Ideal Democracy and the Mountain Bike
By Alec Rawls © 1996/1998. (900 words) Originally published in The Thinker, 4/19/96.

As I am unloading my mountain bike at the bottom of Windy Hill I see a young woman assembling her bike nearby. "Are you going up the face today," I call over, "or are you going up the road?" "I don't know," she answers, "I've never been here before," so I tell her the options. The road is a long steady grade that comes out on Page Mill four or five miles up, while the trail leads straight up the mountain, a brutal climb that just might reward the effort with a stunning view of the sunset over the Pacific.

"Which way are you going?" she asks. I motion skyward with my thumb. "Hmmm" she nods. "This is the perfect time" I encourage her, and consider asking if she wants to ride with me, but most people would want to find their own pace the first time up Windy. Besides, her being female, it is pretty unlikely she can ride with me anyway.

"Have a nice ride" we exchange, and I set off for thirty five minutes of body brutalization and brain relaxation. It's funny, at first it was body brutalization and brain brutalization, before the level of effort became habitual. Now it sets the wheels of the mind spinning the same as taking a walk or a shower does.

Just below the crest of one climb, a down-hiller does not see me until he is airborne and lands two feet to my left at twentyfive miles an hour. That is criminal recklessness. It is pure luck neither of us is paraplegic right now. The rule should be that down-hillers have to be travelling at a moderate enough pace to be able to stop by the time they reach their current trail horizon. Yeah. That's the ticket. It would be easy to test and enforce too.

I have total scorn for the hikers who control the land use boards around here. Instead of looking for rules that would reconcile the variety of uses they simply ban any activity that develops any conflict with their use. They have banned bikes from all the single track when they could just post rules at the trail-heads that bikers on single-track must get off the trail for hikers going the opposite way, while hikers should step aside for bikes going the same way.

Hikers protest that the reckless down-hillers are too dangerous to be let on the trails, but that behavior would be banned under an accommodation. Of course it would take enforcement, but so does a ban. The hikers don't care about logic though. What really drives them is an aesthetic conviction that there is only one proper way to enjoy the outdoors.

I wish our civics classes would teach the ideal of democracy that the framers of our Constitution were hoping to establish, where majority rule would not just serve majority interests but would serve all interests according to reason, merit and justice, as best as a majority of reasonable people can see how. That was why the Constitution originally stipulated that representatives were to be selected from the propertied aristocracy: not to serve the interests of that class, but because it was thought that such people, with their own place already secured, could be less worried about promoting their own interests and more able to consider all interests.

It was a flawed solution but the ideal was correct. Unfortunately education is so backwards in this country that few people know such an ideal of democracy even exists, never mind that it is right there in our Constitution. And those intellectuals who claim to be most interested in promoting minority interests are so obsessed with accusing the propertied white males of the founding era of cynically reserving power for themselves that they are blind to how the actual ideal embodied in the Constitution is the one they presumably want, calling for all interests to be accounted.

The right way to achieve that ideal is to put a public interest test for legislation into the Constitution, providing a system for accounting all interests and requiring that the appropriate sum of interests be maximized, or at least that the boundries of such a calculation not be violated. That is the way to control spending too. 70% of current government spending would clearly fail the least demanding public interest test. Yes! It will be done. It will all be done!

What a gorgeous hour, climbing in shadow with the sky starting to darken. On the long traverse half-way up I catch a glimpse of a rider only a few hundred yards below. "Could it be her?" I ask myself, but I doubt it very much. In any case, nobody is catching me today.

At the top I am greeted by a fading yellow white light that picks up the yellow white of the dry grass like green before a storm. A few minutes later my reverie is interrupted. "Wow. Look at this grass!" a voice calls out behind me. "Hey" I answer, "so that was you behind me on the way up." "Yeah. This ride was definitely the call. This light is amazing. It must be relative, like those blue blocker sunglasses. Things with no blue in them look brighter, but you can't be getting as much light."

Hmmm. She can ride up Windy as fast as I can, and she's got a brain. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

(Alec Rawls is a graduate student in economics)

End of Utilitarianism volume of Moral Science. Next volume is Non-ideal Theory.

Next item in Mr. Knowitall series: Religion Within the Limits of Reason

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Date Last Modified: 8/27/99
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