Everything I need to know about politics I learned in traffic
I spend a lot of time sitting in traffic, inching along and waiting for my turn to go. But that isn’t always a bad thing. In addition to providing welcome bouts of silence from the ever present drone surrounding my cubicle, these vehicular respites also give me time to think about politics, and the social relations of post-industrial capitalist society. And, in many ways, I think that both the ups and downs of my province’s political culture can be explained by an observation of the collective patterns of our individual driving habits – particularly at intersections. Within these truly public spaces, opportunities for us to act together for social harmony are often contrasted with overt manifestations of self interest, bullying and the raw exercise of power.
Take for example, the difference between merge and yield; surely a topic covered on the first day of Driver’s Ed 101? Yield essentially says, “Hey fellow citizen, I recognise that you are already on your way, so go ahead and I’ll wait my turn!” Merge, on the other hand, suggests “We can work on this together in a spirit of camaraderie and mutual cooperation, and we can all get through this smoothly, effectively and efficiently.” Correctly applied, both merge and yield help traffic flow. And while they may not always be equal (I may have to wait a bit longer at a yield sign, for instance), there is an important measure of equity and predictability there. Ideally, we all get home calmly and safely.
However, despite the well-ordered and legitimate nature of both of these approaches, there are a surprising number of drivers who fail to understand the differences between the two, and believe that by the sheer size of their vehicle or their current speed they are not beholden to the same norms as the rest of us. Oddly enough, some people seem to think that they are above the rules of the road. Perhaps this is the 21st Century’s example of Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature in that this can result in trips being “nasty, brutish and short?”
I think, this is where the application to politics comes in. Basically, in both politics and traffic, we tend to put short-term individual gain above longer term societal progress. Often we don’t know – or, perhaps more correctly, don’t want
to know – when to merge and when to yield. Although there is a demonstrated need for collectivity at times, in terms of responses to social issues, powerful interests frequently put their immediate and pressing desires above any concern for – or even awareness of – the “common good.” However, for the well-being of all, sometimes we need to yield elements of our entrenched privilege and help others get ahead.
There are times, for example, when we need to pay for public services through a system of progressive taxation so that all will benefit. Sometimes, collective well-being (ultimately the only sustainable foundation for individual rights) requires us to wait just a little bit so that others can advance. Or, as another example, our want of short-term economic gain needs to be balanced against the stewardship requirements of intergenerational environmental sustainability. Conversely, there are also times when we need to merge and work together so that society flows smoothly, and we balance our needs and aspirations with those of our neighbours and fellow citizens. Advocacy and popular support for public education and public health care, to me, seem good examples of such merging.
Obviously, both merge and yield have a place in the development and implementation of policy measures, but we need to know when the application of each is most appropriate for collective social well being. However, the determination of this is not always that clear. Sadly, at times, I am not sure we are really up to the community dialogue necessary to decide on which particular approach is best suited to each particular social problem. Sometimes, we don’t even have a common language or shared understanding of the norms required for the expansion of authentic participation. We often place political expediency and short-term profit taking over long-term sustainability, justice, environmental integrity and social inclusion. Perhaps we don’t know the rules of the road?
This has consequences. More immediately, in light of these current economic times, I fear that people and social groups who are already on the margins in our province will have to pay the greatest price for the austerity measures ostensibly required to respond to the crisis; that is, unless we get the public policy balance of merge and yield right.
To do that we all need to understand (and agree with) the rules of the road – and this requires time, patience, and communication. Not always easy in our fast paced ego-driven world – but it certainly helps make our collective social journey far smoother.
(This was originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of The Post
, a publication of The Parkland Institute)