Henry Ford is often quoted as saying:
If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse”.
VAT and fuel duty have just risen, while petrol prices continue to rise as it becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous to source at the same time that global demand rises. The press seem to think that it’s time to make another fuss about the pains that come with the death of the oil age — to pretend that they could somehow be avoided. What must be done to relieve our pain? Fuel prices should be lower: customers want it, hauliers need it, The Daily Express Says So. Labour think that the government could be “doing more”. If only the government were to be fair and reasonable with the poor motorist, everything would be alright and the motorist would live happily ever after.
Henry Ford’s advice is not to ignore these cries and let things carry on as they are. Nor he is telling us to arbitrarily impose things on people against their will. But he is advising us to be cleverer than to simply provide the stupid and short-sighted solution that the consumer thinks he wants. His maxim is accepted basic business practice: you don’t ask the client or customer exactly what they want, you ask what the customer is trying to achieve — what they need to do, what problem they are trying to solve, what ultimate outcome they are hoping for. The obvious solution to a problem is often not the best. Sometimes it’s not even a solution at all.
So what are the people crying over their fuel bill ultimately trying to do? What people actually need to do is get to their place of employment. They need to be able to get their food, and pick up their pension or get their kids educated. They’d like to be able to see their friends, have days and nights out, and buy the occasional unnecessary luxury. And they’d like their businesses to be able to source materials and ship products. They would like to be able to afford to do all of these things. Increasingly people are unable to do these things because so many have been lured into an expensive and destructive car habit, often entirely against their own will. A tax cut, if it helps at all, is never going to help for long. Fiddling with the cost of fuel is not the clever solution for getting people to work and to school; it at best puts off the crisis.
Unfortunately, like smokers and gamblers, car addicts get very defensive about their habit. One very common theme is to cite their circumstances: there simply is no alternative for them but to drive. It’s too far to walk, the railway was ripped up decades ago (just before the village shop and school closed), the buses go to the wrong place at the wrong time of day, and the roads are too dangerous to cycle on. The excuses are all true, and mostly they’re used legitimately. The problem is that, like all addicts with their feelings of powerlessness, car addicts use these as excuses to do nothing except fantasise about a scenario in which their addiction is not a problem — a perfect world with lower fuel prices and a magical future in which the car can survive all of the problems that it has created for itself. The car addict is never going to benefit from a financial break that further encourages their habit. Fuel is not going to become more abundant or easier to source or less in demand. Anybody who can’t kick the habit is ultimately going to get destroyed by it.
If you have no bus to a town with shops, if your schools are closing, if there is no safe route to cycle, if you are forced into expensive car dependency, why aren’t you outraged about that? Those are outrageous things.
If it’s true that fuel prices are becoming a major problem for a significant portion of our population then it is an outrage that the government isn’t doing more to correct the failings that have forced so many powerless people into this expensive dependency. If it’s true that fuel prices are such a problem for you then it sounds like it’s time for you to stand up, admit that you have a problem, and scream at the government not for another short-lived high, but for the help that you need to kick the habit. If it’s true that this is such a big and urgent problem for so many people, then it’s time for Philip Hammond to put down the high-speed train set, stop pretending that this is a little unimportant job that our broke borough councils or the Big Society can handle, and come up with the big and urgent solution it needs. It’s time to seek help, and it’s time for the government to provide it.
If it’s true.