NIMBYs and duties

How would you end this statement: “I’ll hope I do my fair share…”: “…and not a penny more!” or “and a little extra”? And how do you get assigned a ‘fair share’ of your society’s work and sacrifice?
Teaching about NIMBYs, facilities regarded as advantageous to a large jurisdiction overall but opposed by nearby neighbors, I find the following parable useful:

Driving down a northern country road in the dead of winter, a citizen of Grover’s Corners rolls his window down to throw an apple core out and hears a cry for help.  He stops, and realizes a child has fallen through the ice of the pond next to the road.  Without thinking about it, he rushes into freezing water up to his armpits and rescues the child.
A half hour later, the familiar scene: flashing red lights, EMTs and police on the scene, and our rescuer sitting on a log, shivering, wrapped in a blanket.  A TV reporter pushes a microphone into his face: “How do you feel about saving that little girl?”

This story has two endings:

The hero says,

I. “I’ll tell you how I feel: I’m furious, and I’m going to sue the town, the police, whoever owns that pond, and her parents. I was so scared, I almost drowned in there, I’m going to catch my death of cold, my clothes are ruined.  Why did I have to be the one to pull her out? It’s not my job, I can’t even swim. And now I’m late for dinner! I’ll tell you what I think, it’s completely unfair, just because I happened to be driving by minding my business. Next time I’ll just keep driving and not be such a chump.  Nobody else even got their feet wet!”

II. “Well, anyone would have done the same: I’m just so grateful I could help…it’s lucky I didn’t come by ten minutes later or earlier.”

Most people think the first ending is unimaginable, impossible, absurd.  No-one would say such a thing in such a situation. When, for no particular reason, you are the one put by chance in a position to create value for others (especially to avoid injury) at some cost to yourself, there’s a widely held view that you have a duty to help, even if, as is true in most states, you have no legal obligation to do so.  Curiously, and this is the central mystery of many NIMBY episodes, it would not be surprising to find the selfless lifesaver (second version, of course), in a town meeting vigorously opposing the state’s proposal to site a hazardous waste landfill in Grover’s Corners’ uniquely dense and extensive clay soil deposit, a facility that would protect dozens or hundreds of nameless people across the state from toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, as completely unfair. Of course it’s unfair (though it could be made more fair by compensating the locals for their real costs, especially property value hits); it’s the only such clay formation in the state. So?

A month ago, I viewed LeBron James as being in a similar situation: he didn’t ask for the job in Cleveland, but he found himself by chance in a position to create a lot of value for the community he grew up in, a town and region very much back on its heels, and that thought of him as a local boy, by giving up a chance to play in Miami on a better team. Mark rapped my knuckles for this, saying James owed nothing to his team or his town. I think I was right and Mark was wrong: James’ behavior was completely legal and deplorable, “not a penny more” morality.

Now we have the spectacle of opposition to an Islamic community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site that will impose some cost on 9-11 victims’ families and friends, and many who suffered in and after the attack, purely through their consciousness of the existence of the center. This is because (even though fifteen times more Moslems were victims of the attack than carried it out) all the perpetrators acted in the name of Islam. New Yorkers didn’t ask for an inclusive, outreaching, anti-hate Moslem institution, but the proposal fell upon them like random lightning, giving them the chance to incur some cost (of personal painful reflection) to create value for their community.  Some of them are whining about how unfair this is, but some have the “and a little extra” instinct, and understand that being a mensch at the irreducible price of sometimes being a chump is a good deal. I don’t think it’s even a close call which side I would want to be on, and if unfair opportunity lightning strikes me, I sure hope I go into the pond, and in a New York minute. Duties you might acquire by being in a place at a time, that you didn’t ask for and no-one else has, that you can duck with no legal punishment, are still duties; indeed, they may even be blessings.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

6 thoughts on “NIMBYs and duties”

  1. Hello Michael

    Very interesting post and I am quite sympathetic to any call for a conception of morality that goes beyond self-interest. I am not sure the examples in the post are precisely parallel however, which may make this issue seem easier to resolve than it really is. The saved child is a case of a stranger paying a transitory one time only small cost to provide an enduring, enormous benefit to another person. Many NIMBY cases revolve around people being asked to pay an enduring cost for benefits to others that are smaller than being saved from immediate and certain death.


  2. "When, for no particular reason, you are the one put by chance in a position to create value for others (especially to avoid injury) at some cost to yourself, there’s a widely held view that you have a duty to help, even if, as is true in most states, you have no legal obligation to do so."

    I think you're generalizing the rather specific instance of saving a life, and a child's life at that, way beyond reason, into some kind of widely held duty to act like a devoted utilitarian. Which isn't widely held to be a duty… I can't think of any other "creation of value for others" that anybody would be considered obligated to engage in at risk to themselves, uncompensated.

    By the way, do yo live on instant ramen, and send the money to poor families in the third world? If not, given this post, why not? You might not be the only one in a position to do this, but if everybody reasons that way, nobody does it.

  3. I liked the beginning of the post, but I think that the connection to Cordoba House is tenuous. You seem to be taking as a premise the bigots' claim that a community center devoted in significant part to interfaith reconciliation is going to inflict additional pain on those who suffered as a result of islamic-extremist terrorism. Some will, of course, others will be unaffected, many will be comforted. Just as some people feel injured, others unaffected, and many comforted by the rebuilding taking place on the WTC site itself.

    We could go back to your original parable and perhaps change it so that one of the people speaking out against the waste facility is the owner of a local plating factory, and another opposes the facility because it has the wrong combination of letters in its name.

  4. If the imams don't allow homosexuals to marry in the mosque, are we allowed to protest?

  5. Dom wrote: If the imams don’t allow homosexuals to marry in the mosque, are we allowed to protest?

    Yes. Yes you are.

  6. If the Catholics don't allow homosexuals to marry in the church, are we allowed to protest?

    The building of a mosque near the WTC (or anywhere for that matter) does not take way your right to protest…

    But in terms of homosexual marriage, there are innumerable institutions against it, yes, including most mosques.

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