Due to a recent Michael-Scott-esque reliance on GPS, I found myself stranded in a West Seneca Tim Horton’s for 24 hours during the 2014 North American Cold Wavew. Some lessons:

People Are Naturally Good

I witnessed and benefitted from an inspiring amount of compassion and cooperation.

Hundreds of people pushed each other cars. Dozens of people pushed my car alone!

People helped those trapped outside their houses. Others went around at night knocking on car windows to make sure anyone imprisoned was warm and fed. In my case, a Tim Horton’s employee stayed on site for a full day and took care of everyone there. The company itself neither asked for nor took money.

I had the opportunity to participate as well: pushing numerous cars and helping jump a man’s truck. I say opportunity because who among us does not get a little dopamine burst when we help someone in need? Who doesn’t want to give back when someone helps us?

None of this is to say there are not conditions under which humans will act maliciously or that psychopaths don’t exist. But it is to say that the vast majority of people, faced with the opportunity to help a fellow man in need, will do so with little hesitation.

There Is No Intrinsic Respect for Government

Driving in Buffalo was banned, yet there were many people driving. It seems people only obey laws for up to two reasons:

1) They agree with the law.
2) They fear the consequences.

I don’t murder people because of reason 1. I pay my taxes because of reason 2. I skip jury duty because neither apply.

At Tim Horton’s, people chucked at the notion of driving being banned. Everyone understood that the police would be occupied with way more important things than disciplining people for driving.

Fewer people were driving in Buffalo, but common sense screams that the majority of those who refrained from driving did so because driving would be insane, not because of the law. So why ban it? Doesn’t banning it only corrode people’s respect for government? Even if you did avoid driving for fear of consequences, you’d look around, see a bunch of people driving, and understand the impotence of enforcement.

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State Products Are Adequate

Let me unequivocal: I bear the responsibility for the situation I was in. I certainly learned to check the weather if you are near the Great Lakes, even if it’s only November. Or more generally, just, check the weather!

However, there is clear room for improvement as well. I was notified that the interstate was closed, but not why, a rather crucial piece of information. Once I blundered my way into a blizzard, there was no official way to monitor the status of the roads. Instead, you watched the news, or, even better, asked people on snowmobiles.

The news communicated that driving was banned until Friday, but not the consequences. Was I really supposed to stay in Tim Horton’s the whole week? How could I even ask such a question? Fortunately, as discussed above, this wasn’t too much of a real concern.

Recently, I read an argument between two commenters on Hacker News that I’ve read or heard some variation of too many times to count. Paraphrasing:

Commenter A: Involving the government in Industry X is a terrible idea. The government doesn’t do anything right.

Commenter B: Have you heard of Roads? Electricity? Running water and sewage? Other example Y?

Commenter A: All those things are terrible!

Commenter B: We must live in entirely different worlds.

Neither commenter is entirely right. But if the question is, “is government service X the best that it could be?”, the answer seems a resolute no. The more I observe the world, the more it seems that without injecting some form of competition, stagnant adequacy or infintesimal progress is the best you can hope for. How much have most government services improved in the last 50 years? How much has everything else?

I’m not smart enough to know how we can ensure competition in all instances. Anyone who says they have all the answers should be distrusted. Undoubtedly, sometimes it is really hard. But it seems clear that absent the ability for someone else to do it better, we lose out on a lot of innovation. Unfortunately, it seems that many problems government solves have exactly this flaw.

Somewhere in the world there is a genius out there with a brilliant idea for a better way to manage the roads. He confronts the ponderous challenge of advancing through the civil service ranks and the task of convincing government beauracrats and just goes: Nope. Then he makes an app and the whole world loses out.

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