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More Musings on Morality

If you haven’t noticed by now I’m a fan of alliteration.  I was driving today and ran into some road work that had closed down one lane out of two in my direction creating a bottleneck.  As usual, they put signs up well before the bottleneck saying the lane is closed and to merge into the other lane.  And as usual most people do this in an orderly fashion and a few people casually drive right by all those  people waiting in line until they get right up to the point where the lane closes and then try to push their way into the line.  Whenever I see this I think of a book I once read an excerpt from.  Apparently someone wrote an entire book about people’s driving habits and the parallels between them and their overall morals or something like that (I can’t remember the name or I would give it a plug).  What he said is that there were basically two kinds of people and they both feel incredibly strongly about their point of view.  One type thinks it’s unfair for people to cut the line and the other thinks this is perfectly fine, that everyone should do it and that it is more efficient because it makes better use of the space on the road. 

Now it’s been a while since I read the argument made by the second type and I don’t want to get too far into the weeds here so I will just say it wasn’t exactly right when they claimed it made more efficient use of the road in general (though it might be in a special case).  As far as I’m concerned, a fair rationing system in this case would let people through in the order that they arrive.  Now if someone were directing traffic, cars could line up in both lanes and take turns going through.  If this happened, people would get in whichever lane was shorter and they would all get through in the order in which they arrived at the line.  However, this is not how it works.  The people in one lane do not have to let people in.  This means the people in the lane that has to merge can be kept out so they may have to wait longer.  This is a property rights issue.  The cars in the lane that goes through have the right to go through and the cars in the lane that has to merge have to rely on the “charity” of drivers in the other lane to get in.

This is not a problem though.  If everyone in the through lane refused to let anyone merge, nobody would be able to get through by taking the merging lane and everyone would line up in the through lane and they would get through in the order in which they arrive at the line.  The thing that makes the system break down is that there are some people who don’t think they need to wait in line with everyone else and there is always someone in the line willing to let them in.  It is the people letting them in that are the real villains.  Without them, nobody would be able to cut the line.  The system doesn’t break down because some people are acting in their own self-interest.  If everyone was doing that, it would function perfectly efficiently.  It is because some people are not acting in their own self-interest that it breaks down.

Actually, it’s more than that.  If people wanted to sacrifice their own time for someone else, it wouldn’t be a problem.  The problem is that these people aren’t just sacrificing their own time.  In fact, most of the sacrifice is made by people behind them in line.  If you let someone in and there are nineteen people behind you, you are only sacrificing 1 twentieth of the total sacrifice.  The rest is other people’s time that you are choosing to sacrifice.  Why do people do this?  Because the people who drive right by the line get up to the front and then they act like you are an ass if you don’t let them in.  They make you feel like you are selfish if you aren’t willing to sacrifice the time of all the people behind you who waited in line for the benefit of some jerk who thought he didn’t have to.  When people let a jerk in, they feel like they are being altruistic.  Like they are doing a good deed.  They are making a personal sacrifice for the benefit of a stranger.  They don’t even think about the 19 people behind them who they are stealing from.  The 19 are the forgotten men.

The people who drive right by the line of waiting cars know what they are doing.  They either feel they are in the right or they just don’t care.  We’re not going to change their minds.   If we’re going to solve the problem, we have to do it by changing the minds of the people in line who let them in.  We have to convince them that they are not doing a good deed by making somebody else who is playing by the rules into a sacrificial lamb for those who survive on the “charity” they can extract from unwilling victims via some third-party.  The people who cut the line are well aware that they are dependent on their ability to hold your conscience hostage to get what they want.  Their whole lives have been a battle to twist people’s morals into something that benefits their cause.  They are skilled at it.  We are not used to this fight because we haven’t been fighting.  We have abandoned the moral battlefield to these people.  If we are ever going to fix this situation we have to take it back.

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