Deep Thoughts


July 01, 2017

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I have long admired taxi drivers. They are often well-informed and have a clear-eyed view of human nature that is neither cynical nor sentimental. In the days when there were such people as foreign correspondents, many a taxi driver’s opinion of the situation in his country found its way into the columns of the most eminent newspapers.

There is much to learn from taxi drivers. I sometimes take a taxi from the airport in Paris to the center of the city, for example, and I usually learn something of interest from the drivers. It is from them that I learned, on remarking that one of them was not wearing his seat belt, that they are the only car drivers permitted not to wear seat belts. This is so that they may make a quick escape from their clients if need be, especially important for women drivers (who are still a small minority, however). This information is suggestive rather than conclusive: It does not tell us how often Parisian taxi drivers need to avail themselves of their privilege, or whether it causes more deaths than it saves. Only reliable statistical information and a controlled trial (which will never be done) could tell us this. Still, the mere fact that the privilege is thought to be necessary or prudent tells us something about the times in which we live.

“To return from Europe to Africa in search of freedom might seem at first a quixotic thing to do.”

One of the only two people I have met in France who admitted to having voted Front National in the recent presidential election was a taxi driver, an immigrant from Vietnam (the other was a Haitian domestic worker). This is despite the fact that millions voted for Le Pen, suggesting that taxi drivers might have a vocation for honesty. In the first round, the driver voted for Mélenchon, the far-left candidate; in the second round for Le Pen. They were the only candidates against the status quo, he said, which was now so deeply unsatisfactory to him. He would not vote for Macron because he found his sudden rise suspect and probably paid for by shadowy people who wanted to keep everything the same; in other words, he was somebody’s puppet. Having reached the age at which I do not automatically consider the term “status quo” one of disapprobation, having less to hope than to fear from change, I did not necessarily agree with his reasoning. But I do not live the hard, grinding life, or experience the frustrations, of a Parisian taxi driver in the middle age of his life, when all he can look forward to is a pension no larger than it would have been had he never worked.

Most revealing, however, were two Parisian taxi drivers of African origin who said they were planning to return to Africa for the sake of their freedom. To return from Europe to Africa in search of freedom might seem at first a quixotic thing to do, completely counterintuitive, for is not Africa associated in our minds with tyranny, oppression, corruption, and poverty? It is true that the immediate inheritors of colonial power, the bizarre dictators who were the principals in what Byron called (and said that he longed to see) “Africa’s first dance of freedom,” are now of the past, having gone the way of all flesh; but even if tyranny has become a little less evident than it was formerly, arbitrary rule, official exactions, and so forth are still prevalent on the continent, and only a few countries have what we think of as proper elections.

But for most people, there is more to personal freedom than an ability to denounce the government without fear of retaliation, a lack of censorship, and a vote once every four or five years. Indeed, for most people most of the time these things are hardly of the first importance. Much more important to them is how self-directed they feel, and how much they may do as they choose in their daily lives. This may vary according to their position in society.

For these taxi drivers (admittedly a small sample, but ideas are not interesting or even important in exact proportion to the numbers who have them), Western societies now have islands of license in an ocean of regulation. In their working lives they were hemmed in, badgered, and constrained by regulation, supervision, surveillance, and mistrust. However hard they might work (and even that was subject to rules), they would never be much better off; but to change work was almost impossible, and to start a business of their own in France, while not literally impossible, required a kind of exhausting doggedness.