If you want a stark demonstration of the ideological divide between people who think the state knows what’s best for everyone and those who value personal choice, look no further than the private car.
People love cars for a whole lot of reasons, but their root appeal lies in the fact that they give us options. They enable us to make choices about where and when we travel, and with whom.
This enrages and frustrates ideologues who envision a Utopian collectivist society where such decisions are made by politicians and bureaucrats, supposedly for the common good.
The very existence of the private car is an affront to these zealots, because it prioritises individual autonomy over the ideal of a compliant society where people are made to do things their way.
Right now this conflict is being played out in the affluent Auckland beachside suburb of St Heliers, where planners from Auckland Transport are pushing an agenda that appears to have zero backing from locals.
The planners want to remove 40 car parks from the local shopping centre and install 13 raised pedestrian crossings. They also plan to impose a 30 kmh speed limit.
The ostensible reason is that there are too many accidents in the area: 39 between 2013 and 2017, according to Auckland Transport, including three serious injuries. But locals pooh-pooh this grim-sounding statistic, claiming that most of the reported incidents were minor and parking-related.
I believe the supposedly high crash rate is a smokescreen for the real motives of the planners, which are mostly ideological. They don’t like cars and they want to do whatever they can to deter people from using them. They think people should walk or take public transport or ride bikes and scooters.
Public transport in particular is central to their vision. But while we can all understand the benefits of a good public transport system, buses and trains can never replace the car.
That’s because the car confers the ability to go where you want when you want, via the route of your own choosing. We know there are downsides to this freedom in the form of traffic congestion, accidents and carbon emissions, but society has decided that these are acceptable prices to pay in return for the autonomy that the car bestows.
There is a middle way here, and cities such as Auckland are slowly groping their way toward a balance between the freedom of the car and the efficiency of public transport. But it’s not happening fast enough for Greenies and ideologically driven planners. They want to bring coercion to bear.
In their perfect universe we would all board buses and trains or ride bikes. But while this takes cars off the road, it can never meet people’s individual needs.
It just doesn’t suit most people to organise their lives around public transport timetables and fixed routes. They want the freedom to decide for themselves when it’s convenient to go to the supermarket, the movies, a restaurant, a sports event or a church service.
The planners and bureaucrats can’t accept this because it doesn’t conform to their notion of how society should function. And it doesn’t seem to matter to them that the people affected by their proposals – the local residents and business owners who pay their salaries – are united in opposition.
The planning zealots also seem pig-headedly blind to the reality that you can’t carry a week’s shopping home from the supermarket on a bike in the rain, no matter what the passionate cycling advocates say. Neither can septuagenarians, of whom there are a great many around St Heliers, be expected to walk or – still more improbably – ride a scooter to the local shopping centre to meet friends for a coffee.
This is of no concern to collectivist planners. They think people’s individual needs should be subordinate to the supposed greater good. Freedom of choice is anathema to those who think the perfect society is a tightly regulated one controlled by largely anonymous and unaccountable public officials.
And that’s the other big issue here. Auckland Transport is officially described as a council-controlled organisation, but it’s clearly a misnomer. Elected councillors are often unaware of what their bureaucrats are doing and appear powerless to them rein in.
The lesson from Auckland is that as local government bureaucracies expand, they become ever more distant and aloof from the people they’re supposed to serve.
The bureaucrats apparently don't even feel any obligation to explain themselves. When TVNZ's Seven Sharp asked for someone to come on the programme and talk about the traffic plan for St Heliers, AT initially agreed and then backed out. Their contempt for the public that they supposedly serve - or was it their inability to put forward a convincing case? - could hardly be clearer.
FOOTNOTE: After this column was submitted for publication, things got even worse. When a public meeting was held in St Heliers to protest at AT's plan (600 people turned up, indicating the depth of local feeling), AT declined to send a representative on the grotesquely implausible pretext that it might not be safe. There you have it: arrogance and cowardice in equal measure. What a contemptible lot.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz.