Ok, another reason my faith in humanity is tested, this time coming out of Los Angeles.
Apparently, the city of Los Angeles has been losing millions of dollars from its subway/light rail transit system. Ridership is robust, and for all intents and purposes, the 20 year old system is successful. What began with 4.5 miles of track and 5 stations has exploded into 88 miles and 101 stations. The only problem is the large number of riders who don’t pay the fare.
Why? In an attempt to encourage mass transit in a city that is attached to its cars, the planners of the LA subway system did not install turnstiles at the station entryways. The system ran on the honor system–riders were expected to buy their $1.50 fare and the only enforcement was the potential to be asked to show one’s ticket to a police officer. Failure to produce a ticket would result in a $250 summons. And even then, the potential for the enforcement of this summons was low. So Angelenos did their calculation and decided it was worth the (low) risk of potentially getting caught and did not pay their fares. The result? The aforementioned losses and the decision by LA transit officials to install turnstiles. You can read the whole story here.
On the one hand you could scoff and say the city got what they had coming to them, of course not installing turnstiles would encourage people to not pay their fare. But should that really be the case? Why isn’t the honor system enough? Because, as this episode has proven and we may already have suspected, we humans are not very good at the honor system. Most people, sadly, are just in it for themselves. Most people are willing to cheat if the risk of getting caught is low. Most people don’t think about the greater whole in making their individual decisions.
To me, this is a good example of the “tragedy of the commons.” In this theory, in relation to a shared resources, people will independently privilege their own self-interest to the extent that it ultimately depletes the resource. The idea comes from the common areas of British towns–shared land for grazing cattle. Each individual farmer would graze his livestock on the commons, and each farmer would potentially seek to maximize his or her own benefit by adding cows. Ultimately, the commons would be overgrazed and unusable for everyone.
In the subway story, the mass transit system is the shared resource. Each person however tries to maximize his or her self-interest by not paying the fare. Yet the shared resource suffers, with millions of dollars in losses, money which will need to be made up somehow. With the subways in particular and the “tragedy of the commons” in general, individuals “win” in the short term, but everyone loses in the long term.
In this week’s Torah reading of Bamidbar, we start the book of Numbers. And the book is called Numbers in English precisely because of this first section, which is all about numbers. God tells Moses to take a census: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. Associated with you shall be a person from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house.” (Numbers 1:2-4) The Torah then meticulously records the population of each tribe.
So why take a census? And why spent so much ink recording the specific numbers? Inherent in God’s command is the ability to bear arms–the census is meant to be a matter of military preparation. But irrespective of this specific detail, the point of the census is to get a sense of the population in preparation for the Israelites’ upcoming journey. For while we have been reading the Torah for weeks and weeks, we may not have realized that while the text (and we) have been absorbed in the details of law and practice, in the meta-narrative of the Israelites they haven’t moved in a while. They are still encamped around Mount Sinai, their first stop after leaving Egypt. Indeed, it is only in the Torah reading two weeks from now that we learn of the Israelites breaking camp and travelling.
The census is a final step–after the recounting of all the laws–before the community moves forward. To provide a reckoning of the size of the population before the community moves forward gives us the clear message: everyone counts. It is everybody’s responsibility to follow the law, it is everyone’s responsibility to uphold the tradition. If one person is lax, then the entire community suffers. Each individual has merit, worth–and responsibility.
The Torah is there to ensure that the tragedy of the commons does not happen. The Torah is there to ensure that the Los Angeles transit system does not lose millions. The fact of the census in parashat Bamidbar teaches that each individual is not solely an individual, but part of a greater whole. That there is no such thing as individual self-interest above the community’s interest.
Individual acts do make a difference. Every person trying to save $1.50 by cheating results in a financial crisis. Every person counts. And every person needs to contribute.