"Velib was supposed to make urban travel more civilized," lamented the daily newspaper Le Monde in an editorial. "Instead it has increased uncivilized behavior. No one expected that."
NPR's Morning Edition had a story this AM
about bicycles provided for free to residents of Paris to ride around town, from which the above quote is taken. Alas, many of the less refined residents of that city seem more interested in vandalizing the bicycles than in using them in a way consistent with the broader public interest with which our ruling classes are so preoccupied. How could free stuff, and environmentally beneficial free stuff at that, make people more uncivilized?
Most economists have no trouble diagnosing what went wrong in this experiment. If I own a bicycle, I expect to use it for many years to come. I need to take care of it, and I need to protect it from vandals. (Lawrence Summers once famously said that no one in history has ever washed a rented car.) But if I'm using a public bicycle, I don't care, in the most narrow conception of self-interest, whether it is useful after I'm done with it, and if I am actively hostile to the society around me, I will not hesitate to damage it.
There is a deeper story here, the story of property and human progress - not material progress, but progress in how we live together. There are still vast stretches of the world where the right to property is nonexistent, and people’s very lives are nothing more than whims of those who do
control (and someone inevitably must) how resources are used. This is been the lot of man for most of our history since the creation of agriculture. The mightiest decide how to dispense the food, the land, the water, and everyone else is their serfs until they can band together violently and become the mightiest by overthrowing the old boss.
Property changes all that. It gives you the ability to control resources, and to use them to advance through life -- to achieve, to dream, to make sure your family is provided for. Perhaps more critically, it also gives you a stake in the system -- a belief that the state’s unwavering commitment to defend what is your is a critical ingredient of social peace. Contrary to the image propagated by Rousseau's noble savage metaphor, hunter-gatherer societies are actually profoundly violent. The modern homicide rates for people such as the Yanomamo are perhaps 100 times the rates even in 12-century England, and some of them (for example, the Aché of Paraguay) had 20th-century homicide rates as much as 1000 times as high as those of the contemporary United Kingdom. (My source for these data is chapter 6 of A Farewell to Alms
by Gregory Clark.)
The society in which I can own just like you is a society in which you and I are bound together by self-interest to preserve that set of rules of the game. And so the long-term decline of property rights in the era of the redistributionist and welfare state has the hidden but ultimately critical cost of damaging that bond of equality of opportunity that ties the rich to the poor to middle class. Big government de-civilizes us. The universally shared belief that we are all free to make our own destiny in the marketplace on the same terms as anybody else gives us the confidence to try to do great things, to agitate for the preservation of the social order, and to stigmatize those whose selfishness corrodes that order. A society where everybody who wants to have a bike must own it is a society in which the defense of ownership is very important. It is a society more conducive to civilized behavior. A society where the government gives everybody a bike for free is something else altogether.