Two days ago, a woman was mugged at 6pm about 50 yards from my front door. My friend and I were walking up the hill from dinner when we heard a commotion up ahead – about half a block up, two black men ran across the street and jumped in a car, chased by a woman. The car pulled away, and they were gone. They had apparently shoved her to the ground, pulled her bag over her head, and taken off. There were at least five witnesses, but none of us had been close enough to do anything, and none of us got a good look at the men or the car in the couple seconds before they disappeared, except to note that the car had no license plate. One of the other witnesses called 911, and a patrol car was sent around, but we couldn’t really offer anything useful.
It was disturbing. It may be an indication of my sheltered life, but it was the first crime I’d witnessed. It was also scary how easy it was. There’s pretty much no chance of them getting caught – we were all caught reacting too slowly. The really annoying part is that I’d seen two men get into that same car at the bottom of the hill, and then it had driven off, and I didn’t think anything more of it. If I’d been paying more attention beforehand, I could have made a difference. But I wasn’t.
I like to think that I pay attention to my surroundings, but this incident made it clear that I don’t. At the same time, it’s unreasonable for me to live in a state of hypervigilance on the off chance that a crime might occur. I tend to go with the assumption that things will work out and life will be okay, and most of the time that assumption is proven out. But at the same time, other people can take advantage of that assumption. And they do. Because they individually profit from it. Like those two guys, who gained the bag, with virtually no chance of repercussions.
But the community as a whole suffers. If everybody retreats into bunkers, afraid of their fellow man, we can’t function as a society. One of the things that separates the human race from animals is that we can see beyond our immediate self-interest and make sacrifices (like laws sacrificing our freedom of behavior and taxes sacrificing our economic self-interest and specialization of labor sacrificing our independence) for the greater community. When we treat everybody as possible enemies in a fight-or-flight world, we are regressing to an animal state. And, yes, the comparison to America’s current response to terrorism and national security is intended.
The thing that bugs me is I don’t really see a way to avoid unscrupulous people taking advantage of people’s trust and committing crimes or terrorist acts. It’s in their self-interest to do so. Just like people who cheat on their taxes to avoid their share of the burden of running a society. Mancur Olson’s Power and Prosperity gives several examples of these sorts of breakdowns where individuals take advantage of the group’s willingness to provide.
It’s a tough problem. One of the questions I’ve been thinking about blogging about for a while is how we as a society can provide a genuine helping hand to those who need it, without turning into a society of entitlement. And it’s the same problem – how do we treat people in a generous and trusting way without being taken advantage of?
It also makes me wonder how and where these community-oriented values come from. I mean, I think we’re all told as children that we have to do things that aren’t immediately gratifying for our own good. Why does it take with some people and not with others? Why do I feel such a revulsion towards cheating? What can we do to convince people that society is not a zero-sum game, that one person winning does not mean another losing, and that by participating in such finite games, we are only damaging ourselves?
I don’t know the answers. If I did, I’d go start a cult or something. But it’s been on my mind for the last couple days, so I figured I’d share. Let me know what you think.