Many of my recent writings on this blog have touched upon the frustrating reality that people in Venezuela have a hard time understanding basic trade-offs. Our collective inability to comprehend that a dollar spent here is a dollar you can’t spend there helps explain, according to this theory, the yawning disconnect between the public policies we need and the ones we have and the public supports.
But can this theory be tested?
One way to do so would be to analyze what happens when Venezuelans DO understand opportunity costs and the problem of the commons. The case that comes to mind is the early days of the Caracas Metro.
If you’re as ancient as I am, you will remember that when the Caracas Metro opened much emphasis was placed on reminding people how to behave. Slogans and rules were spewed out by loudspeakers at a dizzying rate.
One of the things the loudspeakers were constantly haranguing users with was the phrase: “dejar salir es entrar más rápido.” (“Letting people leave the train means you can enter more quickly.”)
This is a good illustration of the problem of the commons. The space and time available to either get in or get out of the train are a scarce resource. If I were interested in only my own well-being, I would squeeze my way in or out as fast as I could.
This, as we know, leads to chaos, and chaos leads to delays.
What the Metro decided to do was hammer people with the notion that by putting our self-serving instincts aside for the common good and letting people get off before we board, we will all be better off. If letting people leave leads to me getting in faster, the trains will run faster and we are all the better. But if we all try to squish in as a bunch of people are trying to get out, gridlock occurs and the trains run slower.
Amazingly, people complied. The result of this campaign was that, for a few years, the Caracas Metro was a shining example of what Venezuela could be if its citizens behaved civilly.
Crucially, the onslaught created a norm. Trying to “free-ride” by sneaking into the carriage while others waited for departing passengers to get off became frowned upon. It wasn’t unusual to find yourself in the receiving end of an angry co-passenger’s retelling of the official line – “ey, tú no sabes que dejar salir es entrar más rápido vale!” A social sanction against free-riding was established and, for a few years, the Caracas Metro was a shining example of what Venezuela could be if its citizens behaved civilly.
Switch now to one of our most pressing problems: the inability to comprehend that by getting free gasoline, the government is wasting huge resources that it could instead use to, I dunno, increase its police force. Wouldn’t it make sense to hammer the point that by getting free gasoline, you are depriving the State of the resources it needs to raise your standard of living?
The Caracas Metro experience gives us hope that Venezuelans can understand this concept.