When Seattle Weekly editor-in-chief Knute Berger called my family “moochers” for not owning a car, it got me thinking.
On the face of it, “moochers” is a ridiculous thing to call us. We pay for our transportation, just like everybody else. And because my family now drives about 7 percent as much as is typical for a family like ours, we’re no longer mooching off of future generations—burning their oil while ruining their climate. So, aren’t we actually among the non-moochers?
When I saw all the heat, venom, and profanity that Berger’s column unleashed in the blogosphere, however, I realized there’s a deeper issue inside the word “moocher.” If there weren’t, no one would have cared.
And I’ve got an idea of why this label has such emotional valence. I believe it’s because cars operate in two economies.
Find this article interesting? Support more research like this with a gift!
They operate in the cash economy, where you pay for them in dollars. They also operate in the gift economy, where you pay for them in favors—basically, rides exchanged.
When my family decided in March not to replace our Volvo for at least a year, we were only thinking about the practical implications. We were thinking about dollars and safety and bus routes and walking distances.
But we quickly collided with the face of the gift economy: other parents.
The thing about parenting is that it’s best done in groups, so you can share with others. This sharing operates largely on the gift economy. That is, parents do favors for each other. The most routine favor they give—the currency of parenting—is the ride. I give your kid a ride to practice; you give mine a ride home. You bring your kid over to play; I drive her home again.
The swapping of rides is a convenience and a practicality, of course. But it’s also a form of community building. In fact, anthropologists regard the reciprocal doing of favors as not just a form of community building but as the essence of community building. That’s because humans, like other primates, seem to be programmed to honor the norm of reciprocity, which Stanford social psychologist Deb Gruenfeld defines as “a powerful and pervasive social rule that compels us to treat others as they have treated us. For example, when others have done us a favor, we feel that we ‘owe’ them one in return.”
When the bonds of mutual reciprocity are thick and stretch in many directions, you have a strong community—one that’s high in social capital. And you’ve got the feeling, as a parent, that many hands are there to support you. People chip in to help you when bad luck strikes, and you do the same for others.
But subtract the car from this equation, and you’re suddenly out of currency for the most basic exchanges. When we first went carless, for example, Amy and I found that our pre-existing credits—favors we’d done over time—all came rushing to our aid. Our community aimed to rescue us from carlessness. One family offered: “Do you want to take our second car for a week or two?” One family contemplated giving us an old car they’d inherited.
Then, after we declined these offers by explaining that we have FlexCar when we need it and that we’re figuring out ways to live without driving much, reactions differed.
Some families have stepped up, hero-like, and insisted on doing all the driving themselves: “You shouldn’t have to pay for a car, just to take the kids to rehearsal. I’ll drive both ways. I don’t mind.” But we don’t want to accept favors that we can’t reciprocate. We don’t want to accumulate social debts and feel beholden to others. And we suspect that such heroism would lead to resentment and withdrawal before long.
Other families—more of them—have pulled back, uncertain how to interact with us because we don’t hold the currency. They become a little shy toward us. A little awkward. And feeling this way, they often take the path of least resistance, which is to swap rides with someone else instead. Sadly, that leaves us, and our kids, out of the community.
To guard against heroic over-giving and shy withdrawal, we have been trying to become more assertive about alternative exchanges, bartering child care and other favors for rides when a ride is necessary. And this assertiveness typically works, when we can muster the courage to take such social risks. Despite the ambiguity (How many hours of child care are worth one ride to a sleepover?), other parents are receptive to other forms of exchange, and these more-complicated exchanges build community just as quickly as ride swapping.
Lacking a car, Amy and I have been forced to do more asking and more-creative reciprocating. Sometimes, this necessity becomes a virtue: more community, more time with neighbors.
We’re not the only ones who have noticed. One of Amy’s buddies reports, “I love that you don’t have a car. I see Amy a lot more.” They get groceries together. The friend drives; Amy buys the lunch. They both enjoy the outing.
You could call it mooching. Or you could call it friendship.
You thought this post was venomous? 🙂
For the past 5 years my wife and I have been a one-car family. Since I volunteer building and maintaining hiking trails, I would frequently need to “mooch” a ride on weekends so my wife could use the car for other purposes. Even though I was always liberal with gas payments (and even wear and tear payments) I still always felt like I was “mooching” since I was not willing to reciprocate rides.Sadly, we are no longer a one-car family. We purchased a used 2002 Prius to use for urban driving while our Subaru continues it’s duty as a trailhead car. We still drive far less than the average but now the feeling of being a “moocher” has been replaced with the liberal guilt of owning two cars. You just can’t win.
No, David. My mistake. I mixed up the links, meaning to reserve a mild term for yours. Sorry.Matt, trying to live now in the future we’re striving to create is bound to have some discomforts, I suppose.
My hat goes off to you. I have 5 grwon children and I just can’t envision how I could have done without a car. We nuked the TV for 5 years, and we walked a lot, but grocery shoppin? It boggles the mind!
As a parent who spent 9 years with one car, two day cares and two jobs between my husband and I, it can be done happily. We chose to put the money we otherwise would have spent on a second car into better daycare for our kids. As for ridesharing, I did it and still do it extensively with co-workers, friends, etc. When we added a second car last summer, one the biggest changes was the loss of camaraderie my husband and I experienced during the rides home from friends/co-workers, friendly riders on the bus. As for mooching, it depends on where you’re at in life. As the parent of tween boys, it has been more of a challenge as they become involved in afterschool activities. However, we end up limiting it to what they can walk or ride their bikes to, or carpool with the coach or other kids. It’s not unusual for people in the more dense neighborhoods to only have one car. Several of my sons friends parents only have one driver or one car so it depends on the neighborhood as well. When we had only one car in Portland, I used to walk to the corner store (6 short blocks away) after work with the boys in their double baby stroller to get a sack of groceries. On the way home the older one would walk with me while the groceries got a ride. We got to know our neighbors better because they saw me walking with the boys on our way home on nice warm evenings. Once, when it snowed, we took the sled to the store – much easier than pushing the stroller.It’s all in how you approach it – make lemonade out of lemons and enjoy the summer breezes along the way.