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Car Exhaust Fumes: Still Toxic

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Car Exhaust Fumes: Still Toxic"

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An entirely typical, yet nonetheless infuriating unsigned Washington Examiner editorial makes the case that cars are good for freedom and liberals want to promote walking and mass transit out of dislike for freedom. In order to dismiss progressives’ stated concerns about the environmental impact of burning oil, they offer the following argument:

But fair-minded people with a knowledge of history understand that we should be exceedingly thankful for the automobile and its crucial role in the economic, social and political progress achieved since Henry Ford put America on wheels in 1908 with the Model T. Note that average life expectancy in America that year for men was 49.5 years and 52.8 years for women. Today, the overall average life expectancy in America is 78.37 years, a 58 percent improvement for men and a 48 percent gain for women. So much for the killer exhaust fumes.

I would kindly invite the author of this editorial to park his car in a closed garage and just run the engine for a while. Or maybe attach a hose to his car exhaust and breath the fumes in for a bit. I wonder how long his life expectancy would be?

Now of course nobody does that. You would die if you did. The entire automobile industry would be completely impossible if car drivers had to breathe the exhaust fumes emitted by their cars. Instead, the way a car works is that the fumes just go out into the air that everyone shares. Convenient for the guy driving the car, but sort of unfortunate for everyone on the planet who’s responsible for a below-average quantity of emissions. In most contexts that don’t relate to their peculiar love of air pollution, conservatives are quick to see how ill-defined property rights can lead a tragedy of the commons. Car exhaust is just a special case of the general phenomenon. The toxicity of the emissions is no more fake than the greenhouse gas emissions. But nobody owns the atmosphere. Consequently, the tendency is for individuals to produce far too much pollution. The freedom to over-fish or over-graze or over-pollute or over-anything in a tragedy of the commons scenario is a real kind of freedom, but it’s also a mighty peculiar one and nothing to boast about.

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