A Common(s) Problem 

Our man in Dublin keeps foot away from mouth

Our man in Dublin keeps foot away from mouth

DUBLIN—Visits to Europe are culturally hazardous when you live in a classically American metropolitan muddle like Nashville. Middle Tennessee has its copious charms, yet suffers so severely by comparison on so many dimensions of urban quality of life—public safety, historic preservation, art, transportation—that sojourns in fine European cities are experienced as a kind of exquisite torture.

Here in Ireland, the vibrant buzz of pedestrian streets, trendy shops, and bustling pubs and cafes is predictably seductive, but something else entirely has me pondering Nashville’s missed opportunities on this particular visit. That something is, of all things, the agricultural infirmity known commonly as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD).

An outbreak of FMD in the U.K.—the first in over 30 years—has Ireland fearing an economic crisis, should it spread within its borders. The disease affects cattle, sheep, and other livestock, and is supremely contagious. Humans don’t come down with it, but they can carry and transmit it, as can birds, the wind, and even inanimate objects that move about, including vehicles. Restrictions have been imposed on livestock farmers in an attempt to contain the outbreak, but as the disease is so easily transmitted by casual human movements, officials have also directed their efforts at the general population.

Thus, a visitor arriving at Dublin’s airport is greeted in a peculiar fashion, even before the officious inquiry of a passport control officer: a soapy, soggy antibacterial welcome mat across which one strolls to disinfect one’s footwear. This scene is reproduced in places where people gather throughout the country—soapy disinfectant mats to splash through at entrances to hotels, churches, restaurants, museums, and other tourist attractions. Perhaps the best way to stop a germ from spreading where people gather is to prevent people from gathering in the first place, and so many parks, landmarks, and tours are simply closed until further notice. Sporting events, festivals, and even some religious services have been postponed, and the public is urged in stern full-page newspaper ads to avoid travel to “the countryside” or to the U.K.

What’s striking here is not so much the mere presence of soapy mats or canceled events, but rather the larger challenge of discretionary public cooperation in response to a perceived crisis. Although some of the steps taken to forestall FMD are mandates of government rulemaking, most of the precautions involve actions that are strictly voluntary on the part of individuals and businesses.

For those whose livelihoods are threatened by these precautions, it’s a classic example of what economists and psychologists call a commons problem, where individuals experience a natural tension between self-interest and community benefit. The need for collective action as a hedge against the impulses of individualism is arguably the fundamental organizing principle of government. Those in the U.S. and elsewhere who worship market capitalism are inclined to resolve this tension in favor of self-interest whenever possible.

The current agrarian emergency in Europe challenges market orthodoxy in a direct and visible way. Not everyone in Ireland is convinced that the FMD threat is as dire as the block-letter warnings would have them believe, but few are sufficiently in the know about this curious agricultural malady to make genuinely informed choices.

One Dubliner with whom I spoke—a U.S.-educated economist, it so happens—questioned whether Americans would or could act as the Irish have to adopt uncompelled restrictions that accommodate a collective predicament of vague dimensions and uncertain significance. His remark projects cynicism about Americans’ willingness to sacrifice for the common good. Anti-government conservatives in the U.S. would probably beg to differ, fond as they are of trotting out statistics on charitable giving to substantiate American generosity (and, not so incidentally, sabotage public solutions to entrenched social ills).

But the charge has traction. The U.S. arguably is worse than most at tackling collective-action dilemmas, and the evidence is everywhere. Is there any more potent example than the charming American penchant for SUVs, pickup trucks, and other vehicular leviathans? These monuments to self-aggrandizement litter the streets, requiring ever more gasoline to run them, ever more pavement to park them, and ever more hopes that one will not be hit by one. The European solution: tax the hell out of petrol, make it difficult to park these vehicles, and create efficient public transportation. The uniquely American solution: build parking garages and drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness.

In Nashville, there is the splendid commons problem we know and love as the Thermal Plant. By no stretch of the imagination does it make any sense at the level of community to situate a publicly subsidized trash-burning, smoke-belching incinerator on prime land in the heart of the city center. Yet influential downtown commercial concerns are voicing their displeasure at the prospect of doing away with this blight, which would force them into the tragedy of paying market rates for heating and cooling power.

The system of education in Nashville and so much of the U.S. is the quintessential shrine to America’s unrepentant veneration for self-interest. A well-funded, first-rate system of public education that stands a chance of reaching all children is so manifestly likely to enlarge social welfare and economic stability, yet so plainly unlikely to replace the system of entrenched inequity we have now.

And then there are guns. Don’t get me started.

Europe is not paradise—it has poverty, pollution, crime, traffic, inequality, discrimination, and all the rest. But Europeans do seem to have both a better sense of where the dilemmas of collective action lie within these problems, and a greater willingness to balance the tradeoffs between individual and community. As a result, the astonishing livability of so many of their cities is neither accident nor serendipity. The choices we make have consequences, as parents are frequently reminding wayward children. And so Ireland stands a pretty good chance of dodging the foot-and-mouth disease scare, while Nashville stands a very good chance of building more parking lots downtown.


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