COMMENTARY: Escalator debate provides a window into the liberal mindset

To the ever-lengthening list of absurd “liberal” beliefs — higher taxes are better, giving money to terrorist states such as Iran will make them less hostile, restricting campaign speech is good for democracy — add this new one: walking on escalators is evil.

The general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority made news recently when he encouraged the passengers who ride the Metro trains that serve D.C., Maryland and Virginia to stand, rather than walk, on the escalators. He called the moving stairways “very sensitive pieces of equipment.”

Officials with the Bay Area Rapid Transit System in the San Francisco area also noted earlier this year that walking on its escalators might break them.

What explanatory framework might predict this phenomenon?

Maybe the transit systems in liberal bastions such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are delicate snowflakes like contemporary college students, requiring careful and deferential handling.

Maybe this is an example of how government works less efficiently than the private sector. The escalators in the subway systems seem to break more often than those in hotels or malls. The government says the transit system escalators, which can be partly outdoors, are subject to more extreme temperatures, but even so, you’d think this might be a problem that could be solved if the incentives and competitive market pressures were stronger.

The most unintentionally and perhaps even comically revealing insight into the issue, though, came in an article from The New York Times, didactically headlined, “Why You Shouldn’t Walk on Escalators.”

“The experts are united” that escalator walkers are “doing it wrong, seizing an advantage at the expense and safety of other commuters,” the Times reported.

Management consultants at a London Underground station found that if everyone stood, the would-be walkers got to their destination more slowly but the standers saved time because they got on the escalator quicker without having to wait in as long a line, the Times said.

That encapsulates the trouble with the contemporary “liberal” mindset. They want life organized in the way that “experts” say will maximize utility for everyone — even if it means forcing people in a hurry, or who want the exercise, to stand still instead of jogging upstairs.

I’d prefer a system that gives people the freedom to walk up the escalator, even if the consequence is that the non-climbers need to stand in line for a little more time.

Such tradeoffs between individual freedom and what “experts” say will be better or safer for everyone are negotiated all the time in politics. Sometimes, there’s no tradeoff at all, and more freedom translates directly into what’s better for everyone. Other times — say, speed limits, or motorcycle helmet laws, or smoking bans — freedom and utility come into conflict. These conflicts are areas where “experts” may provide information that can help make decisions. But the decisions themselves depend not only on information, but on underlying assumptions. Those assumptions are founded on deep, fundamental philosophical, cultural or religious beliefs.

If The New York Times believes it’s unjust for me to walk up the escalator, and I believe it’s unjust for The New York Times or some bureaucrat to stop me from walking up the escalator, no amount of “expert” consensus is likely to change my mind about it. The Times may think the escalator walkers are being selfish, but the escalator walkers think it’s the standers who are being selfish.

Substitute “upper-income earners” or “high-achieving students” for the escalator walkers, and you’re a step closer to understanding many of today’s political debates.

Ira Stoll is editor of and author of “JFK: Conservative.” His column appears Sunday.

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