Modern Manners

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I live on a short street ending in a cul-de-sac. The road is not particularly wide, and when people park in the street it inconveniences everyone else. Several months back, one of my neighbors held a wedding party for her child: large crowd, valet parking, guest cars taking up much of the street and filling the cul-de-sac.

First I heard about it was a few days before the event. The woman – the homeowner – had placed in my mailbox (and I assume the mailboxes of everyone else along the street) a lovely calligraphic letter mentioning the upcoming event, apologizing for the inconvenience to her neighbors, and say- ing, “Enjoy some popcorn and a movie on me.” Included with the letter was a bag of microwave popcorn and a card redeemable for one free movie rental at the local Blockbuster Video. I thought that rather sweet, an example of true neighborliness.

I thought about it again a few weeks ago when the same woman threw another party. Again the street was filled with cars, inconveniencing the neighbors. But this was a fundraiser for a district congressman running for November election. And there was no letter of apology, no offer to make up for the inconvenience in any way. Presumably my inconvenience was justified by the common good my neighbor thought she was advancing through her support of her favored candidate. She didn’t ask who my choice was.

What a perfect demonstration, I thought, of the difference between private and public activity and their associated moralities. In private action, you are clearly seen as working to benefit yourself, and therefore you must take pains to avoid harming others if you wish to maintain a tolerable reputation in the community. In public action, you are putatively seen as working to benefit the community as a whole, and therefore you need not trouble yourself with the tangible harms you do to other individuals, who are presumed also desirous of making a sacrifice to the commonweal.

Manners are civilization’s answer to private externalities. They are not necessary, it seems, when the externality is public in nature.

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