The tyranny of little things

Our country bears many great wounds, which, over the years, brought us to the point of bankruptcy, ridicule and insecurity. But however great the problems which stem from the corruption and incompetence of our political elite and state machinery, from the chaos of the public sector, from the lack of national strategy, from tax evasion and illegal construction and from the demands of our creditors, many problems are born of our everyday behavior – when we accept arbitrary actions as the normal way of doing things.

Even as we demand a state that will protect and serve us – something which entails the functioning of the law and institutions – we often improvise and act arbitrarily at the expense of our neighbors, our society and ourselves. Or we tolerate such actions. Quality of life is determined not only by great issues but also by countless small ones.

A vivid image of “low-level” self-destructive behavior can be studied in Athens’s bus lanes. While most cars, trucks and buses are jammed in normal traffic lanes, enough of them are violating bus lanes so as to block them as well, preventing buses from achieving better speeds and thus maintaining schedules. A few selfish drivers delay thousands of passengers who are on buses and trolley buses, or waiting at stops. Obviously, we all think this is natural, because the miscreants are not swayed by their conscience, nor do other drivers express anger at them, nor (more importantly) are they penalized in any way. If the police officers who are at intersections or on patrol were to issue fines for every violation, within days the bus lanes would be free; buses would then achieve better times and would become more reliable, perhaps gaining the confidence of more citizens. In this way, we would have better public transport and more money in state coffers, with less traffic and lower costs to citizens and the state. Everyone would win. And yet, nothing is done.

This is the model of how selfishness and indifference by a sizable minority work against the interests of the many – whether we are talking about driving or tax evasion or corruption. More and more drivers are violating traffic lights and signs, even driving against traffic on one-way streets; motorcycles race on sidewalks, walkways and in parks; illegally parked vehicles occupy sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, corners and traffic lanes; in the countryside, those who live there permanently are continually trying to encroach on the property of fellow villagers who live elsewhere; tax evaders live at the expense of the rest, forcing them to pay more taxes for fewer services.

On the one hand we have selfishness, on the other we have the authorities’ indifference. In all cases, some citizens function as if they are not part of a state ruled by law, as if they have no responsibility toward their fellow citizens, while others are either forced to try implement the law on their own, or, usually, they give up and just tolerate the spread of everyday violations. Many citizens behave properly only when they are afraid of being punished, and not because they believe in the difference between right and wrong. The only way for them to learn is to see the laws being enforced in every instance. Otherwise the opposite occurs: When you see people getting away with violations – cruising past in the bus lane with impunity while you’re stuck in traffic – at some point you will follow their example.

Tolerance for “minor violations” does not lead automatically to more serious ones, but it is part of the greater problem: the lack of faith in the concept that citizens are equal, with equal rights and obligations. When people believe that “others are doing it” and no one is punished, this undermines the very idea of a society based on laws and institutions. Then, anything goes. When – as in these times – people question the competence, the ethics and the interest of their leaders, then two conflicting forces are released: Those who believe that they have the means to impose their will on others are encouraged to act as they please, while the more insecure seek the protection of those who promise security in exchange for obedience. In both cases, democracy is sorely tested – democracy which aims at the peaceful coexistence of all society’s members.

These difficult days have shown that the lack of justice and the insecurity which stems from the faulty functioning of institutions have pushed the country to the precipice. This cannot continue. While our politicians fight among themselves, over issues of great or secondary importance, while our state institutions struggle to deal with our needs and challenges, we citizens could show them the way – not only through our sacrifices but by showing respect to our fellow citizens and to the space we share.