The Narrow Passage.
Tool transactions result in both buyer and seller increasing their idleness. But there are other transactions which always result in some loss.
If two men meet in a narrow passage, one of them may have to retrace his steps to the mouth of the passage, and let the other pass before continuing himself. One of them will proceed uninterrupted, while the other is delayed. Given all other things equal, which one should suffer the delay?
The answer here must be that the option of least net delay should be taken. If they meet three-quarters of the way down the passage, then if the man who has gone three-quarters of the length retreats, then he has to walk twice this distance - one and a half passage lengths - to return to the place where the two men met. If the man who has gone one-quarter of the way down the passage retreats, then he must travel an extra half length of the passage. If both walk at the same speed, then the loss to society - both men - is less if the man who has only gone a quarter way down the passage retreats.
If they both meet in the middle, then it makes no odds which of them retreats. If they start arguing over who should retreat, then, if the passage is short, they both waste even more time.
In this case, one man is delayed. But if he regularly uses the passage, then the chances are that on average, in half the encounters he will have to give way, and in the other half he will be given way to, and the delays in using this passage will fall equally on everyone.
The circumstance changes where a one man walks more slowly than the other. If a slowly walking old man has got one quarter of the way down the passage, and a running youth has got three-quarters of the way down, then if the youth turns back, he is delayed by the time it takes for the old man to walk down the passage, plus the time it takes for him to run three-quarters of the way down the passage. If the old man turns back, then he is delayed by the time it takes him to walk one-quarter the length of the passage, and back again - and the youth is delayed by some time as he follows the slowly walking old man as he retreats back down the passage. In this case, the more slowly the old man walks, and the faster the youth runs, the greater is the likelihood that the least delay will result if the youth retreats. For the most part, the least delay results if the youth defers to the old man.
Further complications may be introduced. One man may be in a hurry, and every second of delay may entail some far greater loss, in which case his urgency to proceed without delay may often override ordinary conventions. Those with urgent business have priority over those with less urgent business. Or one man may be out for a stroll, in which case he is not delayed in any way by retracing his steps, and will readily defer. And the general rule is that the idle should defer to the busy.
Since people of different ages and sexes move at different speeds, with older people moving more slowly than younger ones, and women more slowly than men, and the sick more slowly than the healthy, a general rule that youth should defer to age, men should defer to women, and the healthy should defer to the sick, can be drawn. A general rule is itself a device that speeds a decision: one cannot expect people to perform complex calculations of the relative demerits of one course of action or another, not only because such calculations entail a further delay, but also because the relative speeds of the two individuals and the point at which they meet in the passage are not known with any exactitude.
Since this rule actually roughly corresponds to accepted good manners, it may be suggested that such manners did not arise because older people are of higher status, but simply because this rule generally minimized delays. But while such rules would generally be effective, they would not necessarily always have the desired effect. Simple rules of thumb work in most cases, but not in all cases.
One problem with general rules is that, once adopted, the reasons for adopting them may be forgotten. Then the rule itself becomes the measure of appropriate behaviour rather than the outcome of appropriate behaviour. A kind of ethical legalism appears, in which rules, codes of conduct, laws, and the like, are seen as the primary constituents of morality, rather than the consequences of moral behaviour. Instead of being a useful rule, it becomes customary, habitual behaviour. The result of this is that if a society changes in some way which makes the rule redundant, continued use of the habitual rule may actually result in harm to society. Thus, for example, if the narrow passageway discussed earlier comes to be used by people on horseback, then it does not matter whether their riders are young or old, men or women, sick or healthy, but rather how fast their horses move. A quite different general rule should be framed that considered the characteristics of horses. General rules need to be kept in good repair, and modified or rescinded as circumstances change.
In the case of the narrow passage, which may simply be a doorway, the amounts of time lost are usually very small, and over time will even out. Healthy young boys are always the losers, according to the general rule adopted - but, in time, healthy young boys become slow or sick old men.
In principle, it could be argued that the case of the narrow passage is one in which whoever retreats suffers a loss, and rather than wait upon time to even out the losses, equalization could be achieved by whoever retreats being recompensed with money by whoever advances. If one person loses 20 seconds, then if he is paid 10 seconds by the other, both will end up losing 10 seconds - assuming that the time it takes to transfer the money is negligible. Then young boys would be regularly paid to defer, and the elderly would pay wherever they walked.
Such a passage, in a busy town, might cause considerable delays. Simply by watching the passage, and counting the time lost to each person who was forced to retreat, an average cost per day to the entire community could be estimated. If the cost of widening the passage was sufficiently low, then widening would produce a saving in time for the whole community.
Author: Chris Davis
Last edited: 18 Nov 1998