Dispatch from IloIlo: Maniacs



April 12, 2006

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On the basis of evidence that is entirely circumstantial, I believe that the motor vehicle licensing exam for the Philippines contains a question that goes pretty much as follows. “True or False? A driver ahead of you on the road poses a fundamental challenge to your manhood and your national pride, and is to be passed immediately, regardless of circumstances and the risks involved.” The correct answer, of course, is “True.” Drivers in many places have reputations for frisky behavior. In the Philippines they are off the charts.

You are on a two lane road, the kind that typically goes out from cities to the farming areas. The shoulders are teeming: kids play, mutts dart and yap, farmers spread rice out on bamboo matts to dry for husking, all within feet of passing traffic. The driver of your jeepney, or cab, is barrelling along at a speed that would give you pause even if the road ahead were clear. But it’s not. Another jeepney is just ahead. Coming in the opposite direction is a motorbike with a sidecar (called a “tricycle” out here) or maybe a dump truck. You think, “No, he’s not going to try to pass. He couldn’t…”

But he does. He guns the rattletrap jeepney like it’s the Indianapolis 500. As the dump truck looms closer he hits the horn. Your life starts unreeling before your mind, along with the thought that you never did get around to making a will. But then, somehow, and with what seems like feet to spare, he slips back into lane. The crisis is over, which means you might have a few minutes to prepare for the next one. If there happen to be two vehicles ahead, the challenge seems utterly irresistable. If, on top of that, there’s a curve in the road, so you can’t see what’s coming from the opposite direction, he’s in maniac’s heaven. Go for it.

The experience is a little of what it would have been like to ride in a sidecar with Evel Kneivel, except with large vehicles coming from the opposite direction. No matter how many times I do it, I still sometimes let out an involuntary “aaiiiyyyy.” But for the most part, I have fallen into something of the fatalism that is part of life in this country. Life is precarious. You need luck on your side. Why should driving be any different?

The fact is though, people usually do get where they need to go. There are horrible crashes, yes. The driver who took us out to my wife’s family rice farm a few days ago, told us of one he was in as a passenger. A bus rolled over three times. (I didn’t need to hear that story at that particular moment.) But for the most part the system does work; and I have come to trust it, the way Filipinos themselves seem to do. Which has made me reflect on the nature of this trust; and what exactly I am putting it in. (I’m going to leave aside absolute trust, in a Source or Creator, though jeepney rides do tend to put my thoughts in that direction.)

Part of it , no doubt, is just dumb habit. We all tend to fall asleep in the ordinary and familiar; fly often enough and you forget how high up you are and how precarious your situation really is. But there is more I think — a shared understanding on those rural roads, an etiquette of interaction almost. Drivers expect the maniacal moves, and so make allowances for one another. Passing is a bit safer because everyone does it and expects others to.

In this, the roads are little like the basketball courts in Northeast Washington, D.C., where I used to live. When I stopped to watch these games, on the playgrounds near my house, I thought the play was selfish and chaotic. There was not much passing, just fast breaks and one-on-one moves. When I started to play, I discovered that more was involved. If I passed up a shot to try to set up a teamate with a better one, people got all over me. I had upset the rhythm of the game, violated the etiquette, which was to take the shot. Even though I don’t have much of a shot, and was invariably the worst player on the court. I still was expected to take it. Others knew their turn would come.

The chaos on Philipine roads is a similar kind of social dance. Libertarians argue that this tendency makes most government regulation unnecessary and even counterproductive. Let people drive the kind of car they want, build the kind of house they want wherever they want. The rational self-interest of individuals will make better decisions than the authorities of the state will. Things sort themselves out if you just leave them alone.

I can’t buy that in regards to lots of things, roads and cars included. It ignores the role of corporations, the sophistication of technology, the fact that much of life today is on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. I’m glad the government requires safety seats for kids in the U.S. If jeepneys had them (we are traveling with our three-year-old) I sure as hell would use one, despite my basic trust in the drivers. I’m glad too that there usually are enough police to prevent the kind of driving that is common here.

(The argument that car safety features makes drivers more reckless strikes me as ideological projection. I never once have thought, “Gee, my kid is in a safety seat. Maybe I’ll try to pass that semi when we come to the next curve…” If the Philippine roads prove nothing else, it is that drivers don’t need airbags to throw caution to the winds.)

To say that chaos can work is not so say it always works best. Besides, “rational self interest” as economists conceive it, is not the same as the social dance, which draws on shared social understandings as much as from a solipsistic calculus of loss and gain.  One of places the dance works best, in fact, is in the commons, especially local ones. The roads here are commons, after all, and not markets. Or take those playground basketball courts. Economists who think commons are inherently “tragic” might see a finite resource that is ripe for wanton overuse. They’d want to privitize the courts so someone could charge rent, and thereby presumably look after them.

Yet on many courts I have played on a social etiquette prevails. Game to eleven, or maybe fifteen. Losing team sits and a new one gets to play. So it goes, through the afternoon and into the evening. The cast changes but the game remains. There can be abuses, yes. Sometimes bullies prevail. Sometimes resources — in this case rims — get destroyed. Wait a minute. Am I talking about the corporate market here?

I haven’t thought this through entirely. But it seems to me, as I sit here in Iloilo, after another long (and relatively calm) jeepney ride, that the libertarian argument against government regulation is also, in part at least, an argument for the potential of the commons. Yet these are the people who want to enclose everything under the corporate market regime because they think the commons is inherently “tragic”. Can someone help me out here?

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