People Respond to Incentives – Chinese Driver Edition

 

This recent story from Slate was definitely a shocker:

It seems like a crazy urban legend: In China, drivers who have injured pedestrians will sometimes then try to kill them. And yet not only is it true, it’s fairly common; security cameras have regularly captured drivers driving back and forth on top of victims to make sure that they are dead. The Chinese language even has an adage for the phenomenon: “It is better to hit to kill than to hit and injure.” This 2008 television report features security camera footage of a dusty white Passat reversing at high speed and smashing into a 64-year-old grandmother. The Passat’s back wheels bounce up over her head and body. The driver, Zhao Xiao Cheng, stops the car for a moment then hits the gas, causing his front wheels to roll over the woman. Then Zhao shifts into drive, wheels grinding the woman into the pavement. Zhao is not done. Twice more he shifts back and forth between drive and reverse, each time thudding over the grandmother’s body. He then speeds away from her corpse.

Smelling a story that was too interesting to be true, I texted a friend who lives in China. He read the article and texted back that every word was correct. This behaviour was so common that it was a kind of dark joke. The phrase “drive to kill” was considered practical life advice for young and old alike. These are not members of some obscure and barbarous cult. China is one of the oldest and most accomplished of human civilizations.

The legal explanation for this situation — a moral explanation, I suspect, is impossible — is a combination of a weak insurance system and easily bribable courts. An injured pedestrian can become a lifetime financial liability for the driver. Murder convictions, even in cases with clear video evidence, are still unusual. Faced with a choice of becoming a bankrupt or a murderer the popular choice seems to be the latter.

Homo homini lupus est. Man is wolf to man.

Mainland China is, of course, a dictatorship. It seems likely that in a functioning liberal democracy, such as those of the West, very basic legal reforms would long ago have removed these (quite literally) perverse incentives. The rulers of China have deigned it beneath their notice to make such minor improvements.

Keep in mind that private cars were virtually unknown in China until late 1980s. In about a quarter of a century, the culture of an ancient nation has adapted itself to accept vehicular manslaughter as a matter of course. Before we start searching for some special perversity of the Chinese soul, let us remember that every civilized nation has tolerated small and great acts of barbarism. We shudder today at horrors our grandfathers accepted without notice or complaint.

Reading this story placed me on edge. It was a reminder how much of civilized and humane life rests on social consent. In the world of the theologians and philosophers, we each have a moral compass, some infallible device that — if we listen to it — will drive us away from gross evil. Running over small children with SUVs requires no subtle moral judgement. It is murder, albeit with little premeditation. For many people, I suspect, Jiminy Cricket died a very long time ago.

What we tolerate is often what others tolerate. Perhaps it’s fear of falling out of line, perhaps it’s that, beyond our own kith and kin, we don’t really care about others. We try to navigate life by following social cues and don’t much delve below the surface. If we don’t get caught, then what really is the problem? The angels of our better nature are usually other people, those with enough moral awareness to speak out when necessary.

Edmund Burke never said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” but it’s the sort of thing he should have said. It’s the sort of thing we need to remind ourselves of from time to time.

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  1. Merina Smith Inactive
    Merina Smith
    @MerinaSmith

    You are exactly right.  Humans need powerful context for morality.  I think we do have an innate sense of right and wrong, but it is easily overpowered by bad incentives and wrong-headed socialization.  People really can be socialized to almost anything.  This is why we need strong institutions that promote moral behavior, like churches.  Our constitution is a document that has worked rather well in promoting moral behavior, but it is being decimated by a variety of different forces that would gut it and undermine it.  Right now it feels like the world is about to explode, WWII style.  This is a very, very bad feeling.  Thanks Obama.

    • #1
  2. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    Merina Smith:You are exactly right. Humans need powerful context for morality. I think we do have an innate sense of right and wrong, but it is easily overpowered by bad incentives and wrong-headed socialization. People really can be socialized to almost anything. This is why we need strong institutions that promote moral behavior, like churches. Our constitution is a document that has worked rather well in promoting moral behavior, but it is being decimated by a variety of different forces that would gut it and undermine it. Right now it feels like the world is about to explode, WWII style. This is a very, very bad feeling. Thanks Obama.

    I agree, but I would say rather that the Constitution has made it somewhat more difficult to behave badly than otherwise would have been the case.  It is a document that presupposes a certain level of morality.  Without a commitment to its principles, i.e., without a fairly strong private morality supported by private institutions, it is nothing.

    • #2
  3. Hank Rhody Contributor
    Hank Rhody
    @HankRhody

    Richard Anderson: Mainland China is, of course, a dictatorship. It seems likely that in a functioning liberal democracy, such as those of the West, very basic legal reforms would long ago have been implemented to remove these quite literally perverse incentives.

    Optimist.

    Not to bring down an otherwise lighthearted discussion of vehicular murder, but consider abortion. When the subject is thrown at Republicans, they always ask about rape/incest or the life of the mother. All too often though the only thing weighed against a human life is ‘the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed.’

    • #3
  4. V the K Member
    V the K
    @VtheK

    Gotta wonder if one of the reasons life is so cheap in China is because of their 40-year one-child mandatory abortion policy. When the state’s official position is that inconvenient lives are disposable; how can a nation have any moral compass at all?

    • #4
  5. Hank Rhody Contributor
    Hank Rhody
    @HankRhody

    V the K: When the state’s official position is that inconvenient lives are disposable; how can a nation have any moral compass at all?

    I just wanna reiterate comment #3.

    • #5
  6. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    V the K:Gotta wonder if one of the reasons life is so cheap in China is because of their 40-year one-child mandatory abortion policy. When the state’s official position is that inconvenient lives are disposable; how can a nation have any moral compass at all?

    Having been there, my observation was that the one child policy means children are treasured and loved in a way hard to reconcile with my year spent teaching inner-city kids.

    The problem isn’t that most people don’t think life matters; the problem is that people wealthy enough to afford cars and/or connected to party elites don’t think the rules matter.  For all the talk around here about how “we’re no longer a nation of laws,” China truly is a nation that is ruled by men and not law. If you have the money, you can almost always get away with anything, as the article notes. Money for the victim, money for the cops, money for the judge, and it all just goes away …

    • #6
  7. V the K Member
    V the K
    @VtheK

    Amy Schley:

    Having been there, my observation was that the one child policy means children are treasured and loved in a way hard to reconcile with my year spent teaching inner-city kids.

    I often wonder which is more socially destructive; China’s one-child policy, or America’s one-parent policy. I tend to side with the latter.

    • #7
  8. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya
    @JohnnyDubya

    “The rulers of China have deigned it beneath their notice to make such minor improvements.”

    This made me chuckle, ruefully.

    Is it realistic to expect China’s rulers “to make such minor improvements” when the leadership is busy with such activities as presiding over a Laogai gulag system that enslaves perhaps millions?

    • #8
  9. donald todd Inactive
    donald todd
    @donaldtodd

    If the rules are not worth obeying, then lives are not worthy of protecting.  That is as true here as it is in China.  Since you noted that the killing of pedestrians is simpler than trying to keep them alive, then the law is deficient.  That is true here with abortion. 

    • #9
  10. David Knights Member
    David Knights
    @DavidKnights

    In major cities in China, traffic is so different it is hard to describe to an American. A taxi ride can be as “thrilling” as any amusement park ride.

    Interestingly enough, even with all the insane traffic I didn’t see any vehicle on vehicle accidents.  However, it was common knowledge that vehicle on person accidents happen all the time and that no one stops to help the injured pedestrian.

    In the US cars and traffic evolved from their invention, allowing for the development of laws and norms and insurance and the rest.  That development never took place in China.

    • #10
  11. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    We have only two or three main roadways on the Cape so the intersections can get pretty clogged up. And it’s impossible to describe how I was able to see this whole situation play out from where I was in the lane behind the two vehicles involved, but trust me, I saw this whole thing.

    For reasons I have forgotten, there were four lanes of traffic that were practically sitting still at this moment.

    A fairly large truck wanted to pass a little car driven by an older woman. So he abruptly decided to try to get past her on her left, to squeeze in between the two lanes in front of me.

    To this day, I can’t believe what I saw, but the truck driver sideswiped the poor woman’s entire car with her in it! and then quickly made the left-hand turn he was trying to make. This was a kind of belligerent driving I had never seen before and have never seen since.

    I have rarely been as angry in my lifetime. I followed this guy down the street and then drove to the police station.

    I told my husband about it later. “Why would this guy have taken off like that? There were a hundred witnesses!”

    “Because,” my husband said, “a hit and run in this state is not as bad as failing an alcohol test. He had probably had a drink or two.”

    That was my first serious encounter with perverse incentives.

    • #11
  12. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Richard Anderson: For many people, I suspect, Jiminy Cricket died a very long time ago.

    Is the idea of a non-material judge of behaviour even a thing in Confucian culture?

    • #12
  13. Paul Wilson Member
    Paul Wilson
    @

    Well, under the Common Law tradition, you can thank the concept of torts. There is an inherent duty to not destroy life, limb or property, even in the absence of statute. One of England’s great gifts to world, even if it is occasionally abused by the contingent fee crowd.

    • #13
  14. katievs Inactive
    katievs
    @katievs

    More fundamental than good laws are religious and moral values and convictions. I worry that we easily underestimate the effects of millennia of the Judeo/Christian teaching that the human person is made in the Image and Likeness of God. It’s so familiar and so embedded in our culture and collective psyche that we are apt to think it’s normal human thinking. And then we imagine we don’t need the doctrines or the practice of religion to maintain its truth in our laws and behavior.

    • #14
  15. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    katievs: I worry that we easily underestimate the effects of millennia of the Judeo/Christian teaching that the human person is made in the Image and Likeness of God.

    Absolutely! Other cultures do not value human life because, on the basis of pure empirical observation, a person’s life may or may not actually be more valuable than that of a working animal.

    We refuse to accept the evidence provided by our own eyes – the value we place on each person is the foundation stone of Western Civilization.

    • #15
  16. katievs Inactive
    katievs
    @katievs

    iWe:

    katievs: I worry that we easily underestimate the effects of millennia of the Judeo/Christian teaching that the human person is made in the Image and Likeness of God.

    Absolutely! Other cultures do not value human life because, on the basis of pure empirical observation, a person’s life may or may not actually be more valuable than that of a working animal.

    I had a friend who converted to Catholicism in young adulthood, after have been raised in a chaotic, atheistic household. She said up to the point of her conversion, she had never thought of other people as valuable-in-themselves. “Other people were like an obstacle course.” They might be useful or pleasant or a hindrance to her. That was all she considered. It was a kind of moral blindness.

    • #16
  17. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    katievs:More fundamental than good laws are religious and moral values and convictions. I worry that we easily underestimate the effects of millennia of the Judeo/Christian teaching that the human person is made in the Image and Likeness of God. It’s so familiar and so embedded in our culture and collective psyche that we are apt to think it’s normal human thinking. And then we imagine we don’t need the doctrines or the practice of religion to maintain its truth in our laws and behavior.

    Amen. It is easy to disregard 2000 years of slowly built up sensibilities and moral refinement. The distance of the past obscures the harsh and inhumane morality that prevailed in the ancient world. The idea of the inherit value and dignity of human life is not a moral given, and for much of history and most of the world it was an alien concept.

    • #17
  18. The Beard of Avon Inactive
    The Beard of Avon
    @TheBeardofAvon

    There’s some push-back on the original Slate article:

    http://m.snopes.com/chinese-drivers-kill-pedestrians/

    • #18
  19. Roberto Inactive
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    This story recalls to mind a similar incident from some time ago when I was in Mexico City. Apparently municipal bus drivers had been instructed from some in management that if they hit a pedestrian they needed to “finish the job”, they were informed that it was much simpler to resolve an accident in which the victim was dead as opposed to merely injured.

    The whole scandal came to light when one driver attempted to follow this exact procedure after an accident but ended up being mobbed by all his passengers when they realized what he was doing. Perhaps a lesson there about how moral norms are difficult for individuals to sustain in a vacuum but require a community.

    • #19
  20. hokiecon Inactive
    hokiecon
    @hokiecon

    Homo homini lupus est. Man is wolf to man.

    Reading this story placed me on edge. It was a reminder how much of civilized and humane life rests on social consent. In the world of the theologians and philosophers, we each have a moral compass, some infallible device that — if we listen to it — will drive us away from gross evil. Running over small children with SUVs requires no subtle moral judgement. It is murder, albeit with little premeditation. For many people, I suspect, Jiminy Cricket died a very long time ago.

    A Republic such as ours is predicated on a higher moral authority; our rights are reserved by God, not the State. Your post sheds more light on why communism is an abhorrent ideology. One thing I’ve learned in my 23 years of existence: we ALWAYS worship something. In the case of the Chinese, the State is their moral authority, and their God. It’s perverse, and it’s disgusting.

    • #20
  21. Robert Dammers Thatcher
    Robert Dammers
    @RobertDammers

    It does sound a bit snopesy. I knew a version of this story that had the consequences of an accident in certain US state being so terminal to one’s ability to get car insurance that it was better to “finish the job” and drive off leaving no witnesses.

    • #21
  22. donald todd Inactive
    donald todd
    @donaldtodd

    Misthiocracy:

    Richard Anderson: For many people, I suspect, Jiminy Cricket died a very long time ago.

    Is the idea of a non-material judge of behaviour even a thing in Confucian culture?

    Confucianism died under Mao.  That culture no longer exists in China.

    • #22
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