great deal of stout-burgher talk about people who lived in hovels and bought big-yacht cars to park out front. This was one of the symbols of a new, spendthrift age. But there was a great deal of unconscious resentment buried in the talk. It was resentment against (a) the fact that the good old boy had his money at all and (b) the fact that the car symbolized freedom, a slightly wild, careening emancipation from the old social order. Stock-car racing got started about this time, right after the war, and it was immediately regarded as some kind of manifestation of the animal irresponsibility of the lower orders. It had a truly terrible reputation. It was — well, it looked rowdy or something … not that anybody gave a damn — except for the Southern upper and middle classes, who never attended in those days, but spoke of the “rowdiness.”

    Read more:

  10. _I have said it before and will say it again: All discussions of American car culture lead back to Tom Wolfe’s 1965 Esquire piece about Junior Johnson._

    Will you say it again even if it turns out that people were discussing the liberating effects of the car culture long before 1965?

  11. Yes. I will.

    I am not talking about tracking the history of the conversation, but the strength of the narrative. NASCAR holds a preeminent place in many of the areas that make up what the car culture is all about. Commerce. Advertising. Regionalism. Authenticity. Independence. Power. Policy.

    It’s an excellent way into the conversation. And in my view, the most forceful exposition of the dynamics involved. If I were to teach a class on this subject, this would be the opening text. Or maybe something about the Conestoga wagon.

  12. Ivan Illich somewhere has a calculation that goes like this:
    A man on foot averages 5 miles/hour. The average speed of a man in a car is 50 miles/hour. But, when you add the number of hours of work to buy the car, the hours to buy the gasoline, oil and maintenance, the hours to buy the insurance, the hours to pay the taxes for the roads, the man in the car averages 5 miles/hour.

    It should be noted that the victory of the car over the train was not a matter of choice. Alfred Sloan, head of GM, realized that the real competition was not other car companies but the rail lines. So in combination with Firestone and Standard Oil, he began buying up city rail lines, tearing up the tracks, destroying the cars, and replacing them with buses. The destruction of their capital base and the debts for new equipment drove them into bankruptcy, thereby forcing people to use cars. So much for the “freedom of the market.”

  13. I actually find that story a bit debatable. The street rail lines were never profitable. They generally only acted to provide value and access to real estate, which was where the owners made their money. They were marginal, and soon went out of business as soon as they got the slightest competition from the mass market automobile. A sad outcome, but I think it is the simple truth. I think this is more a situation of the tragedy of the commons, where the commons was the rail line and they couldn’t afford to operate once people stopped being dependent on them and buying the tickets they used to.

  14. Actually, the were profitable and ubiquitous. 1200 of them. And it is not debatable that GM bought them up and drove them out of business. The car did not drive them out of business, the car company did, which is different. Even today in cities which have adequate public transportation, car ownership is much lower. In 2000 census, it was only 45% in Manhattan. I haven’t seen the 2010 census on this, but I doubt that it’s changed very much.

  15. I will not deny that they were profitable and ubiquitous, but from my understanding they exclusively made the profit off of house rentals, real estate speculation, and amusement parks.

    In japan today the privately owned rails make their profit in the same way. Hotels and taxi companies are also used.

  16. John Medaille, thank you for bringing up Illich’s contrast of transport vs. transit, because it provides an excellent grounding for this conversation.

    Illich also wrote about the way in which faster transport (in this case, the automobile) highly privileged the well-off few over the masses, because of the much higher utility cost borne by the latter. It costs a person living in the sticks a much greater proportion of their income to maintain a beater car that allows them to make their 50-mile round-trip commute to a low-paying job than it costs a well-heeled executive to jet across the pond to Europe on business — and the low-wage worker has to absorb that cost if he wants to be able to put food on the table. In the 19th century that Prof. McAllister (and my former teacher, Prof. Field) write about, that lower-wage worker could access all he needed on foot, a mode of transit that cost him little more than his shoes. This isn’t said to romanticize this time in a more halcyon glow than it deserves, rather it is meant to highlight the way in which our over-reliance on personal transport actually saps considerable portions of the resources (both financial and otherwise) that we were once able to draw upon for more productive uses.

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