Archive for the 'Political philosophy' Category

Social Contracts of Morning Traffic.

5 February 2006

Adverse events give rise to various emotions: anger, sorrow, frustration, and so on. Morning traffic, I find, does not usually make me angry or sad, but frustrated. Generally, frustration arises when the events we encounter go awry from our expectations. In other words, it is not the event itself that frustrates us, but the dissonance between the event and what we thought should or would happen. If you spend much time in morning rush-hour traffic, you may already see where I’m headed with this.

When I drive, I’m trying to get where I’m going as quickly as I can given the rules of the road and the constraints of good sense. That’s it. I’m not trying to break any records. I don’t want to speed. I don’t want anyone else to speed. But I do want to clip along, and I find that the whole process works better when I also try to look out for the other person. If it’s clear I can safely make it through a stale green light, and there’s someone following me closely, I may boost my speed just that much so that we can both make it. I sail on through, the other driver sails on through, there’s no risk to anyone, and we all get where we’re going.

Plenty of my fellow Austin drivers clearly don’t think this way. They drive 25 in a 40 . . . during the morning rush hour when everyone else on the road is traveling right at 40. Or, right in front of you, they slow down as they approach an eminently makeable green light so that they ooze through as it turns amber . . . leaving you to fume at the red light. Or they cut across two lanes of traffic to make a last-second turn that they should have seen coming. Et cetera. Just the usual crap.

These driving habits frustrate me not because they leave me at a red light. I’m a big boy and I can take it, and anyway if it were that important to be at work two minutes earlier, it was my responsibility to leave the house two minutes earlier. No, they frustrate me because they are so pointless. I’ve been left at the red light for no reason, no reason besides the other driver’s lack of alertness or concern for the people around him. My own driving habits—let’s all get through this together—set up an expectation in my mind that that’s how things are supposed to be. Maybe I get it from my father, who is an excellent driver and was also a church minister for many years: look out for the other person, be good to everybody, don’t wrong-foot the other guy.

Please bear with a leap of ratiocination here, because it’s a bit of a doozy: This frustration in traffic comes from the same root as my frustration with narrow-interest political rhetoric. Political shouting in favor of a narrow interest (or “special interest,” if you prefer) bothers me precisely because those who do it are more concerned with getting what they want than they are with having a government or a society that runs better. Of course I expect people to stump for their own interest in politics—it’s only natural. But worthy politicians actually do figure out ways to get what’s good for them while they move policy in a good direction overall. The unworthy ones will knife anyone to get what’s good for themselves, and hang the consequences for anyone else or the society at large.

Note that I’m not—at least for today—talking about a particular party or a particular set of special interests here. This applies across the centuries, across the political landscape. But fresh examples crop up every day, not always in the headlines, but down in paragraph 14 of the Washington story, the part that describes the nasty bit of horse-trading that got the budget passed . . . and hosed some large but uninfluential sector of the populace.

Maybe the problem is with my own ideals. I should expect the guy in front of me to stick me at the red light. I should expect our political leaders to sell out the best interests of the Republic when their own political vigorish is at stake.

Pardon my sighs. But I just don’t want to let go of the optimism that says we can have an adversarial system of republican democracy that declines to make an adversary of the common weal.