Last Call

Density Is Destiny

Liberal White Castles in the sky. From our June issue.

By From the June 2009 issue

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Was it really worth dealing with? We were pulling out of the parking lot of a White Castle in Nashville, and my college friend Mike had just realized that we had been overcharged for our pile of burgers. After some consideration, we decided to back up and turn into the drive-through again.

With no other cars in front of us, we coasted to the window, and Mike explained everything to the cashier. There was a short pause, and we prepared for the worst. The thing is, when you’ve lived in New York City, you’re conditioned to expect that any consumer dispute will be a major hassle or a potential altercation. But things worked differently down here. The young cashier threw up his arms and exclaimed, “Well, let’s figure it out!”

Huh? You mean, he was actually going to cooperate with us, resolve the problem in a calm and rational manner, and do so happily, without giving us dirty looks or rolling his eyes?

Within 90 seconds of our initial wavering about whether we were going to deal with the situation, we peeled out of the White Castle parking lot a few dollars richer, with our burgers still warm. We were a pair of stunned Yankees.

This incident was one that made me realize that it isn’t a myth: once you get out of Northeastern cities, people are significantly more civil to one another. It wasn’t until I did some more traveling that I came to understand that this had nothing to do with people in other parts of the country being inherently better (no offense to any Southern readers), but rather, it was a matter of numbers. That is, the more people there are in a given area, the more likely it is that people will come into conflict, and the less likely that they will treat each other with basic decency.

In the 1950s, psychologist John B. Calhoun did some crowding experiments with rats, and found that as population density increased, males became more aggressive, violence ensued, and rodent society broke apart. This is something that holds true wherever I have visited throughout the world, and it’s amazing to observe how easily my own behavior can be influenced by my environment.

When I visited Omaha, Nebraska, I became a much friendlier version of myself. Yet while touring some of China’s congested cities, when people kept cutting in front of me in lines, I became frustrated by my inability to curse at them in Mandarin and was forced to whip out my New York elbows from their holsters. Driving on open roads out West is a pleasant experience, but when dealing with bottlenecks in the New York to D.C. corridor (or even worse, I-95 in southern Florida), I adopt the mentality of a gladiator and the vocabulary of Joe Pesci.

This is one of the reasons why—beyond my ideological and practical policy disagreements—I marvel at the inability of liberals to grasp what a massive public backlash is in store should they achieve their dream of national health care. Liberals want to give free or heavily subsidized health care to millions more people. At best, the number of doctors will remain the same (though that number could shrink if the government slashes reimbursement rates as part of the effort to cut costs). A combination of more demand for services, a stable or shrinking supply of physicians, and price controls can result in only one thing: much more crowded doctors’ offices and hospital emergency rooms, with far longer waits.

While citizens of other countries are accustomed to socialized medical systems, this sort of thing won’t fly in America, where people are much more impatient and demanding. Sure, Americans want medicine to be cheaper, and ideally they’d like to see everybody covered, but despite this, a CNN poll released in March found that more than eight out of 10 Americans are satisfied with the health care they receive. How will they react when taking a kid to the doctor’s office replicates the experience of navigating rush-hour traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike?  

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About the Author

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein