In our town Muncie, the local authorities obtained a $640,000 federal grant to build a bicycle-walking trail near the Ball State campus. The only trouble is, its construction will take out portions of the yards, including trees and driveways, of about 60 residences on Riverside Avenue. The city owns the land in question. Although the residents have always maintained and used the space, they have no legal claim.
To no surprise, the affected residents are quite upset. Yard signs proclaiming STOP THE TRAIL have popped up like dandelions in front of homes on the relevant portion of Riverside Avenue. On the other hand, local bicycle users love the idea of an additional bike trail and have put up BUILD THE TRAIL signs.
From a hardheaded economic perspective, the question is, which group is willing to pay the most for their preferred option? Of course, this is part of what makes economists unpopular—we tend to reduce everything to willingness to pay. Many find our perspective unappealing, even immoral.
We asked a non-economist colleague who is publicly in favor of the trail: “If you were paid $10 million, would you forgo your support for the trail?” His response: “If you paid me $10 million, I’d move to Colorado and leave a million behind to build a bike trail somewhere else in Muncie!”
Of course, the issue will ultimately be resolved by the city council. We suspect the trail will be built. Grant funds have been obtained and bicycle users, including us, outnumber the homeowners. Although the economists’ willingness-to-pay perspective is conceptually useful, we readily admit there is no foolproof way to find out how much each group values its preferred outcome. We recognize our society has, over the centuries, developed other ways of resolving these disputes. We call them by a variety of names: democracy, representative government, common law, and rule of law.
Unlike government by despot or militia, these institutions of collective choice, when at their best, prize discussion, deliberation, transparency, predictable process, compromise and accommodation. Although our system of “government-by-discussion” can be emotional and heated, physical violence is rare. While we all from time to time find our system of government hopelessly frustrating, we do well to heed the words of Winston Churchill:
“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried … .”•
Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to email@example.com.