By Christopher Fulkerson

CF's Composition Desk

Obeying the law is the minimum, not the optimal, degree of social cooperation.

In the United States, behavior in public is descending to new lows, and in certain types of situations this has to do with assumptions that obeying the law is the only imaginable requirement. For example, when crossing the street, pedestrians are becoming more and more rude to the motorists they share the road with, to the point that the pedestrians are occasionally even breaking the actual law. Motorists who are already in an intersection will have to brake suddenly to avoid hitting a pedestrian who enters suddenly, sometimes even running, and, ever more often, the pedestrians act as though, since they have the right of way, their action is correct. Of course, there is a higher way to behave, which is for pedestrians to use common courtesy toward motorists already in an intersection, and pause to allow the motorist to drive through the intersection. But common sense is not thought to apply in matters of right. Having the right of way, or having a right, does not necessarily mean it is always right to exercise it.

In California, the law in fact indicates that pedestrians walking through intersections should not create unreasonable inconvenience for motorists. But, typically, this is unknown to most people, who will behave as though their right of way is guaranteed under the Bill of Rights, and their self-righteousness about how they may behave is increasingly tedious and irrelevant. I personally have observed ill-behaved pedestrains on literally hundreds of occasions point to the red no-crossing light that condemns them as the supposed proof that they may cross. They are pointing at red lights, not a green lights. They are pointing at the light that condemns them, saying it is giving them their right. In short, they are crazy.

There are bicycle lanes in some streets in San Francisco. There is much feeling among non-bicyclists that the lanes are not well designed; but an imagined "right to ride a bike" is allowed to prevail. The law clearly states that motorists may use these same lanes for pick up and drop off. But the bicyclists quite often do not know or care about this aspect of the law, and will commit very outrageous acts on any auto or driver in their path. Very often the bicyclists' shouted epithets are to the effect that the motorist is breaking the law, even when they are not.

The situation is so bad that there is actual enforcement of the law as it is popularly understood, not as it actually is. For example, in the present example, police officers and even judges tend to side with quite unreasonable pedestrians; tickets are issued; courts are filled; punishments are rendered. But a very slow-moving pedestrian, who has no physical reason for moving slowly but simply lolligags across the street, is in fact breaking the law as it exists on the books. There are even police stings involving pedestrians who walk slower than the law indicates is reasonable.

The thinking that results in this type of behavior has moved into many sectors of life. For example, many of the worst economic problems now faced by the entire world are the result of the assumption that businessmen are right to make a profit in any situation not otherwise controlled by law.


Posted November 8, 2009