Here’s a familiar scene to anyone who has a child (and plenty of others who have ever spent time with a child). We’re at a park. A child, who we’ll call child A, is playing in the vicinity of other children. Among those other children is child B. Child A is a happy little two-year-old and child B is of a similar age. Child A is going about their business, let’s say that business is hole-digging for this example. Mid-hole, child A notices that there’s a magnificent, red bucket near child B. Child A takes the bucket. Those of you familiar with this kind of situation know what comes next. A diplomatic crisis. Child B happens to be the rightful owner of the bucket by inheritance, yet child A grabs the bucket anyway. Sand is thrown, there’s screaming, tears and if something isn’t done quickly, some hair may get pulled. Now it’s up to the parents to negotiate a treaty to end the crisis and restore peace. The brokerage of peace and restoration of the red bucket to its rightful owner is no easy task and often involves shallow tactics of distraction and even bribery. Sharing is hard.
As parents in situations like the one described above we are culturally obligated to mediate and we also have to instil an understanding of what sharing means, how it works, and why it is beneficial to all. Sharing doesn’t seem to be an instinctual trait of us humans, yet it’s rather essential to our existence. What’s interesting to me, and also pertinent to this blog, is how the ideas about how and what to share change from one culture to another. Notions about who should share what with the general public are often the focus of political debate (maybe if socialism were just called “sharing” in the US, it wouldn’t be so taboo….). I have the privilege of being able to simultaneously bear witness to three different cultures and to some of these very different ideas about the extent of individual responsibility to share for the common good. Nobody has a perfect system, but I think that we could all use some refreshing of kindergarten rules.
Let’s start with the US. There’s something about sharing with the greater collective that contrasts with our ideas of freedom. Being encouraged, or told to share is viewed as an encroachment on personal freedom. To some extent I can understand this, but I ask then where’s the freedom in needing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to receive a guaranteed quality high school education? Ultimately most Americans are willing to part with tons of money, which is essentially sharing, as long as they can see a direct benefit.
Money is probably the most difficult thing for us to give up for the common good. So let’s think about space instead of money. Public transportation is a way to move through space. The majority of US cities are designed to allow for lots of individual space. That means that they are very spread out. In the city where I grew up, public transportation is hands down the worst way to move through space. Individual cars are the number one choice for going around. Interestingly, Uber is becoming (or at least WAS becoming) a popular alternative to driving one’s own car and one of the terms to describe what Uber does is ridesharing. That’s not really a fancy, modern concept. Riding on a bus, as best as I can tell, is also ridesharing. Of course, public trasportation will never be as convenient as individual cars, but I have experienced well-run systems and something makes me think that many Americans simply don’t want to share space with each other, especially on a bus. There is also distrust for publicly-run things, but if you think about it, a traffic-jam is a publicly run thing.
In Amsterdam, things are quite different. People take sharing to a whole new level. We know people who actually share their car with their next-door-neighbors. The whole city relies on on everyone sharing space and resources. Contrary to what certain politicians (who probably don’t know where The Netherlands are…) think, it’s still possible to be individually wealthy in the Netherlands, despite higher taxes than in the US. Some might be surprised to know that the healthcare system in The Netherlands involves an insurance system that citizens have to pay into if they want to receive care. The difference between their system and the one in the US is that the in The Netherlands the goal is to guarantee care and not to make profit.
People in Europe have historically been living physically closer to one another for thousands of years longer than Americans. Cities are compact for reasons that made sense a long time ago, and now because of their design they have been forced to innovate and accept that cooperation is the best way to get by.
Marianna and I may still be in a honeymoon stage with regards to Amsterdam. To us, the Dutch seem to have figured out a perfect balance between individual comfort and sacrifice for the common good. As an American it’s hard to imagine living comfortably in the tiny little houses in Amsterdam. We’re doing it though and it’s fine. Everyone is doing it and that creates a mentality among citizens of efficiency and respect for shared space and resources. Take a common street in Amsterdam for example. On many two-lane streets there are tracks for the tram that run down the same lanes that cars drive on which are also the same lanes for busses. Flanking these are bike lanes, which are exclusively for bikes and finally on the farthest edges are sidewalks. Everyone is sharing space with everyone else. A system like this can only work if everyone participates and is willing to cooperate. As far as we can tell the Dutch love to cooperate because they cooperate to live.
Then there’s Italy. Italians love to talk about theory and thinking about the best way to do things. When it comes to actually doing things, that’s another story. Italy’s social system is actually more ambitious that the one in The Netherlands… on paper. Laws are written perfectly and cities are planned in painstaking detail but paradoxically, there is no individual participation. There is a word in Italian, furbizia, which means can be best defined as cleverness. It’s more than that though. To be furbo, means to avoid or take advantage of the system for personal benefit. To be furbo is also seen as a positive thing. It’s easy to understand then that if everyone is figuring out ways to not participate in the system, the system is going to suffer. Italy has a fully socialised healthcare system, but massive amounts of the population don’t pay taxes. For now, the best solution that politicians have come up with is to raise taxes. You might be thinking to yourself that this probably won’t work. You’re right!
I’m not an economist though, so I’ll stick with the traffic and space sharing example so that I don’t end up getting too far out of my league. Driving in Italy is a truly every-man for himself experience. Ironically, yet in line with how everything in Italy works, the written test required to get a driver’s license is extremely difficult. It’s all about detailed, theoretical situations. When out on the road though, everyone just does whatever they want. One might expect that this would lead to accidents all over the place. Almost miraculously, that’s not the case. The Italians are actually just sharing the WHOLE road with everyone, all the time. The rules of how it’s shared change according to the moment and that living for the moment can be applied to so many other aspects of Italian society. Somehow, it actually comes together.
For now, Marianna and I are doing our best to convince Sean that sharing is important mainly to avoid meltdowns and hair-pulling. Sean’s understanding of sharing as a society will most likely be determined by where he grows up which, for now is all over the place.