Monday, August 2, 2010

Bigger than one person

Long before humans walked the earth, when our ancestors were some other kind of primate, we figured out that there are some things that one creature can't do by itself. I'm guessing the first of these tasks was something like hunting a large animal; since dogs figured this out, presumably our primate ancestors also did. There are some things that are so big that they require pooled resources.

If you've got a task to do, and it's too big for one person, there's one major question: is it something that everybody does, or just something that some people do? Subsidiary questions are: if there's a task that some people do, but not everyone, does that give those people the right to control this task, and to derive all the benefits from it? Who is responsible for it, and (once we invented money) who pays for it?

These kinds of questions about collective action are at the root of almost all disagreements about politics. Communism, capitalism, libertarianism, socialism, fascism - you can plot where they stand on different tasks with respect to whether everyone does them, pays for them, controls them or benefits from them.

This brings us back to the notion of consensus. It requires consensus to take on a task as a universal responsibility, to decide to pay for it. Where there is no consensus the task may succeed in the short run, but in the long term it will fail.

There have been several methods of group action without universal consensus over the years. In Europe it began with guilds, and moved on to corporations, trusts, partnerships, cooperatives, nonprofit organizations and trade unions. These are all organizations that exist in between the individual and the state. They represent the collective will of a group, but not of "everyone."

A problem arises when any of these groups attain some kind of universal status, such as a monopoly or a government contract. Standard Oil received benefits from everyone's oil use, but was controlled by a small group. Halliburton and other defense contractors receive everyone's money, but do not share the benefits or control.

What does this have to do with transit? I'm getting there. For now, consider this to be background.

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