I generally hate movies. There is little I want to do less than spending an entire evening watching a two- to three-hour flick that more often than not comes out as simply terrible and a waste of time. Nonetheless, there are some films that I always return to. One of those is Cars. Yes, that Cars. Yes, the one from Pixar in which humans don’t exist, and instead cars are talking to each other and just live their lives like, well, humans would.
There are many reasons why I love this movie so much, which at first might seem like a rather odd choice for someone who likes to think of himself as a grown-up (most of the time at least). Certainly, one reason is that I did grow up with it. In addition, I just love the American frontier, and while I have always merely pretended being a cowboy, I still like watching anything from that place and culture. And hey, it’s about cars!
But even more so, it is the story of Cars that is criminally underrated. Indeed, despite being a movie intended for children, it is a statement in favor of freedom, voluntary choice and cooperation, and local communities. In fact, it might be able to give more of an answer to today’s crises of our missing sense of belonging and identity-searching in an ever-changing world than we first want to admit.
To backtrack for one moment, let’s first review what is actually going on in this fictional, car-dominated world (though you should beware of spoilers – pun not intended). At the center of our story is Lightning McQueen, a racing car who has driven himself close to winning the Piston Cup, the country’s most prestigious racing championship, out of nowhere. McQueen is, blinded by his new-found fame, quite the arrogant jerk, which is especially becoming clear as he gets lost on his way to the final race.
Being lost, he unintentionally lands in Radiator Springs, a small town on the iconic Route 66, where he is stuck for a few days, a fact that Lightning can’t bear with. This place where he needs to stay for now, he thinks, has nothing to show for. It is completely abandoned outside of the few who still live there, the buildings are downtrodden, and in general, everything just seems boring – what are these people doing all day anyway in their backwards lives? They haven’t even heard of him, Lightning McQueen, the famous racing car.
Nonetheless, as the days go by, McQueen lights up to this village in the Old West. Not only that he falls in love with a Porsche girl (who wouldn’t?), but he also realizes for the first time in his life what it means to actually stay at a place you like – with people you like and actually know.
As he also finds out in one of the most bittersweet scenes of the movie, Radiator Springs hasn’t been this abandoned in the past. Actually, it was a flourishing town on Route 66 before I-40 was built. But the interstate deemed it unnecessary for travelers to still go via Route 66. And thus, no one went there anymore – and as stores on the main street closed, people moved away. Those “left behind” were indeed left in their town with little to still look forward to.
McQueen eventually gets to the final race of the Piston Cup, but with much to think about. In the end, having fallen for the town and its surrounding beauty, he returns to Radiator Springs, bringing with him his racing team, and, due to his popularity, many visitors and new businesses. In the end, Radiator Springs is flourishing once more.
There is a quite obvious libertarian point in all of this: namely, that Radiator Springs was only abandoned thanks to the government. After all, the interstate system that spans the U.S. today was established by the Eisenhower administration. With the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 – the largest public works project in history until that point, new roads were built that were entirely different to those previously: while highways, for instance, would lead from one town to another, interstates would simply bypass most of them altogether.
Or, as the Porsche girl Sally says in the movie, the highway “didn’t cut through the land like that interstate. It moved with the land. Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time, they drove on it to have a great time.” And while the interstates of course decreased time for long-term travelers on the road, it nonetheless destroyed local communities right and left, which no longer held any attraction for visiting travelers.
It is a particularly macabre example of social engineering, where towns, livelihoods, and communities in which people lived in where destroyed with a flick of the government’s hand. It is an example of government, in a top-down way, implementing a system which would change the way people would experience the world.
As Sally described it, highways were built in a way that would take their surroundings into account – almost in the sense that they were fitting into the overall social order which evolved spontaneously over time. The streets would be built with local knowledge. The interstates were built with none of that, disrupting and destroying the social fabric, which had been formed for a long time before.
Nonetheless, as Lightning makes his journey through the West, he finds that there is still a redeeming quality left in the community of Radiator Springs. And thus, he makes a radical departure from his previous lifestyle and chooses a path that everyone else outside of Radiator Springs would have told him to be dumb. Instead of his fame in isolation from before, he chooses the loving community of this small town, in which he feels he belongs to and which he, like all the other inhabitants of Radiator Springs, can truly call “home.”
Is all of this overly romantic? It might be. Cars is after all still a children’s movie. It shows, however, what detrimental effects government policies can have on communities, and how the state is often involved in producing social problems rather than solving them. And relating to today’s crises of missing identity and a widespread sense of loneliness and isolation, paired with an erosion of social capital, Cars, in the eventual triumph of Radiator Springs, also shows how a revitalization of communities can be achieved in a bottom-up process which is not caused by a supposedly benevolent politician.
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