Busted Street Lights and Statutory Law

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During a recent trip to St. Louis, I became quite intrigued by a seemingly mundane phenomenon. The city experienced a fairly intense thunderstorm, which resulted in the temporary breakdown of certain street lights. Upon my arrival at one of these intersections, I was fascinated by the orderliness that characterized motorists’ behavior. In spite of there being no functioning street light, drivers essentially behaved as if they were at a normal four-way stop: the last driver to get to the intersection let all others proceed before proceeding himself. To most of my contemporaries, such an occurrence is normal and to be expected. Few are likely to have considered the profound implications this event has on the viability of anarcho-capitalist legal institutions.
Supporters of centralized legislatures find it difficult to appreciate the importance of institutions in governing human behavior. They often reason that if it weren’t for the ingenious laws their benevolent legislators were crafting and coercively enforcing, society would inevitably descend into chaos. There are myriad examples that one could present to counter such an assertion, in addition to that aforementioned. For example, how does one explain a diner’s decision to tip at a restaurant? Tipping is not legally required and one could certainly save quite a chunk of money if he always stiffs his waiter. To put it succinctly, reciprocity is the motivating factor behind much of the behavior for which government takes credit.
An illuminating, albeit crude, test of this hypothesis’ accuracy would be to seriously question a typical law-abiding citizen on the reasons the latter abstains from murder, rape, theft, etc. He is likely to discover that very little, if any, of the citizen’s abstinence from such behavior is attributable to its statutory illegality. It is far more probable that he understands the value of adhering to social norms that have evolved over time. Murder, rape, and theft are acts that essentially make the perpetrator unable to smoothly function in society. Even if there were no law prohibiting such behavior, the market would give rise to mechanisms that effectively isolate the social deviant from civil society. If these criminals were not put in jail, they would find it nearly impossible to gain employment, set foot on most property, and develop and maintain relationships with others. In the absence of statutory law, the overwhelming majority of people would indubitably recognize the reciprocal benefits of conducting themselves in a socially proper manner. If statutory law magically disappeared, very few would become murderers, rapists, and thieves overnight.
Let us return to our previous example. What reasons did the motorists have for adhering to conventional traffic rules when the street light ceased to operate? Easy: they recognized the danger of a unilateral attempt to speed through the intersection without regard to the other automobiles. Such a decision to “go against the grain” would not only result in the destruction of other drivers’ person and property, but would also adversely affect the renegade motorist.
Legislators, despite their practically incessant rhetoric about their invaluable service to society, are simply unnecessary. At best, they can create laws that formalize informal social institutions. The prohibition of murder, rape, and theft are a prime example of such formalization. At worst, legislators craft laws that are contrary to, or perhaps completely contradict, institutions that have developed over many years. Unfortunately, most laws today are created with virtually no consideration to those norms that have arisen over time to facilitate orderly human interaction. Hence the enormous amount of resources required to enforce the prohibition of narcotics, prostitution, and gambling, the confiscatory tax code, and innumerable other laws. These laws, implemented in a top-down fashion, are simply unnecessary for the functioning of a civilized society and were not concretized informal norms before becoming statutory law. They may even serve as impediments to the maintenance of a peaceable community in some instances. It is due time our legislative oligarchs recognize that they are not benevolent indispensables upholding individual rights, but rather these rights’ most profound threat.

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Alex Schroeder's picture
Columns on STR: 11




Paul's picture

Alex, there are even better examples of the uselessness, if not actual danger, of having traffic signals and signs. Look at the "shared space" experiments all over Europe. Towns are eliminating all sorts of traffic controls and barriers; even curbs are going. The planners themselves have recognized that anarchy works; imagine that!

Here is a fascinating street scene from 1905 in San Francisco that lewrockwell.com posted a while back:

incoserv's picture

I wholly agree with your observations in principle. The problem with modern society is that we have reached a point where people can remain separated from their neighbors, hiding in the crowd.

You said, ". Murder, rape, and theft are acts that essentially make the perpetrator unable to smoothly function in society. Even if there were no law prohibiting such behavior, the market would give rise to mechanisms that effectively isolate the social deviant from civil society..."

The lack of community relationship that has become the norm in our society creates a situation where mutual community accountability becomes impossible. When the murderer, thief, rapist or pedophile can walk amongst us unknown, unrecognized, then there is really nothing to discourage the social deviant from his behavior.

It is only when neighbors know neighbors and when there exists accountability at a community level that this paradigm works.

The answer to this conundrum is, of course, not more legislation and enforcement. The answer is to build communities where there exists true community relationship and mutual, community-wide accountability. How do we do that in our society? Is it even possible, given the status quo of our society's structure and attitudes regarding relationships within a community setting?