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Two Kinds of Order

July 19, 2011

Tags Free MarketsInterventionism

I live a short drive from work. Due to growth in the area, rush-hour traffic occasionally reduces my afternoon commute to a walking pace. And sometimes it gets even worse.

At issue are a traffic light and the stretch of road leading up to it from the south. The sketch approximates the situation. The road has three lanes: a northbound lane, a southbound lane, and a middle lane that provides left-hand turn access to other roads and businesses, as well as left-hand turns at the light (L). The lane is sometimes for northbound traffic, sometimes for southbound traffic, and other times for both. At least, that is what the painted lines show.

The light does have a left-hand-only turn signal for westbound traffic. However, the short northbound section of the middle lane leading up to the light (A) has room for only eight cars. So once the light turns red for westbound traffic and green for northbound and eastbound traffic, and eight cars fill up the middle lane, subsequent westbound cars are forced to stop in the northbound lane, effectively blocking all northbound and eastbound traffic. And the intersection fails.

So acting men and women ignore the painted lines and spontaneously create a new order — an order in which all work together so that all can return home efficiently and safely. The northbound drivers use the whole stretch of middle lane as one long left-hand turn lane, in defiance of the law. This happens on a daily basis. And in the five years I have traveled this route (some 160 hours of observation while waiting in traffic), I have never — never — seen an accident. Not once. Not even a close call.

Let me reiterate: If I need to make a left-hand turn at the light (which is occasionally the case), I travel northbound on portions of the middle lane that are designated by the state as southbound. So I sometimes face drivers who, based on law and painted lines, are legally traveling directly toward me, while I am illegally traveling directly toward them. And we all work things out, peacefully, as spontaneous social order replaces state order.

This spontaneous social order dissolves into chaos every so often. It occurs when a city cop decides to enforce state order over social order. The cop parks his car in the middle lane and forces drivers who want to make a left hand turn at the light into the rightmost, northbound lane. When this happens, the intersection fails and my four-mile commute ends up taking 45 minutes or more.1

As I sit fuming (everyone is fuming), I watch the cop spend 15 minutes getting everyone out of the middle lane, and then pull to the side of the road and wait for the first hapless driver to travel the middle lane in order to turn left at the light. The cop flags that driver off the road and, as he is writing a ticket and lecturing, subsequent drivers stream back into the middle lane in his full view.

I know, therefore, that the cop does not see the spontaneous social order as an imminent danger. It is almost as if he could not care less — at least he shows no concern for the disorder resulting from his actions. He has his ticket, you know.

So one driver is out hundreds of dollars and the rest of the northbound commuters (myself included) are out 30 minutes. For what?

Here are two things we know:

  1. Even in areas of competing interests, peaceful and efficient social order arises spontaneously.

  2. Social order arises in spite of the state.

So, in this instance, what is the point of the state and its arbitrary rules? Many people see the state as the entity that holds us together. For, without it, anarchy would rule. Nevertheless, these very same folks have experienced situations similar to mine where a peaceful and efficient social order trumps the heavy hand of the state. And these social orders arise in areas where it is assumed that competing interests, unrestrained by the state, would lead to a complete breakdown.

Certainly, disorder appears every now and again. But these instances are failures of the state that arise from its inability to adequately define and enforce property rights. To make matters worse, the state, in effort to reduce competition, has weakened the ability of property owners to defend themselves from aggressors. So it should not come as a shock when order dissolves into disorder.

It is pure nonsense to believe that society is predicated on the state. Just look around and you will see examples of acting men and women creating spontaneous order that serves the peaceful interests of those involved, at times, in open defiance of the state.

  • 1. And nearby intersections fail as drivers opt to take alternate routes home. State order creates a complete mess.


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