annoying your neighbors

I sometimes don’t understand why my fellow citizens often act against their own self-interest. Then I read this article in the most recent New Yorker. The following bit explains a lot.

We don’t have a better infrastructure or decent elementary education exactly because many people are willing to sacrifice faster movement between our great cities, or better informed children, in support of their belief that the government should always be given as little money as possible.

The reasons for these feelings are, of course, complex, with a nobel reason descending from the Revolutionary War, and its insistence on liberty at all costs, and an ignoble one descending from the Civil War and its creation of a permanent class of white men convinced that they are besieged by an underclass they regard as the subsidized wards of the federal government. (Thus the curious belief that a worldwide real-estate crisis that hit the north of Spain and the east of Ireland as hard as the coast of Florida was the fault of money loaned by Washington to black people.) But the crucial point is that this is the result of active choice, not passive indifference: people who don’t want high-speed rail are not just indifferent to fast trains. They are offended by fast trains, as the New York Post is offended by bike lanes and open-air plazas: these things give too much pleasure to those they hate. They would rather have exhaust and noise and traffic jams, if such things sufficiently annoy liberals. Annoying liberals is a pleasure well worth paying for. As a recent study in the social sciences shows, if energy use in a household is monitored so that you can watch yourself saving money every month by using less, self-identified conservatives will actually use and spend more, apparently as a way of showing their scorn for liberal pieties. (Presumably you could construct an experiment toward the left, with the goods at play carbon footprints or local produce or the like.) The kind of outlook that Friedman and Mandelbaum assume is somehow natural to mankind and has been thwarted here recently — a broad-minded view of maximizing future utility — has, from a historical perspective, a constituency so small as to be essentially nonexistent. In the long story of civilization, the moments when improving your lot beats out annoying your neighbor are vanishingly rare.

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