Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Culture War: It's the Congestion Stupid Part 1

Never in my lifetime has the political rhetoric so often questioned the sanity of the opposition. "Socialism!", the conservatives say. "You want to put the government in charge of everything! That's crazy!" Likewise, the liberals hear about conservative wistfulness for the good old days of close-knit neighborhoods, tons of freedom, and a church in the middle of every town and social event, and think "That's crazy! The world isn't like that any more". The problem here isn't that anyone is crazy. The problem is that many voters assume the entire country is like the place they live, and don't understand just how different other environments are, and how different expectations can be.

There is a culture war in America all right, but it is not between rich and poor, black and white, men and women, or even liberals vs conservatives. The battle is between city dwellers and country folk, between those who live in wide open spaces and those who live with the constant presence of other human beings. It's all about how congested your world is.

Just look at the county vote map from the 2008 election:

The pattern is near total. If where you lived was full of people, you voted Democratic. If you lived with a lot of fresh air, open spaces, and more animals than humans, you voted Republican. Want to find the cities in otherwise sparsely populated states, just look for the blue. Take Texas for example. Those 5 isolated blue spots are, clockwise from the northwest, Abeline, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, with Austin in the middle. Try it for the rest of the country, the correlation is very strong.

This pattern persists because what government system works best depends on the factors mentioned above. If you live out in the country with no one within half a mile of you, and little need for recreation or services other than a working well, and a porch to sit on to enjoy the peaceful view, then a system emphasizing rugged individualism works just fine. You can let your dogs run loose, go hunting in the woods, play your TV or radio as loud as you like at 4 in the morning, start a bonfire with gasoline, and stay up all night hooting and hollering and shooting up beer bottles til the wee morning hours. You can drive off road, pick any flowers you see, even litter a little bit. No real harm done to anyone. And if you accidentally use too much gasoline and blow up everything within a hundred yards of the fire, no harm to anyone that wasn't accepting the risk themselves (at least if all your guests were adults). Also, if you've ever had dealings with small town sheriffs and mayors, it is small wonder that those who live among them want their power limited.

However, in a city neighborhood or apartment complex with 500 people within 100 yards, the situation completely changes. Everything you do effects everyone around you, and some of them might not like it. Exercising your rights violates theirs. Play your stereo loud at 4 am, and your neighbors around you have their right to get some sleep violated. Blow up your fire and innocent unwary people get killed. Litter, let your dogs run loose, and shoot whatever bird or squirrel you fancy, and the neighborhood quickly becomes one full of garbage and dog shit, but no birds or squirrels.

Limited resources require more rules to insure everyone gets their fair share. In many ways it's identical to parenting. When you have three kids and 20 cookies, there's not much need for rules. Each child can eat his fill, regardless of what the others do. But a situation with 20 children and 3 cookies, absent some common bond to guide them (like familial bonds) requires rules to insure equity all around. The same applies to adults, except instead of a parent, the rule maker and enforcer is government.

That's the bottom line: more congestion means more conflicts of interests and rights, which means more government to sort it all out. It's unavoidable. That's why all over the world, congested areas have more collective approaches to government and rights. Contrarily, the darling examples of rugged individualist governments, like Switzerland, are always open-spaced, sparsely populated areas. Apply Switzerland's rules to Japan, or New York City, and chaos would ensue. Apply New York's rules to Montana, and the inefficiency would be immense.

In part II I'll get to the implications of all this politically.


parakeet said...

I've never correlated voting with population density. Thanks for the new insight!

Luke said...

Conflicts of this sort have dominated the politics of the Middle East for many millennia. (1 Samuel 8 is really interesting in that context.) It is the key driver of many critical disputes in the world right now, including what is happening in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Technology and population pressure are making the entire world seem urban. This is disruptive to cultures that are not well adapted to the new environment.
It is a little depressing that, after thousands of years, the problem has barely been recognized.

ScienceAvenger said...

I think it's the sort of thing that we are blind to until we can get past our cherished ideologies, whatever they might be (objectivist libertarianism in my case). Prior to that we spend a lot of time tryin to fit square pegs into round holes, failing, and blaming the pegs and holes.

Troublesome Frog said...

This is a really good piece. It illuminates the fact that the decision to go with one ideology over another can be completely rational and not necessarily just cultural inertia or ignorance. The type of government that makes sense in an urban area really isn't the same as the type in a rural area.

It's a simple concept, but it often gets lost when we get together to decide the impossible question of which one is "best" for all of us. If our leaders could keep an eye on this rather than vilifying people whose circumstances call for different levels of regulation, we'd probably get a lot more done. Great post.

ScienceAvenger said...

Thanks. I've had the rough outline of this post bouncing around in my head for awhile. It came together when I started thinking about the correlation of outcome and age in the election, and just how different a country it was 20 years ago, and 20 before that. The average population densities have changed phenominally.