Traffic Laws and Spontaneous Order

Column by Robert Taylor.

Exclusive to STR

When making the case for a truly free and stateless society built on the principles of the voluntary market order, one of the most common objections is the production and maintenance of roads. Roads, say the statists, are a public good that are essential for transportation and commerce and must be socialized, regulated, and controlled.

It is true that roads and streets are incredibly important to the division of labor and the supply of goods. They are also one of the most intimate and obvious examples of human interaction. They are a complex network of competing and coordinating interests, like cells travelling through veins or solar systems in a galaxy.

Yet they are also one of the most heavily regulated and controlled aspects of our lives. In any drive through a major metropolitan city, one will undoubtedly come across a multitude of signs, colors, arrows, prohibitions, and most importantly, traffic jams.

Are clogs in traffic related to how our roads are bastions of miniature Soviet-style centrally-planned dictates?  Fit Roads thinks so.  It's an organization that "opposes regulation which contrives conflict, usurps our judgement, dictates our behaviour, and deprives us of choice. Based on a trust in human nature rather than an obsession with controlling it, FiT could launch an era of peaceful co-existence on our roads."

In a very interesting experiment, Fit Roads documents a town in England (near Bristol) that removed traffic lights from a heavily trafficked intersection that had been known for long delays and collisions.

The results of this trial should not surprise anyone familiar to libertarian theory and the free market. "I didn't think it would work without the lights. But everyone is taking their time and they were sensible...You usually wait 20 minutes to get through, but not tonight. 5 minutes to move through, I timed it," says one woman being interviewed. "This is an absolute surprise," says another interviewee, echoing the general sentiment. "Not to see traffic stalled and pumping out fumes all day long...this is an absolute pleasure."

Pedestrians, too, are far safer on this anarchic intersection. "It's less congested and easier to cross as well," recalls a young student.

Although this may seem counter-intuitive and not self-evident, it's fairly easy to see why this experiment worked. Whenever the imposition of top-down coercion through regulation, controls, and prohibitions is removed from societal interaction, spontaneous order tends to kick in. Without orders from above, drivers have an incentive and interest to look out for their own safety. This resulted not in drivers speeding, as our state-soaked minds might assume, but in drivers slowing down at intersections, looking both ways, and using gestures to navigate nearly perfectly.

Without the traffic lights, pedestrians and drivers quickly developed a more symbiotic relationship. On typical roads, drivers see pedestrians as roadblocks or obstacles to their destination. When pedestrians are free to cross at their leisure, they are seen as part of the road--drivers without vehicles.

And this concept isn't limited to to this small town in England. In European cities, traffic signs litter every intersection. When some cities began removing them, traffic flowed freer and smoother, accidents declined, and smog was reduced.

Downtown Hanoi of all places, in a country that used to be communist, has much freer roads and transportations than we do. And this is typical of many Asian countries, which are quickly propelling themselves into prosperity. At first, the intersections seem chaotic and hectic without traffic laws, but the principles of the market order quickly emerge. The inherent self-interest of individuals keeps them from colliding with others, and trust in humans is valued over trust in some computerized, coercive authority.

The evidence, as well as logic and an understanding of human cooperation, suggests that when it comes to roads and traffic, controls and regulations have the exact opposite results from what they were intended to do. They strip us of our ability to be considerate, for socially responsible behavior, of our ability to make choices, of our humanity.

But the important lesson to be drawn from these experiments in anarchy and the self-regulation of stateless human interaction is how these concepts can be applied universally. If drivers controlling tons of steel at their fingertips not only don't need, but thrive, without top-down regulation, why not in other realms of society as well?

When we remove the coercive state apparatus from society, we gain (or regain) our sense of community with each other. Strangers lose their informality. Distrust and disharmony give way to a more humane, horizontal, and decentralized order. It puts power and control into the hands of individuals where it belongs, cultivating the responsible and harmonious relationships that our state overlords claim to provide with their violent impositions of top-down order.

Just look at all of the elements in society that all of us hold dear that were once under the purview of the state that are now part of the anarchy of everyday life. Marriage and intimate relationships used to be assigned and arranged. Without a Department of Technology, the free market provides innovation and production on an unimaginable scale. Language has bloomed, with diverse accents and dialects, from the bottom-up. Science has progressed by applying research, evidence, and theories to an objective standard (the scientific method) that has no coercive or legal enforcement. All of these areas of society are dominated by constantly changing rules, lightning quick adaptations, enforcement, and acceptance by voluntary means alone.

This is because the heart and soul of order is anarchy and freedom. Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order, Pierre-Joseph Proudhoun famously noted. Thomas Paine argued that a "great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man." In others words, order--and with it, law--comes from commerce and mutually beneficial cooperation. Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke favorably of the peace of the largely stateless "Wild, Wild, West."

By understanding the anarchic nature of order in our lives, it becomes easy to see through the spider web of state laws and regulations that stifle progress, wealth, peace, and civilization and the whole statist system begins to collapse under the weight of its own bureaucracy. If drivers can wind through traffic nearly effortlessly without state regulations, then why shouldn't individuals have the right to choose what food or drugs they consume, how to raise and educate their children, how to plan for their retirement, how to spend their income, or the proper amount of insurance they need?

A stateless order, in an age dominated by large and violent nation-states, may seem counter-intuitive, chaotic and anarchic to many. But given that many truths in the world, from physics to our daily interactions with others, run counter to many of our basic cognitive responses, participation in the market order is sometimes more important than understanding it.

It would be impossible even for the most hardcore libertarian anarchist to fully comprehend the beautiful complexity of spontaneous order in a given situation. But with a proper knowledge of the principles behind the natural order--private property, liberty, rational self-interest, and the non-aggression axiom--how society would not only function, but thrive, without a state falls into place.


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Westernerd's picture
Columns on STR: 7

lives in San Francisco, California. He spends his time reading voraciously, ranting, and advocating the virtues of economic and political freedom. He has written for multiple websites and hopes to play a small part in bringing a voluntary market society into fruition. He enjoys billiards, whiskey, and sabermetrics. He blogs at A Little Rebellion.


Samarami's picture


    "...the heart and soul of order is anarchy and freedom. Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order..."

Dead on, Robert! Good essay! Thanks!

All too often I've seen on some of these sites well-meaning libertarians who lament "...we must work to bring about a libertarian society..." or similarly worded theses. But that very wording implies someone (or someones -- busybodies, perhaps) must "manage and control" society until "it" becomes free (or libertarian, or anarchic).

That's not the way freedom works. If I practice freedom I'm free. I might inspire freedom by my example for you, but your freedom is your responsibility, not mine. My only responsibility is refraining from trying to manage your freedom. That can take skill and self-discipline -- especially for you young parents. I know -- I had 7, long grown up and producers of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Small children need loving, but sometimes firm, direction from Mom & Dad.

Remember Hanoi.

Resist the temptation to install traffic signals in life. Be free.

Thanks again for the essay! Sam