If you want to buy a car, you can choose it yourself. Sure, you can get advice from your uncle, who’s like your own personal Car Talk (only without an off button). Or you can watch TV ads that teach you how buying the right ride will bring fun into your life and crank up your sexiness. But ultimately, it’s your own choice.
But you can’t choose a great mass transit system by yourself. If you want to choose taking Metro to your job instead of driving, you can’t go to Mass Transit-R-Us and say, “I’d like to buy a slice of Metro for one person, please.” Either the folks in your town choose together to pay for Metro, or you don’t get to choose it.
(You could, of course, choose by yourself to move to a city that had a great mass transit system, but even that individual choice is possible only because the people in that city chose together to build and maintain that mass transit system).
That’s Principle #3: For Some Choices We’ve Gotta Choose Together.
It’s amazing how often people ignore this simple reality.
Take housing and Smart Growth. Conservatives often complain Smart Growth is a government plot to take away the choices people really want. Look at all those people choosing to move to the ‘burbs, they say. The market has spoken: most folks want a big suburban house with a big lot, not some liberal, low-fat soy chai-inspired fantasy.
But many people “choose” to move to the suburbs even though they love city life. If they could really choose what they wanted, they’d choose an affordable house or condo in a nice, safe city neighborhood. They don’t make that choice because in most communities that choice doesn’t exist.
Why doesn’t their real choice exist? There are several reasons. But by far the biggest factor is that in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, between creating the FHA, shoring up the S&Ls, and building a massive highway system that made it possible to commute from suburban homes to downtown office jobs, the federal government dramatically reshaped the housing niche of the economic ecosystem. If you were white, it was now often cheaper to own your own home in the suburbs than rent an apartment in the city.
In other words, their real choice doesn’t exist today because 70 years ago, voters chose together to reshape the economy to create a new set of choices. There is no reason we can’t choose to create a different set of choices today — but we can only do it if we choose together.
A great economy should give everyone lots of choices. The freedom to make choices by yourself, according to your unique set of values and desires, is something we should treasure. But we can only make some choices — sometimes the most important, most long-lasting choices we will make — when we choose together.