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Individual Utility vs Communal Utility

There was a sad opinion poll this week that showed that now a majority of people think that it is better for people to show pure self-interest rather than enlightened self-interest (whereby people work in part for the common good because that creates a better society)

A good example of how this selfish approach goes wrong was in Birmingham's gridlock tonight. My vegetable oil powered vehicle is also good in the snow. I actually only ended up towing one driver up Mary St in Balsall Heath, but where other cars were stuck I was not.

However, it was not the few cars that got stuck that blocked the traffic generally. It was in fact the failure to allow traffic to flow at traffic lights. Individuals were in such a rush to get home that they blocked the traffic flow from the other side. This was not all drivers, but possibly a good third. That meant that traffic did not flow when the lights changed. This blocked back down to the previous traffic lights (in whichever direction) and gridlock developed.

The road surfaces were actually well gritted and not that slippery although there were isolated problems, but the selfish behaviour of a minority of drivers caused gridlock.

I should really have taken photographs to prove this as we need a different attitude to traffic lights if we are not going to have this recur.


Stephen said…
It took me just over 3 hours to get home from work (normally it takes about 40 minutes), starting out at about 16:30. I have to say that on my journey (Walk from Waterlinks House on Dartmouth Middleway to New Street and of Corporation Street via Aston University then number 31 bus (normally I catch the number 37 but the 31 was the first bus going anywhere near my home after an hour of waiting) to Sparkhill and walk home via St Johns Road) I saw virtually no evidence of gritting of the roads and none of gritting of the pavements. The only parts of the roads and pavements not covered with snow were those that were heavily trafficed and snow reduction seemed consistent with displacement by the wheels of vehicles and feet of pedestrians. The only evidence of grit I saw was on the Aston University campus and was a couple of guys with a wheel barrow full of grit and a shovel each. I can understand small side roads not being gritted, but major routes like Dartmouth Middleway, Digbeth High Street, Cheapside, Stratford Road and Warwick Road? Surely SNAFU.

Whilst I was wiating for my bus it did occur to me that it might be an idea to fit tow bars to buses and provide 'gritting trailers' coupled with mini grit depots strategically placed along major bus routes. First signs of snow the trailers can be loaded up and hitched to the buses. Voila, virtually every major road is gritted at minimal cost and the gritting lorries can concentrate on major roads not well serviced by bus routes and maybe less-major roads as well.
Individual Utility vs Communal Utility

I think you understand the issue John.

We have been taught for many years to suppress our natural communal instincts and act only as if we are "consumers" in markets for public services, such as roads.

Market mechanisms operate most effectively when neither consumers nor providers work together, but simply pursue self-interest, another instinctive feature.

Neither of these instincts is good or bad, nor superior; we do not need to justify either one in terms of the other.

Markets have their place, but there is such a thing as society.
Tristan said…
You can only rely on people to act if there's something in it for them. That is a fundamental trait of humanity. (Pure altruism does exist, but its not reliable...)

Communal instincts are an extention of that, we act in such ways because a functioning society is good for us and it makes us feel good.

Markets are often maligned for not having conciense or aim, but what they allow is people to interact without knowing everything in the system, which is rather like society (perhaps society could be seen as the sum of all markets...)

The trouble with society today is not that we are too individualistic, its that we expect too much of government and the state.

The systematic removal of individual responsibility by the state has created a society in which people see no need to be 'altruistically selfish', someone else will do it for them.

Its the mother of all unintended consequences, and one statists refuse to admit to.
PoliticalHack said…
I have to concur with Stephen.

There was no sign of gritting on many of the major routes around Birmingham. Driving was not a pleasant experience, especially not in an ordinary car without benefit of 4WD.

Last time round, the gridlock was caused by a freak change in the weather. This time, somebody didn't check the forecasts.
RP said…
I would say that the selfish attitude of drivers is a product of society that current exists in a unhappy medium.

This country is ill equipped for any sort of emergency. If the country comes to a halt in a few inches of snow, I dread to think what state it will be in during a terrorist attack.
Radders said…
You have to ask the question about what the difference between Thurs and Fri. One day clear roads, the following gridlock.
Both days roads were gritted.
Day one people saw snow in the morning left cars at home.
Day two, people didn't see snow in the morning, and decided to travel. But come the afternoon they panic'd when they saw the snow and decided to leave early. At which point the problem was exacerbated by gridlocking the roads and not allowing gritters to get their stuff down.

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