Monday, July 23, 2007

The "soft totalitarians"

At lunch today I was looking over Friday's issue of the Portland Tribune, reading two front page articles - one about the Mayor's "VisionPDX" project, and the other titled: "Wanted: More butts on bikes."

It struck me - Portland is not just an elitist town - it is actually in its own way totalitarian. The elites decide how they think we should live, and then use the coercive instruments available only to government to make us live that way.

What is the appropriate role of government in a free society? Is it to decide how it wants its citizens to behave, then manipulate public policy to induce those behaviors? Or should it be to gauge how people want to live, and use pubic policy to accomodate it, within the narrow scope of authority the people yeild to the government?

The first is inherently authoritarian/totalitarian. Just look at the issue of bikes. The elites have decided that more people should use bikes. So the official policy of government is to in various ways make automobile transportation less efficient and more costly, and make bike transportation more efficent and less costly.

The same thing is going on with the Mayor's "VisionPDX" project. I've written before how ridiculous this entire project is, at least from the perspective of a person who doesn't believe in the Portland form of "soft totalitarianism."

But if you are in line with the Sam Adams ideology, and believe in using government to induce "desireable behavior" then you probably seen nothing at all wrong with the Mayor's efforts.

After all, let's ask Portlanders what the want and then give it to them. What is totalitarian about that?

Well, a lot. There is no such thing as "what Portland wants." At best there is "what the majority wants." In truth, what gets revealed from these kinds of processes is "what the elites want."

And that is what gets forced down our throat. Look at the "Sample Goals" in the draft of the report:

  • "By 2030, Portland has "complete communities" in many parts of the city, allowing people to obtain goods and services within walking distance from home." What a shock that the very first goal would re-state the New Ubanist vision. What coincidence tha 15,000 people gave input and what they came up with was exactly what the government has been pushing for for decades!
  • "By 2030, Portland is carbon neutral, while achieving an average annual job growth rate of 2%. Another coincidence! Portlanders again want just what they have been served up for years!

And on and on it goes.


mick said...


As a daily bike commuter, it feels more to me like our society has long shoved the car down my throat and discouraged (or perhaps ignored) cyclists. Given that cars, by nature, take up far more space, it's easy for a cyclist to conclude quite the opposite of what you posit here.

Randal O'Toole said...

As a former daily bicycle commuter in Portland (now moved to southern Oregon), I don't feel like the car has been shoved down my throat. Most of the roads in Portland and elsewhere were paid for by auto drivers, and I was glad to use them.

What is being shoved down our throats is things like speed humps and traffic circles and narrow streets, all of which make things more dangerous for cyclists. I no longer enjoy riding in Portland. On my last major ride, most auto drivers were courteous, but the drivers of TriMet's fat buses were not.

Anonymous said...

...and in keeping with the Stalinist mentality, essays such as Rob's will be characterized as "hate speech"... least they're consistent.

Anonymous said...

Well, at least if an auto-centered culture is being shoved down anyone's throat, it's on behalf of the overwhelming majority of people. I'm not sure a healthy society seeks to create exceptions for every single different way people want to behave.