A New Declaration of Independence

America is at a crucial turning point. We have taken the distinction between progressives and conservatives so much for granted that it is now hard for us to think about politics in any other terms. Yet this way of looking at things was invented 200 years ago, at a time when modernization and progress were sweeping away entrenched privilege and challenging the status quo. It is no longer relevant now that modernization and progress are the status quo.

In this sense, the American left today is strangely split. Because environmentalists have become an important part of the coalition since the 1970s, the left is now suspicious about the effects of modernization on the physical environment. When it comes to development issues, those who call themselves progressives act like conservatives: They oppose change and want to preserve existing neighborhoods and natural areas. But when it comes to social issues, the coalition is still dominated by people who believe in the classical progressive ideas that were common early in the 20th century when technological optimism was at its height, people who demand that the government provide more child care, education, social services, and jobs to cure social problems. These people, who consider themselves forward-thinking progressives, are, in fact, living in the past.

A few of the most incisive thinkers on the left–including Paul Goodman and Ivan Illich–began to criticize classical progressive programs, such as housing projects and public education, during the 1960s and 1970s, at the same time that the environmental movement focused on the destructive side effects of technology and economic growth. Yet these new ideas have not yet cohered into a new political perspective to replace the left’s old modernist faith that more technology and bureaucratic planning will solve our social ills.

Our problem is not modernization itself but technocratic modernism, the blind faith that technology can do everything better. This fascination with technology and growth transformed America during the postwar period when we were the only country with a strong enough economy to move at full speed toward the technological ideal. Mamie Eisenhower would not serve fresh vegetables in the White House because she considered canned and frozen vegetables more modern. Federal, state, and local governments did all they could to promote the construction of freeways, housing subdivisions, and shopping malls rather than neighborhoods where people could walk. Suburban parents sent their children to nursery schools, where they could benefit from special programs designed by experts in educational psychology.

Without question, modernization has had great successes–among them, curing disease and reducing poverty–but now we can see that the modernist faith has also failed in many ways. For example, we spend more than twice as much on each child’s education as we did in 1960 (after correcting for inflation), but standardized tests show that students learn less than they did then. Or consider this: America’s per capita national income is about twice what it was in 1950 (after correcting for inflation), but Americans do not feel that they are twice as well off as they were in 1950. In many ways, we feel worse off.

Yet we have not come up with a new political direction that responds to the failures of modernization as it relates to four important aspects of our lives: the physical and social environment of our neighborhoods, our places of business, our families, and our sense of personal autonomy. Instead, we are still calling for more technology to solve the problems caused by technology itself.

We should take the opposite tack. Most environmental and social problems we face today exist only because we have had such faith in technology and economic growth in this century that we’ve rushed headlong to modernize every activity of life, even in many cases when it is obvious that modernization doesn’t work. Rather than applying more expertise and spending more money to solve these problems, we should get at their root by limiting technology and growth. We should use modern technology where it works and get the inappropriate technology out of the way.

Revitalizing Our Neighborhoods

To build workable neighborhoods, we need to rein in the automobile–and the best way to do this is to reduce the speed limit. How low should we go? Consider the impact of reducing the speed limit to 15 miles per hour for private vehicles within the city limits. It would allow people to use cars for local errands but force them to take higher-speed public transportation for longer trips. As a result, automobiles would no longer dominate the environment, and bicycles and small electric vehicles could easily fit into the flow of traffic. Streets would be friendlier to pedestrians, and safe enough for children to play in them. We would also have to limit the scale of development to make room for slower forms of transportation. It is hard to get around on a bicycle or in an electric cart, and virtually impossible to walk anywhere, if you inhabit a landscape of tract housing and shopping malls.

Another possibility would be to cut the speed limit to 30 miles per hour. That would shift long-distance commuting from the freeways to high-speed rail systems. Commercial development would cluster around the rail stations to take advantage of the new customer base; freeway-oriented shopping malls would make way for mixed-use shopping and office complexes (with plenty of parking) at rail stations. Some of the suburban sprawl at the edges of metropolitan areas would also recede because it is totally dependent on high-speed freeway access.

Yet, if the city had a high-speed rail system, this change would still allow everyone to live in a suburban neighborhood. The big differences from today’s suburbs would be that people would shop and work in mixed-use complexes, which are far more interesting than shopping malls and office parks, and most commutes would be less grueling. This change would also cut automobile use roughly in half, dramatically reducing the city’s environmental problems.

Are these ideas a mere pipe dream? Not necessarily. Cities all over the world are “calming” traffic on residential streets. In the 1980s, Germany began an ambitious experiment that went further, slowing traffic on both residential and arterial streets in areas ranging from a neighborhood in Berlin with 30,000 residents to a small town of 2,300 residents. The government cut the speed limit in half but discovered that the time for the average trip increased by just a bit over 10 percent. Obviously, one result of traffic calming was to shorten the length of the average trip. In addition, noise levels and injuries from automobile accidents dropped dramatically. The German automobile association, which was skeptical about the government’s data, conducted its own interviews and found that, after speeds were lowered, 67 percent of motorists and even higher proportions of residents approved of the change. The experiment was so successful, in fact, that it has since been imitated in cities in Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Japan.

Protecting Our Small Businesses

To promote civic life, it would also be useful to phase out chain stores and reduce the overall scale of retail outlets, so that national megastores could not displace locally owned businesses. Some cities already have zoning laws that restrict chains, but it would be more effective to have a national law limiting the number of stores that one company could own–to break up existing chains and reduce the mind-numbing sameness that now blankets most of the United States.

Eliminating chains would increase some costs. Obviously, chains and superstores are more efficient than most independently owned stores because of their vast economies of scale. In some cases–supermarkets, for example–the economic benefits of chains might outweigh their social costs. But in others–most notably book-selling–quality, diversity, and the free flow of ideas are so important that it is urgent to get rid of the chains, even if the costs increase.

Replacing chains with small businesses would lower overall productivity, but retailing is one of the few industries that can stay small without hurting a country’s economic position internationally. Virtually all of Japan’s retailing is done by mom-and-pop businesses, but it hasn’t prevented Japan from becoming one of the most prosperous countries in the world.

Making Our Families Work

Moving from the storefront to the home front, it is clear that some of our most deep-seated social problems result from the modernization of the family. Few would dispute that there is a “parenting deficit” in America today. Children are suffering not only because families are breaking up but also because, even in intact families, both parents must work full time to keep up financially. The left generally ignores this new problem and continues to push for family policies from early in the century: more money for day care, Head Start, and schooling. These ideas made sense in the 1950s, when stable families were the norm and most people believed in progressive methods of raising children. But today even the left is disillusioned with them. They support these programs to help cope with family breakdown, but they have no vision of a better future.

By default, this territory now belongs to the conservatives who rhapsodize about “the traditional family” (by which they really mean the early modern family, with a husband who goes to work in a factory or office and a wife who stays home). The conservatives strike a chord with many voters because they don’t deny the damage done by the decline of the family during the past few decades, but they can’t go any farther than that because they are also champions of economic growth.

The fact that parents no longer have time for their children is the worst possible indictment of the modern economy. Rather than demanding more day care and schooling to help families conform to the economy, the left should be demanding radical changes in the growth economy to make it work for families. One practical approach would be to change the current tax laws–and corporate subsidy programs–which discriminate against parents who take care of their own children. Many parents already get tax credits and subsidies to help pay for day care. Why not give parents who forgo day care equivalent benefits? In many cases, equal benefits would make it possible for parents to cut back their work hours and raise their children on their own.

Restoring Our Personal Autonomy

Technocratic modernism undermines autonomy in the same way that it undermines the neighborhood and the family.  Economic planners, urban planners, and social planners take over individuals’ personal decisions by redefining them as technical problems that only “the experts” can deal with.  The tone is usually paternalistic.  The experts themselves believe they are using modern methods to “help” people, but, in reality, they are controlling people and increasing the feelings of powerlessness and dependence that are pervasive in modern society.  To restore personal autonomy, we must limit the ability of technological organizations to control our everyday lives.

The most astounding example of the way that we allow bureaucracies to control our lives is our commitment to the idea that the economic system must “help” people by “providing jobs.”  This idea made sense in the early part of the century when most people needed more income to buy necessities.  But now that we no longer have that problem, we need to give people the ability to choose their own standard of living.  In a surplus economy, the idea that we must provide jobs for people forces us to promote economic growth, even if most of the products we produce are useless.

Not surprisingly, we think about work like consumers.  We think in terms of having jobs, not in terms of doing jobs because they are useful.  We demand more jobs just as we demand more transportation, education, health care, child care, and more of any “service” that we expect the system to provide.  And, in the process, we lose sight of the fact that we are actually demanding to do unnecessary work.

It is reasonable to work until you produce what you want, then stop.  But, as a culture, we believe in creating demand for products that people don’t really want purely to create extra work for ourselves.  To put the economy back on a rational basis, to produce the goods and services that people actually want, we need to offer job seekers more flexible work hours.  One way would be to give employers tax incentives to create more part-time jobs and accommodate different work schedules without penalizing part-time workers with lower hourly play, restricted benefits, or fewer promotion opportunities.  Federal, state, and local governments should act as a model by offering their own employees work hours that are as flexible as possible. 

We can’t expect employees to take advantage of flexible work hours, though, unless we limit the demands that the consumer economy makes on them.  In part, this would involve changing personal behavior–getting people to go beyond the “shop till you drop” mind-set that makes Americans spend three to four times as many hours shopping as Europeans do.  But it also would require larger political changes, such as rebuilding American cities, where it now is absolutely essential for most families to own two cars. 

Humanizing the Economy

We can use the law to control growth if we learn to think about technology in human terms, rather than focusing on the abstractions that only “the experts” can work with.  As long as we think of transportation, land use, and pollution control as “urban problems,” we will surrender to the city planners and let them decide what kinds of neighborhoods we live in.  But if we can focus on the human purpose of our cities–they are the places where we live–it will become obvious that the people themselves should make the political and personal decisions that will shape the city’s design. 

Similarly, as long as we think of unemployment and inflation as “economic problems,” we will allow economists to decide what our standard of living should be.  But when we think about the human purpose of the economy–to produce things that we actually want–it becomes obvious that workers should get to choose their own work schedules and standard of living.  Planning is useful to control the business cycles and fine tune the economy, but this planning should subordinate to the human question of what we want to consume, which individuals should decide for themselves. 

The bias of the consumer economy has crippled our politics.  Real change will be possible when people act as citizens who use the law to govern themselves–not as clients demanding more services from the system and voting for the politicians they think will do the best job of providing them with more education, more health care, more transportation, and, most important, more jobs.  The moral advantage of limiting technology is that it increases individual freedom and responsibility, which have been eroded by modernization.  Someone always objects that limiting technology is unrealistic–for example, that Americans will never vote to lower the speed limit.  That may be true today, but only because people believe that building livable cities is a technical problem that the planners must solve for them, and that their role is just to demand services from the planners.  People will act differently if they see that, in order to have decent cities to live in, well-educated children, and an economy that produces things they want, they must consume less and do more for themselves.

Charles Siegel is author of The Preservationist’s Manifesto (Northbrae Books, 1996), from which this article was adapted.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.