December 6th, 2012

Getting a free ride?

I've just been watching the BBC program War on Britain's roads. It's not as sensationalist as I'd feared from the intro, although some people aren't happy with it (as reported in The Guardian). One of the videos showed a confrontation between a cyclist and a taxi driver, where the driver said "You don't pay your way." I assume that he was referring to tax and insurance, and this seems to be a common complaint from drivers.

Digressing slightly, when I was doing my GCSEs I studied the play Professional Foul (by Tom Stoppard). It's set at a philosophy conference, and one of the quotes has stuck in my mind: "There is a sense of right and wrong which precedes utterance." The philosopher gives the example of a small child who instinctively cries out "That's not fair!" In the case of drivers, they probably feel that it's unfair for cyclists to get all the same benefits without paying the costs. That's understandable, and I don't want to squelch anyone's sense of natural justice, but in this case I think that it's based on misconceptions.

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I think that the sense of unfairness applies to other debates too. For instance, the BBC published an article about child benefits in October. Quoting from that: "But he said polls suggested the idea of setting the cap at two children popular with the public, many of whom had two children and did not understand why people who do not work should have things they did not." (I'm not sure whether "he" refers to Iain Duncan Smith or Nick Robinson.) The same probably applies to the controversy about disability benefits: there's a perception that some people are living a life of luxury at other people's expense (see Guardian article).

Treating these issues as a war and demonising the other side won't really help; I think it's better to understand why people think the way they do, and try to find some common ground. That won't always be possible, because some people will flat-out refuse to listen to reason. However, I'd like to think that most people are willing to consider new information.