Plato famously imagined utopia to be ruled by philosopher-kings. Though he was democratically elected, Antanas Mockus — who served two terms (1995-96 and 2001-03) as mayor of Bogotá, capital of Colombia — is a professor of philosophy and mathematics. Bogotá in Mockus’s hands didn’t turn into Plato’s fabled Kallipolis, but it did lead to a number of interesting policies that might be variously described as unconventional and awesome.
Prior to Mockus’s reign, traffic deaths in Bogotá were through the roof. Neither drivers nor pedestrians had the good sense to be careful and cooperative in traffic. Cars would drive on red lights and ignore dedicated crossings, while pedestrians would jump into the street where ever they liked, common sense be damned. In his own words, Mockus had believed that writing laws alone could change reality, but soon came to realize the potential of what he calls “moral power” (our individual moral sense) and “cultural power” (what others think of our behavior, essentially). Instead of simply writing out fines to people who behaved recklessly in traffic, he hired mimes. The mimes were placed at busy intersections and instructed to ape jaywalking, driving on red lights, and other thoughtless behavior when they saw it, drawing attention to and mocking it. The mimes couldn’t rely on words, but their audiences would cheer or boo appropriately, creating a social incentive to behave more carefully. Only if the reckless driver or pedestrian didn’t modify their behavior did police intervene with fines and traditional legal measures. And the policy worked. (Another, more Orwellian measure was “virtual policemen”: folding screens with faces painted on them and small slits through which a police officer could be observing; from some sides of an intersection, it would be hard for people to tell if someone was standing behind the screen or not. We’re watching you — possibly.)
Another, more solemn policy to remind people to be careful in traffic was painting stars on the spots where people have been killed in traffic — over a thousand of them.
To combat violence, Mockus started a voluntary disarmament campaign. People who voluntarily delivered their guns to the authorities got small gifts, like food or flowers; the guns were melted and made into thousands of spoons that were given to children, bearing the inscription “I was a gun”. Although only a small portion of the city’s guns were turned in, the publicity surrounding the campaign led to a reduction in the number of homicides.
Instead of instituting legal measures to deal with dishonest taxi drivers, Mockus asked people to call his office if they met a really nice, honest one; he then held a meeting with 150 taxi drivers whom the public had identified as kind and honest, asking them for advice on how to handle their less kind colleagues. The good taxi drivers were named “Knights of the Zebra” (as in zebra stripes, the stripes that indicate crosswalks).
Mockus, like Socrates, believed that basically, people will do the right thing if they know what the right thing is. In another campaign, his office distributed 350,000 cards with thumbs on them and encouraged people to flash “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” to peacefully signal their approval or disapproval of fellow citizens’ behavior. Apparently, the practice of gesturing thumb-up or down to signal moments of kindness or cruelty among strangers stuck, even if the cards did not. I’m sure I’d have felt better about doing something nice, like letting an old lady have my seat on the bus or holding open a door for someone, if whenever I did so, two dozen strangers simultaneously gave me the thumbs-up. Or maybe I’d be really creeped out. Come to think of it, I’m not so sure about that.
Recognizing that men were much more likely to be both the perpetrators and the victims of violence, Mockus instituted La Noche de las Mujeres, a ladies’ night. Men were asked to stay home, or, if they had to go out that night, carry cards signifying their good intentions. The streets were staffed with women police officers, and women reportedly marched through the streets of some neighborhoods, cheering men who were seen staying home or tending children on. There is, on the one hand, something a little iffy about these kinds of treading-morality-down-our-heads exercises, something that feels a little too moralistic for my first-world liberal sensibilities; I mean, men are expected to prove their innocent intentions with feelgood cards issued by the mayor’s office? On the other hand, the values that are being forced on us are so unquestiably good and the methods so much more effective than every other approach that has been tried that I find it hard to fault these initiatives. Violent crime was down 40 percent on La Noche de las Mujeres.
I love the idea and initiative of using art and symbolic gestures to actually change the world. Some of Mockus’s ideas are so absurd that they sound more likely to have come from the Situationists or Improv Everywhere than the mayor of a metropolis; but unlike the Situationists, these symbols and this art aims at changing society from within the Establishment, rather than in opposition to it. There’s something both playful and absurd about placing mimes at intersections to mock careless behavior, and it’s hard not to appreciate the symbolism of Mockus’s “vaccine for violence”, which consists of drawing the face of someone who’s hurt you on a balloon and popping it. According to the Harvard Gazette article, 50,000 people participated in the that campaign. Mockus also managed to convince 63,000 people to pay 10 percent extra in “voluntary taxes”. That’s a feat I’d like to see your average mayor pull off.
It’s not all peachy, of course. The Atlantic tells us Mockus has expanded the city’s public parks; a commenter on a story about Mockus claims that he achieved this by “bulldozed entire neighborhoods”. Mockus’s detractors call him a clown. And it’s hard to completely deny that they’re kind of right about a man who once mooned an auditorium full of art students to get them to quiet down, an act he described as “a part of the resources which an artist can use”. His bid for president gained only a few percent of the vote. But maybe, in the modern world — in any age, perhaps, given the general absurdity of the human condition — clowns are the most fit to lead us. Better a wise clown than a corrupt fool.
You can read more about Mockus and his policies here, here and here. Those articles are basically the research I did for this post, so if I’m terribly off base, I delegate responsibility to the sources (he said, only half joking).