Optional and A Loser

                                                                                    Luis Rubio

                                                                                    Luis Rubio

A taxi is driven along one of the main arteries of the city, until, suddenly, it stops in its tracks. From a distance it can be seen that traffic at the junction with the branch of one of the city’s “expressways” is practically not moving. The taxi driver looks to the left and observes that, on the other side of the avenue, there is an entrance through which one automobile after another is entering the street. The taxi driver thinks fast and decides to recklessly make the turn and shave a few minutes off his trajectory. The cars coming the other way sound their horns at the driver, reminding him of his maternal ancestry but, in a few minutes, the taxi driver gets his way and handily returns the insult. The taxi driver behaved as many of us do time and again every day when we double park, beep our horn outside a hospital, go down a one-way street in the wrong direction, drive over the speed limit, etcetera. We do it and think we are very smart.

Behind the taxi driver there was another driver on his way to work and who observed the same scenario but who opted to remain in his lane until arriving at the junction, complying with the rules to the letter of the law. The taxi driver gloated over his bad behavior and made fun of the fools waiting in line to merge, while the man in the car behind him got to work late. It turned out to be expensive for the driver who chose to adhere to the traffic rules. This story is not different in any way from that of the exemplary citizen who goes to pay the yearly excise tax on his automobile within the established time limit, while their neighbor puts off going to pay until the last day. The citizen who pays on time later finds out that the local government has awarded a special discount to those who put off their payment. The one opting to follow the rules loses out.

In Mexico compliance with the law is optional, for governors as well as for citizens. Public functionaries decide to either apply the law or change it without the bat of an eye; the worst that can happen to the man-in-the-street for not complying with the law is paying a bribe and later observing, “I got out of it cheap”.  Those who observe the law get there late, pay more and complicate their lives. He who complies with the law is a loser.

In Mexico’s governmental system the law is an instrument that is used when it is convenient for the system: when it satisfies the objectives, usually political, of the functionary-of-the-moment, the law is THE LAW and must be complied with. When a government functionary dislikes what the law exacts, the public servant has two possibilities: one is to ignore it (the most frequent); the other, above all if it is the President or a high-level functionary, is to proceed to modify the law or to promote a new law that adheres to the objective being sought. When President-Elect López Obrador responded to Carlos Slim on the matter of the new airport, his point of departure made it evident that he sees the law as an instrument to adapt to the circumstances: without flinching an eye, he took it upon himself to decide whether he would apply the law or grant Slim the airport as a concession, as if it were his to give. It is not necessary to hold a bidding process, nor for Congress to revise the law or for the process to be transparent. The decision of a sole individual suffices.

None of this is novel or especially revelatory, but it does portray the clash between Mexicans way of being and their pretensions. Not long ago I watched a highly indignant driver, sounding his horn and shouting at a lady who had parked on Reforma Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Mexico City, creating an enormous bottleneck. One cannot just stop like that on Reforma as if it were a private parking lot. The interesting aspect of this was that just two blocks ahead, the same driver who had done the shouting did exactly the same thing. The driver stopped on a dime, clicked on his emergency blinkers and got out of the car to buy a newspaper. When someone beeped the horn at him, as he himself had done a few moments earlier, his body language was challenging and then threatened: “Want a fight?” He appeared ready to whip out a gun. Mexicans are indignant when another violates the regulations but it appears wholly natural to each of them to repeat that very action when convenient or when it serves their purpose.

Skipping over the procedural hurdles is part of Mexicans’ DNA and they do it every day. The case of the transit issue is perhaps one of the most conspicuous cases or, at least, the most visible, but it is merely a sample of the way we are. On one occasion I attended a session of the U.S. Congress with various Mexican legislators. The police officer at the entrance had a list of the visitors and requested an ID from each of us to check against his list.  One of our group moved up close and, with a tone of authority, told the officer, “I am a Senator of the Mexican Republic”, as if this mattered at all to the official responsible for who enters and exits. In English, the police officer answered in the most natural but unmistakable manner: “If you want to enter you must show your identification.”

The most successful and developed countries stick to the rules and do not dwell even for an instant on the alternative: the rules and the laws are not optional: they are obligatory. Those countries’ public servants have no doubts that the law is what lies within the code and that compliance is obligatory without the uttering of a word: it is not something optional. That is what renders equity and development possible. Someday, we Mexicans will have to decide whether we want a country that is developed and what that implies, beginning with complying with the law and making it be complied with. In the meantime, only the fools (there are better words for this) will comply with it.