Plumb Lines

April 24, 2009

Against Equality

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 9:53 am


One of the arguments most frequently advanced in favor of transit is that it promotes social equality. Mickey Kaus has offered alluring neo-liberal arguments that what we need is not income equality so much as social equality, and that transit is one way to achieve it. Here’s one example of the liberal view of transportation:

That is one of the reasons I became a transportation planner in the first place – for once in my life, my race, ethnicity, gender and income didn’t matter – everyone paid the same $2 fare.

I am highly sympathetic to Kaus’s political goals, but I think that what he seeks to promote through “social equality” is better supported by an idea of community.  For much of the American middle class, “equality” is associated with social compulsion and government control. Communities are places where residents of diverse professions and classes interact, leading to mutual respect despite broad inequalities. The reason its important to think in terms of community rather than equality is that too often transportation projects have been pitched using reasons that will appeal mostly to liberals. If transit advocates speak solely about equality or global warming, a large portion of the country will tune out.

I believe that many conservatives do share the same appreciation for mutual respect and social dignity that liberals call “equality.” They will just be much, much more comfortable talking about the same concepts under the name of “community. ” There are a lot of historical reasons for middle-class discomfort with liberal rhetoric about transit. For example, the white middle class eschews buses not only because they are an unhappy compromise between car and train, but also because they are the symbol of ham-handed liberal efforts of social control under the guise of “forced busing.”

Beyond rhetoric, we should feel comfortable with transit service that make special accommodation for the rich. Everyone need not be charged the same fare or enjoy the same degree of comfort. Within this broad tolerance for difference, I would like to see an American version of India’s brilliantly successful “poor man’s chariot.” The chariot allows people who pay a rock-bottom train fare to enjoy air conditioning,  a considerable luxury in India. I’m not sure what this would mean on an American train. (Maybe a Guitar Hero car?) But I’m sure that our transit will be  healthier and more popular if an anxiety about equality is replaced with a tolerance for class distinctions and a generosity towards the working man that indicates social respect.

Matthew Schmitz


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