We finally have our snow in the great state of MN. Yesterday I’m driving home from work in the snow, trying to get to the on ramp to the freeway. There are a lot of cars, and we are moving slow. This particular ramp slopes down and back up, so from my spot in the back of the line I can see how many cars are ahead of me. Two lanes of cars, it turned out to be more than 150 vehicles. It took twenty minutes just to get on the freeway.

This particular ramp had an additional lane, the HOV or carpool lane. And it was deserted, no one was using it. Occasionally a car sped through the lane, and from my viewpoint I could see most cars had two people in it, although sometimes cars with a single passenger went through.

Although it would take much longer, very few people were jumping into that quicker lane. The vast majority of people are staying in their “correct” lane. Why is that? Why are people willingly doing something that will cost them more time, when the alternative is easy and close by?

Because people want to do the right thing, and get pissed at those that don’t.

Everyone in that 150 group bought into the correct way, the way they had been taught, of having to wait your turn in line. And I promise you, you can almost see the anger coming from cars for the people who didn’t do it correctly.

In my classes, we talk about Hobbes’ Social Contract. This is the contract that individuals buy into to make society work. The thing about the Contract is that it doesn’t guarantee benefits for everyone. In fact, you might not directly see the benefits, save a properly working society. Because of this, not everyone buys in, and not everyone buys in all the time.

In class, I talk about cause and effect with buying into the Social Contract. Here’s the possibilities I show. You’ll have to imagine this as a 2×2 grid.

If you do the right thing, and others do the right thing, that’s the Contract.
If you do the wrong thing, and others do the right thing, you’re a freeloader.
If you do the right thing, and others do the wrong thing, you’re a sucker.
If you do the wrong thing, and others do the wrong thing, that’s the state of nature, every person for themselves.

If you stayed in the slow lanes, but single drivers jumped to the carpool lane, you feel like a sucker. I think many people feel like a sucker a lot. My wife gives the example of the rise of house foreclosures. There are people who intentionally stop paying house payments, but stay in their house rent free until foreclosure, and then later buy another house. If you are dutifully paying your mortgage and taxes, hearing this doesn’t feel good. If you’re trying to do the right thing, and others around you don’t seem to be buying in, it doesn’t feel good at all. But others’ bad behavior shouldn’t affect our behavior.

If you took that carpool lane and you had one person in your car, you are a freeloader. I don’t think people like to admit they’re a freeloader. That’s when people give excuses for their behavior. If you’ve been a freeloader, I’m sure you had plenty of reasons, as we all have reasons. We’re not going to get into hypotheticals here (“But what if I had to get medicine to my dying mama?”). Simply put, it’s not fun to admit, but we freeload at different times.

The state of nature means no one is getting on that ramp. Have you ever seen people trying to leave a big concert? No one is going anywhere because everyone is thinking for themselves. And people get aggressive – I deserve to go first, and how dare you go in front of me?! The state of nature has no obligations, which many times means no progress.

On this long, slow commute, the Social Contract worked. I appreciate everyone in society who does what they are supposed to do for the benefit of others as well as themselves. Sometimes this is hard to do when people take advantage, but in the end it’s better for all.

Image: http://www.citg.tudelft.nl/fileadmin/Faculteit/CiTG/Over_de_faculteit/Afdelingen/Afdeling_Transport_en_Planning/002Onderzoek/Programma_s/Vici_project/Driving_behaviour/img/Adverse_weather_conditions.jpg


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