Most drivers focus on the fact that a green light gives them the right of way, regardless of what is around them. Green gives them the legal right to drive forward. However, it doesn’t guarantee that doing so will be safe.
Traffic and LibertyIn the 1960s, when libertarianism as a political outlook was just emerging, people made lots of fun of their obsession with laws and rules. Those people said that instead of saving civilization from barbarians, we spent all our time kvetching about the stop sign down the street.
It is a funny caricature. But every caricature contains some truth. Stop signs and traffic lights, on public property and enforced by agents of the state, can, in fact, have grimly coercive features. I rolled through one once, got a ticket, forgot to pay it, and found myself arrested during a Sunday brunch. As I languished in jail, I was given a poignant illustration of the maxim that every law is ultimately enforced at the point of a gun.
With shared space and no formal rules, everyone stays on the move but with a sense of navigating obstacles. This can have the effect of causing traffic overall to navigate the space better.
Consider the implications of the American system of red lights and green lights. How many times have you had a clear lane with a red light that suddenly turns green? We naturally think that this means that we are safe to step on the gas. If there were no light at all, we would approach the situation very differently, looking out if anything could come our way.
It's Not Just DrivingThe big lesson here is that evolving patterns of adaptive behavior are more socially functional than laws and signs. In other words, the more that systems are structured to elicit the decentralized intelligence of drivers, the more likely they are to serve human welfare.
That’s the broader point about this microcosm that has gigantic implications about the macrocosm. If street intersections function better without top-down management and imposition, what about the rest of the social order? There are are other forms of accidents, wrecks, and pileups going on every day in the business world, all due to too much coercive management rather than trusting people to figure things out on their own.
F.A. Hayek’s main point against central planning is that it is impossible for minds operating outside the system to outthink the decentralized knowledge that is embedded in the social process of discovery, with its constantly changing conditions, multitudinous minds at work, and huge diffusion of plans. What emerges in a state of freedom are adaptive institutions and rules of thumb that make society function better than laws and legislation.
The gradual realization of a better way to manage traffic has implications that go far beyond how well cars navigate the intersection down the street. It should tell us something much larger: Liberty always works better than social and economic engineering managed from legislatures and bureaucracies. It’s not just about “edge friction”—it’s about life philosophy.