Highway traffic and what’s wrong with society

A lot of things feel wrong these days, and it’s tempting to blame this on bad people. The millions of guns in America are pressed upon us by selfish manufacturers with politicians in their pockets. Climate change is brought on by rich oil men who don’t care what destruction they cause, not to mention this week’s billionaires buying their way into space, each boasty launch destroying cubic miles of our atmosphere.

There are indeed bad people out there; there is plenty of corruption and plenty of evil. But I don’t think they provide a very full explanation of our problems. For example, any of us living in a rich country probably contributes more than the average human being to climate change, with our cars and air-conditioned stores offering meat and vegetables flown in from who knows where. Are we to declare that 50 percent of humanity are wicked because they emit more greenhouse gases than the other 50 percent?

My model of this situation is an analogy with driving on the highway (an analogous analogy to “Tall trees as an explanation of capitalism”). Yes, there are awful drivers, aggressive bastards whom I curse and who probably cause a lot of accidents. These people are bad, and the highway would be better without them. And yet most of the time, when traffic is clogged and we’re doing 40 instead of 80, nobody is to blame. It’s me and him and that lady too, all of us driving pretty reasonably, generating these problems in combination. We should find ways to punish and discourage the truly wicked, while also constantly working on engineering solutions to help the rest of us get along.

[20 July 2021]

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