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Beltway lessons - Tom Purcell

The evidence is right under their noses, yet they ignore it.

I am living in the Washington, D.C., area for a spell. I moved here temporarily from Pittsburgh -- flyover country -- which is the land of friendly, considerate people.

People are not so considerate in D.C. -- particularly on the roadways.

Drivers here come from every part of the globe and drive every kind of vehicle. Yet, most have one thing in common.

You better get out of their way.

In Pittsburgh, it is routine for one driver to allow another to merge. Drivers don't do that here. It is every man, woman and child for himself or herself.

Ironically, the same town that produces gargantuan government programs that clog the free flow of commerce also has the most cutthroat, though efficient, drivers on the planet.

The average D.C. driver would hand his mother to murderous thugs, if it would cut three minutes off his commute.

D.C. drivers provide a glimpse into human nature: People are motivated by self-interest; D.C. drivers are motivated by getting from point A to point B as quickly as they can. They have navigated every back road, every shortcut, every little trick to bypass the Beltway's bumper-to-bumper lemmings.

Some commuters ride scooters or motorcycles to weave their way past hundreds of backed-up cars. Some unassuming government employees, dulled by years of paper-pushing, save their cunning for their daily commute; they put lifelike mannequins in their passenger seats so they can use high-occupancy-vehicle lanes undetected.

D.C. drivers' genius and creativity are things to marvel at. Every day, thousands make millions of individual decisions with one goal in mind: getting where they're going in the fastest manner possible.

As I was doing just that the other day, it occurred to me that D.C roadways are a fine model for our economy. The goal is the freest flow of traffic possible, so that individuals can get to their destinations as freely as possible.

Rules and government oversight are essential. If there were no speed limits, traffic lights and police presence, the roads would eventually erupt into chaos. So our government bodies establish basic rules of the road and then, for the most part, get out of the way.

Sure, if a challenge evolves -- if people begin causing accidents by texting while driving or driving too aggressively -- the government alters the rules to clamp down on destructive behaviors.

But the government mostly stays out of the way. Despite thousands of drivers every day, D.C. roads work remarkably well for most.

And despite this simple, highly effective model, some who drive in D.C. are oblivious to the lessons taught by its roads.

They use government force to make us use one technology and not another (kiss your low-cost, perfectly useful incandescent light bulb goodbye).

They go after "the rich" with higher taxes and end up hurting the middle class and the poor. They impose costly "employee" mandates on small employers, who quickly decide it is cheaper and better to not employ.

They are forever doing things -- new laws, taxes, mandates and outright intrusions into private matters -- that fly in the face of human nature and end up obstructing the free flow of our economy.

If only the policy makers here would abide the lessons of the beltway -- rather than take the rest of us on a bumpy ride.

Tom Purcell, a freelance writer, is also a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. E-mail Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.