Father to daughter: Stay on the street!
Father to daughter: "Stay on the street!" Charles Mudede

About three weeks ago, Texas's Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick implored old Americans to sacrifice their lives for an economy that makes a small number of people spectacularly rich. Those who watched the horror movie Midsommar understood where the Lieutenant Governor was coming from. (You can view the relevant scene here.) That approach proved to be unpersuasive. Old people, it seems, want to live as much as young people. And besides, the new coronavirus does not just kill old people; it kills sick people, poor people, overworked people.

The next move by the open-the-economy bloc was made on April 16 by Dr. Phil, a TV personality who is not a medical doctor but a psychologist. He appeared on Fox News and asked millions of Americans to reason with him in this way: Cars cause a whole lot of death every year, but we do not shutdown the economy because of this fact. The TV doctor included smoking and swimming pools in his deadly list. He also said something about how poverty kills Americans (a shocking admission), and that hurting the economy would push more people into poverty, and thereby increase the number of Americans annually killed by poverty.

This is the essence of TV doctor's approach: COVID-19 does cause some death, but how is it any different from these other ways of dying we live with every day of the year? What we should do, then, is just let the virus become a new member of the average American death club (flu, car crashes, guns, poverty) and reopen the economy.

Whether you agree with Phil or not, he is 100% right about cars. They do kill way too many people every year (around 40,000), and yet this carnage has never shutdown the economy. What can we make of this?

What is unsaid by Dr. Phil, but is implied by his reasoning, is that we should, as a culture, as an economy, use drastic measures to make our streets safe. Urbanists have been saying this for years, and almost no one has listened. It is complete madness that we have at the center of our society a mode of transportation that's very dangerous. How can we make the public understand this fact? The TV doctor unwittingly provided the public an opportunity to consider the social absence of fear for deadly automobiles. If the world were not upside down, we would be as terrified of these 4000 pound machines as we are of the microscopic COVID-19.

Now that the TV doctor has made the matter plain, we should ask: How did we get here? Why are we down with car-carnage? The answer is, of course, marketing, the most potent form of social engineering. The Soviets used propaganda; Americans use advertising. The latter is more effective than the former. What marketing accomplished over the past 100 years surpasses in wonder the miracle of walking on water. It separated in the minds of Americans the car from car accidents. If someone is hit by one, it is the driver who hit them. If a car hits another car, it's the driver who hit another driver. Pedestrians and bikers are responsible for their own safety. They must not be distracted. And when a deadly collision occurs on a highway, it is the job of the state to remove the wreckage and corpses as fast possible. The roads, like the economy, must always be open.

But look at what COVID-19 has done to our car culture already. It has reduced traffic considerably (in Seattle by a whopping 50 percent), and as a consequence, made our air clearer and streets safer. Even today, I heard my neighbor ordering his daughter to ride her small bicycle on the road, not the sidewalk. He threatened to return her bike to the garage (where, presumably, it spends most of its time) if she did not obey him. What is hard to imagine is a parent saying such things only two months ago.