Saturday, January 20, 2007

Traffic Jams: A Sign of a Prosperous and Free Society?

Thinking about corbrusier’s recent post, I have been considering again, and trying not to take it for granted, what it means to live in a free society. I certainly agree that America’s prestige and affluence have made it all that much harder for us to understand what it is to live under anything from our historically ideal conditions. Indeed, one could very well make the case that we are so unable to imagine what our lives could be like if we shared such a tyrannical government, that we have become completely spoiled. So spoiled, in fact, that as a nation, we may end up rotting from the inside out well before an outside force overtakes us. (Or perhaps the two will work together.) But whatever America’s moral flaws may be, I’ll save that for another post. I am more interested in trying to respect (literally, to see again) what a society that values life and the rule of law looks like, in opposition to a totalitarian society that we find hard to imagine.

So naturally, as I was listening to Chicago’s traffic reports yesterday morning, it struck me that traffic jams may be a wonderful barometer of a nation’s health. For example, this morning, the outbound Kennedy was jam-packed because a traffic accident, and its ensuing police investigation, blocked traffic to all but one lane. No doubt, all the rubber-necking slowed it down even more. I instantly had the same reaction commuters have to such news: because of one bad driver, thousands of others will needlessly be stuck in rush hour traffic for a very long time. Ah, the injustice of it all! But further reflection got me to thinking that maybe this was, in fact, a perfect representation of justice, of respect for human life, of putting rule of law that protects all people equally into action.

What does it say about a society that is willing to displace thousands of commuters for the health, either physical or legal, of one? From that point of view, traffic jams, though clearly inconvenient, say a lot. And most of it is good. Not only is it often crucial for medical personnel to get to a scene quickly for the physical well-being of the people involved, but for the legal rights of those involved in the accident, it is critical that an accurate police report be written. While it is true many frivolous lawsuits come from auto accidents, the legal claims any person can make following an accident are only secured if a verifiable entity (such as the police) accurately document the event, and then an impartial court presides over the case. In other words, it is more important that the potential health and legal rights of one person are preserved than the morning commute for hundreds of others.

While we not only take this for granted, but in fact complain a great deal about them, traffic jams are often (but not always) emblematic of what a free and moral society looks like. Can we say this for every nation? Surely not. It is hard to imagine that in every nation citizens have the confidence that their legal rights will be protected if they are of a low social standing, for example. And not every government protects the value of life to a point where it is willing to cause such congestion on the highways. Unlike so many nations where it is seemingly impossible for people of different ethnic, religious or racial backgrounds to protect one another, any person who needs health care, either on the highway or in the Emergence Room, gets it in America. The reason the story of the Good Samaritan is so popular is because Jesus knew how rare it was for a Samaritan to offer aid to an Israelite, and vice versa. The Samaritan, in effect, would have caused a traffic jam if he were first in line, not third. (The rabbi and the Levite’s morning commute would have been greatly hampered!)

Of course, there are many reasons for traffic jams, most of them good from a certain point of view: more people are driving, meaning more people can afford cars. Roads are being repaired or improved, in and of itself a pretty good thing, even if in Chicago large amounts of graft usually are involved in such construction. Or, there has been an accident, and the police are diligently investigating the scene to protect the health and legal rights of all involved. Come to think of it, there may not be a better representation of the greatness of America. Instead of bemoaning traffic jams, perhaps we should build statues celebrating them, or immortalize them in art showing an ambulance crew helping the victim of an accident while thousands of morning drives are delayed.

A free society is not always convenient. More importantly, it protects the rights of one person over the conveniences of hundreds of others. This is the sacrifice not-yet-free nations will have to learn to make, and somehow, live with.

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