This is the story of an accident. It wasn’t a bad one, but it could have been, and it set me thinking.
I was pushing my daughter in her buggy one morning, from the park where we had been playing to the shops to get us some things for lunch, and as we came round a corner¸ from a side road onto the main road, crashing in to us was a cyclist. He shouldn’t have been on the pavement, of course, and he must have braked hard as soon as he saw us but he still couldn’t avoid hitting us. He was only going very slowly at the moment of the actual collision, so no-one was hurt, but it was still an accident.
I shouted at him, naturally. I rarely lose my temper but that was one occasion when I did. Sorry, he said, it’s all my fault, I accept that, but the road is dangerous and it’s safer to ride on the pavement instead.
But it’s not safer. It might be safer for him if he rides his bike on the pavement, but he makes it less safe for other people, in this case a two year old in a buggy. And the public reaction to the behaviour of the captain of the cruise ship that sank, apparently fleeing the vessel before making sure that all his passengers were safe, tells us all we need to know about adult men protecting themselves at the expense of small children.
This problem of selfishness is not confined to the cyclists of north west London. From banks to tax havens, there are countless examples of people pursuing their own self-interest at the wider (and greater) expense of others. Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand supposes that the collective interest is served by the pursuit of individual self-interest, and often it is. But sometimes it isn’t, sometimes those self-interests undermine the collective interest, and those are the occasions when we need the law.