Beautiful Traffic and Human Volition

If traffic can work, society can work. This is my revelation after fighting my way through Atlanta in rush hour this morning. The level of mutual trust that is required to make it all come together is awesome to consider. Every driver controls what could either be transportation convenience or a killing machine. The prospect for deadly pileups and mass death is constant. And yet such results are actually rare. Mostly people get where they are going.

Human volition is the whole key, and self interest (getting to where you want to be faster) is the universal goal. Instead of chaos, we mostly see an implausible order evolve. At every instant, people are making decisions to advance themselves but in a way that is least dangerous to themselves, which requires a certain level of cooperation with others.

Norms emerge. Tradeoffs ensue. Nonverbal cues take on huge significance. There are micro-punishments in the form of horn honks and little acts of courtesy taking place constantly. You can’t script this stuff. You can’t make rule books detailed enough. In the end, you have to trust human decision making. The results are imperfect and constantly adaptive. It’s a little society that shouldn’t work but, in the end, it does.

This morning, it was rush hour in Atlanta, and I needed to turn right after I left the main highway. There was only one lane and it was backed up half a mile. The devil on my shoulder told me to stay in the middle lane and just drive, taking the chance that someone sweet who is closer to the intersection would let me in line.

As I got closer, I noticed that bumpers were closer together than I had hoped. I started inching my way in but a number of drivers were onto my game and refused to let me in. I can’t blame them. I was driving contrary to the established norm, effectively trying to cut in line while feigning a certain naivete about it. But as cars behind me that were being blocked started honking, a driver in the right turn lane took pity on me and let me in.

I inched my way in and turned, beating probably 30 people to my goal. I got away with it. I’m not proud of it. I cut corners in a way that was unnecessary and even a bit rude. Other drivers were not oblivious. Some stood their ground on principle. But one decided to give in a bit if only to keep the traffic functioning. She gave up a bit of her own interest in the interest of the whole.

I’ve deconstructed the scene in slow motion but these kinds of micro-dramas occur millions of times in the course of rush hour in every major city in the world. We hardly think about them. Making such judgments, ongoing, instantly, continually, is what it means to be an experienced driver. They are part of the tacit knowledge of how we manage our lives.

If you had no confidence in the capacity of humans to manage their own lives, and for order to emerge out of that, you would never allow such a thing to exist in the first place. In fact, given the ethos in government today, there is virtually no chance that government would ever have permitted such a system. Think of it: a huge flat space with painted lines and metal contraptions operated by individuals hurling back and forth at top speeds. It’s insane. But it works. It works because human society works.

On a hangout the other day, Andreas Antonopoulos told me about a case from London in the 1860s about which I knew nothing. Vehicles first emerged on the scene. The Parliament panicked, figuring that these terrible machines were capable of ruining the whole of life. The results were the Locomotive Acts and the Red Flag Act.

They limited speeds to 4 miles per hour. A person with a red flag had to run in front to alert others to the coming disaster. These acts were the first to establish vehicle registration and drivers’ licenses. They were brought about by a government that didn’t trust the capacity of people to manage technology. The result was that Great Britain put itself out of the running in terms of automotive innovation. That happened in the U.S. instead, the one-time land of laissez faire.

Today of course car regulation is completely out of control. It’s so bad that people have turned to building their own cars just so that they can own something that looks cool without having to buy and direct import from Italy. The obsession with safety is supposedly the driving concern, but this is ridiculous. Spend a few minutes driving in any major city and you realize that safety concerns cannot be addressed by coerced tweaks. The entire structure of highways and the right of individuals to control their cars at all are the major safety concern — at least, this is what it would appear from the outset looking in.

And speaking of innovation, the prospect of driverless cars now awaits, and these offer the chance for authentically improving safety. Will the government stop them through endless hectoring and belligerence? It can slow down development but they are coming regardless. As much as I love the way the potential chaos of the highways can lead to authentic order, there’s always an improvement to be made.

In order to experience this improvement, however, there is really only one path forward, however crazy it may sound. You have to allow chaos in order to realize order.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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4 comments

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  • Great article Jeff, giving you a heads up though I believe you meant to say 1860 instead of 1960 in regards to the case in London.

  • Great article Jeff, giving you a heads up though I believe you meant to say 1860 instead of 1960 in regards to the case in London.

  • Good lord, that image gave me an upset stomach. I think I would feel compelled to start cycling if that was my commute.

  • Good lord, that image gave me an upset stomach. I think I would feel compelled to start cycling if that was my commute.

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