Abstract: The Agrarian Origins of Trucking Deregulation

Shane Hamilton


The passage of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 formally deregulated the U.S. trucking industry, ending forty-five years of control by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Was this legislation passed in response to free market ideology? The political climate of the 1970s did make full deregulation of the trucking industry possible, but I argue that the seeds of deregulation were planted much earlier and sprouted in agrarian political and social soil. Technocrats in the United States Department of Agriculture cooperated with agribusinesses to assure that the transportation of agricultural commodities would take place within an unregulated economic environment. By the 1970s, the expansion of this exempt agricultural trucking sector led to the rise of a new rural working-class hero, the "truck driving man," who was lauded as the "last American cowboy" for his deep-seated hatred for large corporations, the Teamsters, and federal economic regulations. These "independent" owner-operator truck drivers, many of whom came from rural backgrounds, engaged in a series of violent shutdowns during the energy crises of the 1970s, cultivating a neo-populist politics that was essentially a revised, industrialized version of the agrarianism of the previous century.