What follows is a metaphor illustrating a philosophical public policy argument. I say this now because you, dear reader, deserve fair warning for what lies ahead.

In my experiences on Washington’s mass transit system, the Metro, I believe I’ve come up with an argument for why free markets must be regulated to some degree in order to maintain an efficient allocation of resources.


One of the things that makes Washington’s Metro different from most other mass transit systems I’ve experienced is that the Metro is very ideal for tourists as well as DC residents and commuters.  While it’s true that transit systems are often advertised as being handy ways for out-of-towners to get around, I think that the Metro is particularly (and very consciously) designed to cater to tourists. The Metro stops at many of the main tourist attractions (monuments, museums, etc.) while traveling to and from larger transit centers that would likely bring out-of-towners into the city (airports, bus stations), maps of the entire system and individual lines are frequently posted in the station, and the stations frequently play an announcement over the loudspeaker that begins with “Hi! First time riding with us?” and explains how to get around on the Metro.

And this is great! It’s nice to think that a system would work so hard to accommodate those who are not familiar with the system rather than tossing them into the fray (on a transit system that, during rush hour, is moving about three times as many riders as it was designed to move) and waiting for them to be overwhelmed and swept away like a little red wagon caught in a tornado.

Unfortunately, there is only so much that the Metro can do for the uninitiated before these tourists/out-of-towners must take some responsibility for their own movement through the system. And that’s where things can break down so quickly that I’m surprised I haven’t seen a riot break out when a 30-person tour group (who are all dressed EXACTLY THE SAME WAY) collides with a similarly-sized group of 9-to-5 businesspeople (who, come to think of it, are all dressed EXACTLY THE SAME WAY. How many navy blue ties  and black pencil skirts can there BE in this world?). Surprised and, I might add, a little bit disappointed. I always wanted to see a riot.

But anyway, things break down because, in my experience, those unfamiliar with the system do not make any effort to inform themselves until they are in the Metro station, hovering somewhere between the fare gates and the escalators leading down to the platforms. To me, this is sort of like getting into a car, turning the key, and putting it in “Drive” before you figure out which is the gas and which is the brake. Which admittedly, I’ve done before, but whatever. I’m not the one on trial here.

What happens is this: a new rider understands that they need to pay money in order to take the Metro. So they buy their Metro pass and go through the gate. What they did NOT realize, however, is that the Metro goes to more stops than the one which they have chosen as their destination. Even worse, they do not realize that the Metro travels in more than one direction that the one that leads to their destination. And even worse, they do not realize that the Metro travels along more lines than the one that includes their destination. This is the moment when I’d probably think that the whole world is against me and then I would start sobbing, so kudos to these new riders for maintaining their composure.

But then something interesting happens. While the new rider is figuring out which way he or she needs to go in order to reach the line traveling in the direction to their chosen destination, they place themselves in a spot that is uniquely advantageous to them and uniquely disadvantageous to everyone else. These new riders almost ALWAYS place themselves right at the top of the escalator that leads down to the platform while they read the map posted next to the escalator to see if it includes the magical combination of line, direction, and destination. It reminds me of my cat, who, when I’m reading the paper on the floor in my living room, will choose to lie down on my paper when she has the ENTIRE floor to lay on. And it’s not like she wants to me to play with her or anything! She’ll just sit down on my paper and stare off into the distance.

Man I miss my cat.

But anyway, out-of-towners at the escalator. I can understand why they do this: the new riders are placing themselves in a location that best allocates their resources, assuming they aren’t carrying their own copy of the Metro map with them*. If this escalator leads to where they want to go, they can quickly move down the escalator and minimize the risk of missing the train. They also minimize the risk of the escalator being taken away from them by gnomes*. If the escalator is not the one they want, they can walk away and head in a new direction.

This location, therefore, maximizes the value of their time and energy needed to obtain the information. This location is the best, as determined by their rational self-interest. And I may have failed at being an economics major, but I took enough to learn that one of the primary assumptions of a free market is that individuals within that market act according to their rational self-interest.

Unfortunately, this individual stops at the top of the escalator and completely gums up the system for everyone else. Escalators are a place for moving, not for stopping (doesn’t this seem straightforward enough?). So when that individual stops, a bunch of people behind him or her are caught off guard and are unable to move forward, meaning that the ones who know where they’re supposed to go can’t go there as quickly. And the more people who are stopped, the longer it takes for traffic to resume flow once that out-of-towner realizes that this Metro station is a stop for the Red line in addition to the Blue line. So inefficiencies spread throughout the system each time some person makes this one efficient decision, and we have a negative externality that I’m pretty sure cancels out the benefit gained by the out-of-towner who now knows where to go. Given the number of times I’ve seen someone in a business suit shoot daggers out of their eyes and into the back of someone in a brightly-colored t-shirt (that matches twenty other people’s shirts. Again, how is it that the world has so many neon green shirts? Yeesh), I’m almost certain that this is the case.

So here you have it: an individual’s rational self-interest (not even greed, just self-interest) creates more problems than it solves, and the overall efficiency of the system decreases (and then I miss my train and I have to wait another ten minutes and it throws everything off and I end up missing the Happy Hour special on buffalo wings at the bar and grill and then I have to find something to eat back at my apartment which means chicken and pasta for the tenth night in a row because I can’t cook that well the last time I tried to make sauteed spinach I burned my hand twice and DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT!).

Ergo (you can’t write a paper arguing something philosophical without using the word “ergo”, it says so in my English Major Guidebook. Yes, we have guidebooks), rational self-interest cannot serve as the only determinant in the allocation of resources, for there are circumstances in which it will lead to an inefficient system. When I brought this up with my co-workers, who largely agreed with me, which means I AM NOT CRAZY, they suggested that a large sign be placed above the escalator simply reading “DO NOT STAND HERE.” The problem, one co-worker said, is that there is a lack of information regarding the use of a common good*–perfect information is also an assumption of the free market’s function*. Since the free market does not effectively provide perfect information, a regulating force can step in to provide that information and correct the inefficiencies caused by the market. Although it’s a little alarming that not standing at the top of an escalator would be considered “information”, but I guess that’s why perfect common sense isn’t an assumption of the free market.

Regarding the sign, I said that that’s an effective mechanism for informing tourists, but there’s no way to enforce the rule. I suggested vigilante-style justice, namely a legal immunity for all other commuters who choose to inform out-of-towners of their error in planning by smacking them (first offense: rolled-up newspaper, second offense: rolled-up newspaper [weekend edition], third offense: shoe, fourth offense: hip check), but my co-workers gave me uncomfortable looks. I think they’re just afraid of taking decisive action on the matter, but all the same it was a quiet lesson for myself, with the lesson being: bitter people shouldn’t run for elected office.

In conclusion, my experience watching the inexperienced on the Metro is anecdotal, but could likely be confirmed by a more scientific experiment (“Dear commuter, how many times a week do you think about using your shoe as a weapon against someone standing at the top of the escalator with a confused expression on his/her face?”). Nevertheless, it represents a situation in which rational self-interest is not the most effective way for allocating resources, and suggests that some regulatory measure by a larger governing body is necessary in order to mitigate the negative externality. Though the system of vigilante justice is not the only solution, it is nevertheless strongly recommended.

I’mthinking of  submitting this argument (snarky comments and all) to some various academic publications. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

*This assumption seems valid to me because it would involve planning ahead, and it’s easier to discount the future value of a good when weighed against actions one could take in the present time. Having $100 in the future is less valuable than having $100 now. Having a Metro map before you’re on the Metro is less valuable than when you’re on the Metro, so why print it out?

*Don’t laugh. I’ve heard it happens every couple of weeks here. Or at least that’s what we tell the tourists. So maybe we’re somehow responsible for all this.

*A common good is a good that cannot be restricted to anyone wishing to use it but whose value or supply can be reduced by those who use it. Technically, the Metro is excludable since you have to pay a fee but I think the term is still applicable.

*Except this is laughable, because there’s often an incentive for both buyers and sellers to keep information from each other in a manner that also serves their self-interest. Example: Dasani being sold as some hoity-toity bottled water when in actuality it’s just filtered tap water. Coca-Cola knows people won’t buy “filtered tap water”, so they keep that bit hidden from plain sight.