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Paved Roads Make Awesome Lego Spaceships

In the "Cult of Escapism": Paved Roads Make Awesome Lego Spaceships

Friday, January 27, 2012

Paved Roads Make Awesome Lego Spaceships

(Another volunteer friend and I have debated whether receiving a paved road is more positive or more negative out here in rural Panama. As such, below is my argument FOR roads. Tomorrow, I will post my friend's counterargument. By the way, I cannot disclose the actual name of my community on this blog, so I'm referring to it as MyTown.)

MyTown sits at the end of a five year old paved road and has since become, according to local expert metaphor-makers, the New York of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. That is, it is one of the biggest and most developed towns in the Comarca and a regional hub of commerical, governmental, and social activity. While there are always drawbacks to being added to a national infrastructure, MyTown shows that the benefits outweigh the costs and that a paved road is the best way to encourage laissez-faire development.

In economics, they say laissez-faire, or 'hands off' when talking about an open market. The argument states that the market will take its own natural course and that the natural course will eventually become the most efficient. Part of the reasoning is that this open market empowers the individual to shape it.

A road may begin as a government-led development project (which is inherently anti-laissez-faire), but once the road is complete, the recipients can use it however they want. Empowerment. It's like dumping a box of assorted Legos out in front of a child and walking away – you haven't told them what to do or how, but suddenly they have many new possibilities. Some kids will go back to sucking on their fingers; others will use the Legos for a while and then get bored, neglect the Legos, and return to sucking on their fingers; and some will figure out how to build an awesome-rocking spaceship.

MyTown has seen many improvements since the road's inception. Now only two hours drive from both David and San Felix (as opposed to multiple days walking), MyTown and its surrouding towns have better access to government services in health, education and infrastructure projects. As such, MyTown now has an effective maternity clinic, religious centers, multiple cooperatives, widespread latrine use and a functioning aqeduct. I see more solar panels every month and in just over a year, have witnessed the arrival of a cell phone signal (booyah), cold soda in stores (double booyah) and the creation of more small businesses than I can count. This is organic, hands-off community development at its most effective and it would not have happened without the paved road.
Some argue that a road accelerates negative change beyond its natural pace: more brain drain, better access to harmful drugs, exploitation by outsiders, etc. While I can't deny that the pace is accelerated, I argue that the pace of positive change (i.e. access to health, education, etc.) accelerates just as quickly. Furthermore, the negative acceleration argument implies a lack of choice.

The road doesn't force anyone to drink sugar coffee with every meal and ruin their teeth. It doesn't make intelligent people leave the community. No one has to give up susbsistence farming and start a small business, but at least now they can do something other than subsistence farm, if they want. A choice. Laissez-faire.

Many in the MyTown area have indeed chosen to continue subsistence farming, while many now mix their income sources between farming, odd jobs and personal small businesses. No one curses the road or claims that the negative aspects of the community come from its creation. They benefit from their regional position as a hub and welcome further development.

Five years ago, the government dumped out a box of Legos in MyTown and walked away. Some recipients ignored it, some rejected it, but many picked up the opportunity and have been building spaceships ever since. They were not forced to do anything, but rather empowered to choose to improve their lives. We have since seen many such improvements in a short time and I anticipate more awesomer, more rockinger spaceships hereafter.


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