Saint Louis University

Town Halls and Cooperation by Brett Jones

Often when we talk about the democratic processes in this country, most discussion dissects politics at the national or international level. Occasionally there are conversations, particularly in the United States, about the state level, but even rarer are conversations discussing local level politics, such as cities, townships, and small towns. This is most likely because the smaller one goes, the less people that are affected by the particular policies and political decisions. However, these decisions made by local politicians can be some of the most poignant in the daily lives of the people they’re governing when compared to the state or national level. This is something that I witnessed first hand when I attended a public city council meeting for Maplewood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. I’ll outline what in particular was discussed at the meeting I attended, and how this relates to Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes, in particular the second chapter.

The City of Maplewood Town Hall

As stated earlier, the town hall meeting which I attended was at the city hall of Maplewood, Missouri, and took place on Tuesday, February 12th, 2019, at 7:30 pm. The city is run by a city council as well as the mayor, who is part of said council. This body is what makes policies for the city: a small and streamlined process when compared to higher levels of government. There was an agenda of which copies were able to be picked up by any attendees to the town hall. However, most of these were just formalities: the entire town hall only took about 30 minutes to complete, and a vast majority of that time was taken up by a specific issue on the agenda which will be the focus of the analysis. However, something else of note was at the beginning there is an opportunity for any resident of the town to speak to the city council given that they vocally provide their name and address, described on the agenda as the “Public Forum”. One short statement was made during this time period, and it was for this person to show their support for the upcoming amendment on the agenda which would occupy the majority of the meeting.

So, what was this amendment about? This was the 13th and last amendment on the agenda, which was meant to revise an ordinance that provided 4 valet parking spaces to a local restaurant, “Elmwood Restaurant”, to also allow these spots to serve as loading zones for two other restaurants, “Strange Donuts” and “Tiffany’s Diner”. The reasoning behind this is because when trucks would come to deliver products to these two latter restaurants, they would create an unsafe driving scenario where cars would not be able to see past the trucks. The loading zone designation was meant to alleviate this. There was debate by numerous parties involved whether this should be passed and even whether valet spots should be reduced to two. In the end however, the amendment was tabled, and nothing was passed.

The Science of Cooperation

How does this city council meeting and the exchange about parking laws in Maplewood relate to the writings of Joshua Greene? Greene writes about morality in the age of competing moralities, ideologies and societies. While the main focus of his writing is on the tragedy of common-sense morality (societies fight not because one society lacks morality but rather both have incompatible visions of what moral society should be), Greene also writes about cooperation between parties on a smaller scale that is applicable to something like a town hall. The goal of people, in life and in politics, is to achieve their goals. When two people or groups are set at odds with each other, it would make sense for each party to act selfishly against each other. This is not what we see in reality however, as there is a multitude of scenarios where people are willing to cooperate with each other.  Greene specifically mentions six scenarios where one would see cooperation: not all, but some being relevant in this scenario.

Obviously, we did not exactly see cooperation at this particular town hall since the amendment was tabled for the following meeting. However, there was an attempt for cooperation between the restaurants asking for a loading zone and the council. One of these motivations could have been “Reputation”. As Greene puts it, humans are sensitive to the perception of others. Say if the city council came to a conclusion on the valet parking case that was against established norms or precedent, they could be judged for it. This transitions into another motivation for cooperation, albeit somewhat unlikely, “direct reciprocity”. This is cooperation when parties are afraid of the retaliation of the other party if they don’t cooperate. The city council coming to an unsatisfactory conclusion to lead to a suit. This could also be considered as another one of Greene’s reasons for cooperation, “indirect reciprocity”. Indirect reciprocity is cooperation due to fear of retaliation from a third party, which in this case would be a county or state court. Lastly, attempt to cooperate could be due to “concern for others”. This reason is somewhat self-explanatory: the city council likely wishes to solve this parking issue because they legitimately care about the lives of the constituency and the safety of drivers on the road, who are currently being put into an unsafe driving scenario when loading trucks are present. All in all, Greene’s explanations for cooperation, while originally meant as an introduction to approach the issue of cooperating societies, are so universal that they can be applied to the local level as well.

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