Acton Commentary

House Appropriations Committee Testimony Before the Transportation Subcommittee


Good Afternoon, I am Father Robert Sirico, cofounder and President of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a non-denominational education organization that works with current and future religious leaders on questions of economic liberty. I am also an academic adviser to the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a Washington-based, non-profit, public-interest organization, that promotes free market and safe technological solutions to current consumer and environmental concerns.

I appear before you today, Mr. Chairman, as both a man deeply interested in public policy issues–and as a Roman Catholic priest dedicated to considering moral implications of public policy decisions. It is in this second capacity that I speak to you today.

I wish to say at the outset I am not a scientist. Nor am I an expert on automobile fuel economy or emissions technology. However, I am familiar with the arguments advanced by groups favoring higher CAFÉ standards for cars and light trucks: that government imposition of higher fuel efficiency standards will reduce reliance on foreign oil, cut pollution, and save consumers money at the pump. Others can and have spoken more directly to these points today. For my part, I would like to interject a moral framework that might be applied to thinking about the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) program.

It is important to understand that a free economy is nothing more than the voluntary exchange of goods and services between individuals for their mutual benefit. An exchange only takes place when both parties believe they are made better off by it. That is the nature of the market in which all things–including motor vehicles–are sold. When governments manage economic decisions it directs individuals to act in ways they understand to be counter to their own best interests. Otherwise consumers would freely make those decisions on their own.

Naturally, people seek more fuel-efficient vehicles to save themselves money. But a consumer will only decide to make such a purchase should he or she believe the benefits of greater fuel efficiency exceed the costs. The fact that fuel efficiency standards were enacted as part of energy conservation legislation, rather than adopted through consumer choice in the marketplace, suggests that most consumers would not have reached this conclusion.

Why might this be? Because consumers know that the most fuel-efficient vehicles are the smallest. And they also know that makes them less safe. A comprehensive study released in 1992 by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that safety and fuel economy are directly linked because “one of the most direct methods manufacturers can improve fuel economy is to reduce vehicle size and weight.” Although it’s true that bigger is not always better–particularly if we’re just talking about keeping up with the neighbors or acquiring bigger, more expensive “toys”–in the case of motor vehicle safety, bigger clearly is better.

Automobile accidents take too many lives each year. Common sense leads many Americans to shop around for larger and therefore safer cars for their families. But CAFÉ standards dramatically limit the ability of consumers to make these choices. And the costs in terms of human life can be severe.

Last summer, I read in USA Today an article and editorial on the fact that by the paper’s own independent analysis of government and insurance data, CAFÉ standards have cost–and I quote–“roughly 7,700 deaths for every mile per gallon gained.” Others, including the Harvard Injury Prevention Center, the Brookings Institution, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, have come to similar conclusions. That’s a high price to pay for a government policy.

Others have testified before this committee from a religious perspective, on the importance of choosing life. I couldn’t agree more with this statement of principle. But in the application of principle, I disagree with their policy conclusions in support of higher CAFÉ standards.

Furthermore, fears of global warming have led some members of the religious community to promote higher CAFÉ standards and other measures ultimately restrictive of human freedom. Some have even gone so far as to suggest the issue of global warming and support for the Kyoto Protocol is “a litmus test for the faith community.”

But I believe people of good faith can rightfully disagree over complex scientific issues, like global warming, and differ on prudential policy analysis as well. Just last week, the 205 th Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia removed language from a resolution on energy efficiency that embraced the theory of global warming. Rather than rely upon questionable science, the Council recognized that market incentives and a commitment to genuine environmental stewardship–rather than unsupported scientific claims enforced by government–provide sufficient reason for energy efficient behavior. This should serve as a model for future efforts to responsibly steward the resources found in God’s Creation.