“Politics”, said Michael Oakeshott in his Inaugural Lecture at the London School of Economics in 1950, “I take to be the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a set of people whom chance or choice have brought together.” Being somewhat of a ladies’ man, Oakeshott no doubt had pretty clear ideas about general arrangements of sets of people, mainly himself and the wives of his colleagues. But there, there. My concern is not his morals but his clear and precise definition, which I need to successfully make my point about traffic engineering. “The general arrangements of a set of people whom chance or choice have brought together” are not decided by the people, but for them.
Witness the recent decision by Oregon’s governor not to sign the lane filtering proposal into law.
Using Oakeshott’s definition, I am going to maintain that traffic planning is a form of politics. Or it should be. In reality, it is a form, or an expression, of oligarchy and authoritarianism. Effectively, nobody ever asks us, the people, what we want by way of traffic engineering. Instead, the attention of our governing bodies is monopolised by special interest lobbies. The planning follows their guidance.
It is not just something that affects motorcyclists. Take the beautiful old single-lane Cuttagee Bridge in Bermagui, southern NSW Australia, which the local authority has decided to replace. It has one lane. The National Party, which controls funding, claims that it’s all about allowing “mums and dads” to get their kids to school or to medical appointments. No kidding. The party leader was more honest when he said that they wanted to “get that freight corridor improved”. So it is about logging and mining, not mums and dads whose children will be more likely to be run over by trucks.
The National Party, supposedly dedicated to country people, is frequently accused of being in the pockets of the big corporate mining and farming companies. As for the people, of whom some 1600 live in Bermagui, more than 11,600 signed a petition to keep the bridge. If the decision to scrap it was really a political one, such a large number of voters would have meant that the bridge would stay. And remember, voting is compulsory in Australia.
I deliberately chose an example that does not directly involve motorcycling because I didn’t want this to read like special interest whining. And if you’re wondering why I’m going on about a wooden bridge in a tiny town you will never hear of again, it truly is just an example. I suspect that you will be able to find one of your own not far from your home, wherever you live, even if it is not Oregon.
Am I saying that politics is a good thing? Insofar as it works properly, of course it is. Its proper operation, as far as I am concerned, is when it works in a democratic way. Ah, I hear someone claiming that this is bad for us motorcyclists because there are so many more drivers that they can easily outvote us. But that is to misunderstand the basic nature of democracy. It is more than majority rule.
The textbook Magruder’s American Government puts it this way. “The American concept of democracy – what we believe democracy means – rests on these basic notions: recognition of the fundamental worth and dignity of every person; respect for the equality of all persons; faith in majority rule and an insistence upon minority rights; acceptance of the necessity of compromise; and insistence upon the widest possible degree of individual freedom.”
“Certainly,” Magruder goes on, “a democracy cannot work without the principle of majority rule. Unchecked, however, a majority could destroy its opposition, and in the process, destroy democracy itself. Thus, democracy requires majority rule restrained by minority rights.”
So… why should the majority who want the Cuttagee Bridge retained, not be passed over in favour of the minority who want it made fit for B-Double trucks, both ways? Part of the reason would have to be that the people who want the bridge retained have the community’s interest in mind, whereas the National Party appears to be paying off its wealthy backers.
The lesson for us could be that no matter how many motorcyclists write or talk to their elected representatives, their voices can easily be drowned by the wonderful sound of bags of cash plopping down in the offices of those representatives, or of the party to which they belong. And when both the major parties are beholden to firms or organisations which have an interest in suppressing or at least not helping motorcycling, you are in a bind. What do you do?
One possible answer is to start a political party which does support motorcycling. Now I know that that sounds near enough to impossible, but look at Australia once again. We have a new party with the amazing name of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party. Sound like crackpots? Well, they have been taking seats from the National Party all over country NSW. They are keenly “attending to the general arrangements of a set of people”, namely the wishes of the electorate. And guess what? They like motorcycling.
So what about the Oregon Motorcyclists and Drivers Party?
My thanks to Elizabeth Farrelly at the Sydney Morning Herald, for the background about Bermagui