n.b I did the hokey pokey on this post, putting it in and taking in out because I figured it was fairly pointless. Now I’m putting it in again (and shaking it all about).
The other day I was idling away some spare time by looking at roads on Google Maps. I looked at roads and ended up ruminating on the experience of policy development.
Specifically I was looking at the Jesmond bypass in Newcastle which passes the University. At this point there is a roundabout straddling and providing on and off ramps to this short section of freeway. Here’s the image.
You can also see the footpaths, including the one from top right that leads to the University. They disappear under the road way and wind their way in Stygian darkness to allow pedestrians access to houses and shops and human places on the other side.
What is also visible is the path they actually take, worn into the grass by thousands of feet. It leads off the path at the top right down to the roadway. From there, people walk on the edge of the road into the traffic.
This shortcut is rather dramatically shorter (maybe by 80%) than the antagonistically circuitous underpass, but even more modest examples are visible from above. Here’s one from North Ryde (coincidentally near another university).
In a way this is all rather trivial and obvious. Of course people like shortcuts, and if a path is worn it merely legitimises more shortcutting, and that keeps the path worn and so on.
But it’s also a cute representation of delightfully stubborn human clay. It tends to do what it already does, and whilst it can and does change, it’s terribly difficult to mould. We occasionally neglect this fact and do silly things like the spaghetti path under that roundabout, thinking we can just tell people to behave properly, regulate poorly or invade Iraq. Largely though it’s a recognised part of life.
But in the history of human thought we’ve chosen to react to it in many different ways.
There’s the age old temptation to vindicate and celebrate whatever humanity is doing and whatever results it brings, ever popular as part of know nothing conservatism.
There’s also an urge to resign ourselves to whatever it is doing and embrace cynicism or misanthropy, Hobbesian pessimism, realpolitik or Randism.
But there is the urge to be pragmatically ideal, acknowledging constraints, but ever looking for small steps to a better world.
This might be what underlies the pragmatism of Adam Smith and JM Keynes; or what ties together liberal and social democracy; or what underlies the evolution of urban planning post Jacobs; or market creation (like emissions trading schemes).
It might be common, but gosh it must be hard to honestly maintain.
Small steps are hard taken and rarely celebrated, certainly not compared to the violence which we fetish. They will never give satisfaction because you’re only slightly closer to a destination you’re unsure of and a horizon which is receding. It takes endless energy just to keep an open mind and vital thought, let alone be ground down by the radical and ideological, the complacent and the cynical.
No wonder there’s a temptation to withdraw back to the safety of the cynical or know nothing apron strings (see Neoconservatism) or just become secure in an ideological niche, confident of the ignorance of outsiders.
No wonder so it’s so easy to degrade into a Very Serious Person where you can be lauded and handsomely remunerated for your inanity.
No wonder people can skip straight to being Tony Blair.
So here’s to all the people working on sincere policy proposals throughout the world, battling the countless spivs, misanthropists and VSPs with reasoned insight and facts, or pursuing astounding but surprisingly little celebrated victories.
And, um, if you build a pedestrian underpass, don’t commit genocide.
Postscript (because I don’t think it’s any longer possible to leave pictures in comments): By Nicholas Gruen. Richard, here’s one of the pictures I often use in presentations about regulation.