Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Getting There from Here—Mobility and Freedom

First in an occasional series on the ethics and practicalities of mobility.

How, in a finite world, can we get from here to there? Should we even be traveling at all? How much, and how freely?

For most of us most of the time, broad questions like these do not come up. We worry about getting to work, keeping the car fueled and running, getting to the train on time, and similar problems. Underlying all of these, however, is the question of mobility—how much we should have and how we can achieve it most efficiently.

Any discussion of mobility has three aspects:

  • The Ethics of Mobility: Should we be able to move freely from place to place? If not, how are we to determine restrictions on our movements? More important, who can legitimately make that determination? (Here I am speaking about policy decisions; the ethical questions facing individuals are different from those facing policymakers.) If we have some sort of right to mobility, we face a series of decisions about the best modes of transport. Hence the second aspect of the discussion:
  • The Efficiency of Our Transportation: How can we move individuals and large numbers of people from place to place at the lowest cost in fuel, money, stress, and emissions? Once we have a proposal to do this, we need to determine how to apply it in practice:
  • Implementation of Transportation Plans: How can we persuade people to use the most efficient method to get to their destination?

I begin with ethics because most commentators don't discuss them. Most of our discussions concern how to make our transportation more efficient and less destructive, how to manage traffic, the state of our highways, and similar questions. To the question of whether we should be able to travel from place to place, most of us answer, "Of course," without further justification.

This is the most defensible position, but it never hurts to remind ourselves why we adopt it. The ability to move from place to place—to change cities, to change countries, to get from home to our place of work—is a fundamental component of human liberty. Countries that have restricted it, as Czarist Russia did with internal passports, are unattractive models for the future. An internal passport under the Czars was a means of social control that required a large and intrusive enforcement apparatus. Unlike a mere identity card, it could be, and was, used to restrict peoples' movements.

In order to save fuel and reduce our carbon emissions, it might be useful to restrict travel, limit the use of automobiles, or force travelers to choose certain modes of transport over others. We would do this, however, only at the cost of becoming a quite different, and far less free, society. It is no accident that totalitarian societies restrict mobility as well as speech, requiring exit visas for those who wish to go abroad and proper paperwork even for those who want to go to a different city.

Choices about mobility are also choices about what kind of society we will have. The wrong choices may change us in ways we might be unable to bear.

That, in brief, is part of the ethical case for preserving freedom of movement. Stated generally like this, it does not provide much practical guidance. The practical question is whether we can preserve mobility without destroying the planet, and if so, how. The next article in this series will take up this question, along with other ethical questions it raises.