Warning: This is more like an essay than a typical blog entry.
Walking into the Home Depot the other day, my wife and I saw a sports car parked in a handicapped spot. I looked closely and saw no plate or placard. As we were sharing ideas about the driver we did not know, we noticed the police car parked opposite. He waved to us and we approached.
“Makes you mad, doesn’t it,” he said.
We said yes and went about our day.
But on reflection, I wasn’t mad. I didn’t want bad things to happen to the driver, and though I felt more certain they would because of the presence of the officer, I felt no satisfaction from a sense of revenge. The illegal parker did me no harm; I have already given away any expectation of using that spot.
Rather, I felt let down and a little sad.
We use law to create those parking spaces and law to protect them. We feel so strongly about this that we even outlaw violations and impose some of the largest parking fines on violators.
There is nothing logical or economic or efficient about giving prime parking real estate over to handicapped citizens. It certainly doesn’t make the rest of our lives easier. The whole setup is simply an institutionalized act of kindness, an embodiment of basic human decency, and respect for some of our fellow citizens.
There are many reasons why one might support the concept of reserved spaces for parking for the handicapped. They include a Christian ethic of charity, a social obligation of mutual interdependence and recognition, a philosophy of justice, a social act of repayment for a benefit elsewhere received. In the end, the thing I find fascinating is that reserving these parking spaces to the mutual minor inconvenience of the rest of us is accomplished through government. It is affirmative action (in the best non-political sense of that term) for handicapped people and we are glad to do it. I am proud that we are able to actually keep doing something that is just nice.
What upset me about seeing that car was the hurt that one selfish person did to all of us, and to our collective expression of our better selves.
The relative non-use of these parking spaces makes me feel good. To me, the empty spaces say that as a society we are rich. We are rich in our ability to tolerate a slightly longer walk, in our capacity to endure a few moments delay in the accomplishment of our daily agendas, in our collective capacity to legally and officially enact a system for this little kindness in our busy governance bodies. (I am aware, of course, that the value of the benefit is significant for those with disabilities.) Our lives are not so busy; we are no so self-important after all.
This kind of thing is, in my opinion, the very best kind of thing we can do as people. We use government to do that thing together. Were there no law or penalty--and if we are in a hurry, or if it is raining, or if we just forget--we might not leave that space open. So we use government to legally protect our mutual act of kindness.
The violator broke ranks with all of us and in some small way chips at the common bonds that hold us all together. That is sad.
In all, I am grateful to be reminded that we can use our government to do great little things together. These days too many politicians and media personalities and academics and business leaders rail about eliminating government and doing away with government services. They don’t account for the power of government for expressing a common kindness and for helping everyone act a little better than we might be inclined.