The snow reveals as much as it covers

What is wrong with this picture?

Archaeologists sometimes find that a covering of snow on the landscape can reveal to aerial photography previously unknown features such as barrows and homesteads that in normal weather conditions would not be seen. In a similar way, the covering of snow that has fallen on Britain in the last two weeks has brought to light some interesting political issues, too.

I was set to thinking about this after the heavy snowfall last week, when I dutifully cleared away the snow from the steps and the path outside my house, but I did not clear the pavement on the road beyond. My reasoning was that everyone visiting or leaving my house would have to walk up the path that I cleared, but only half of those people would have to walk on the cleared pavement, as they might approach the entrance to the house from the right or the left. Looking up the street, I saw that other people had done the same thing, clearing only the path that every visitor would have to follow. (We live on a quiet residential street so there is no question of the local council coming to clear it.)

Having done this much snow clearing, I reflected on how irrational it seemed from a collective perspective. When walking from my house to the tube station, say, I will cover a much greater distance walking on the pavement than on the path from my house to the front gate. So if each householder cleared the pavement and not the path, we would all have to navigate snow and ice for the short walk from the house to the street rather than for the long walk to the tube. But hardly anyone cleared the pavement outside where they lived.

The combination of actions that are rational from an individual perspective – each person clearing their own path – is not the best course of action from a collective one – each person should clear the pavement outside their own property. But we lack a means of ensuring that each person will clear their own stretch of pavement. There is an institutional failure here: the invisible hand does not clear much snow. (As it would not cut carbon dioxide emissions, if that were to be left to individual efforts.)

Conservative anti-European MEP Daniel Hannan wrote about the same issue (read his comments here), and he asked whether it was the existence of big government that had sapped the public willingness to clear their pavements. But in my part of London, government would have to be truly enormous to get as far the street in which I live. No, it is not the case that people were sitting around waiting for the council to send people with shovels.

I posted some thoughts about this on another site and got the response back that, in Germany, to clear the pavement outside one’s house is a legal obligation. This is a different role for government, as regulator rather than as resource provider. (The sloppy phrase “big government” describes two different activities.) I am not sure whether this approach could be made to work, though. What about the elderly or the infirm: are they to be required by law to wield a shovel? Outside a property made up of several flats (like mine), on whom would the legal duty fall? And how popular would it be for the council, in the event of severe snowfall, to send round its staff not to clear the snow but to spy on whether householders are doing so?

I don’t think there is an institutional or a political solution to this problem. A bit more public spiritedness would undoubtedly be a good thing, but I am not going to suppose that this can easily be engineered. One of the basic assumptions that federalism makes is that politics has to adapt to human nature and not the other way round.

When we had the second round of snow earlier this week, I cleared the pavement outside as well as my own steps and the path. But no-one else in the road did the same. The political observation remains valid.

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