Mises Daily Articles
The Praxeology and Ethics of Traffic Lights
[An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Donna Orlando, is available for download.]
It's over. There can be no hope for the state now. Its time has finally come to an end. If you think this is irrationally optimistic, click here and watch the video. You will see the state's raison d'être smashed asunder.
How often do you hear the minarchist say, "Well, I don't like government, but we at least need things like traffic laws. We need a government to keep us safe"? For all those who call libertarians crazy for wanting to abolish the Federal Reserve, how much more dangerous and criminal would they accuse us of being if we actually began to publicly advocate the abolition of traffic regulations? Yet, here it is, on video, for the entire world to see, that Hobbes was wrong.
Martin Cassini, a photographer and advocate for road deregulation, has produced a marvelous series of videos documenting the results of the Cabstand Junction Trial that started in September of 2009 in North Somerset, in Great Britain. The videos, which can be viewed on his website Equality Streets1 and on YouTube, show the remarkable before and after results of the experiment.
Without traffic lights regulating intersections, congestion has disappeared and accidents are virtually nonexistent. With the exception of a few who still assume right of way, drivers are courteous and give way to pedestrians and other drivers.
This may come as a shock to those who believe in the state, but not to Austrians. This phenomenon can be explained by applying the principles developed in Hans-Hermann Hoppe's theory of argumentation ethics. Both cooperation and empathy are not only part of human nature but are things that must exist within any rational being. It is, as Murray Rothbard put it, the unification of "is" and "ought," of economics and ethics, of the actions that people do perform for their own selfish desires and the actions they should perform for the good of others.
In order for any rational person to act, one must accept the principle of first user. The first one to make use of anything previously unowned becomes the exclusive owner of that thing. This includes not only our bodies but also the space our bodies occupy.
Any attempt to argue the contrary would bring the arguer into immediate self-contradiction. In the very act of arguing, the arguer not only acknowledges his own right to exclusive use over his body and the space it occupies but also that the person he is arguing with has the same right. The act of trying to convince someone of anything acknowledges not only the other person's ability to agree or disagree, but his right to exclusive self-ownership, because the person must have ownership over his own body to even engage in the act of agreement or disagreement. In argumentation there is also an implied preference for nonviolence. Were that not the case, they would not bother arguing at all, but proceed to kill each other.
In the case of an intersection, where people encounter one another in an area neither of them owns, a conflict arises. This conflict is the desire of several people to occupy the same space — the intersection — at the same time. When faced with this problem outside the realm of government regulation, people naturally solve it through the first-user principle.
Before anyone else enters the intersection, the first person to have already entered is allowed to leave. It is the same principle that applies to elevators and subways. Those already occupying the vehicle wishing to leave are allowed to. This first-come–first-served, filter-through method is precisely what takes place at these unregulated intersections.
It is a clear-cut case of what is known in Austrolibertarian circles as spontaneous order. Rational human beings organize themselves and cooperate voluntarily without the need for government. It is not government, but people that build a civilized society. All government can do is destroy civilized behavior through its violent coercion.
What these examples of regulated and unregulated intersections show is about as close to a perfectly controlled social-behavioral experiment as one can possibly get, and they demonstrate concretely the truth of the libertarian position on the nature of man and society. In addition, they show the problem of "transition" from a socialist society to a free one is a rather insignificant problem. Were the state to completely disappear tomorrow, people would immediately begin to adapt and thrive in the new situation.
What this also demonstrates is yet another example of how government decivilizes people. The Austrolibertarian is aware of a plethora of government interventions into the free conduct of human beings, done in the name of safety, that either make us all less safe or simply create more daily annoyances. Such things include gun laws, airport security armed with naked-body scanners, the invasion of third-world countries, and even the regulation of household plumbing. None of these things make us safe. At best, they treat people more like animals than rational human beings. On average, they are harbingers of death.
There is no exception in the case of traffic regulations. In "Traffic Control: An Exercise in Self-Defeat," Kenneth Todd shows that traffic lights, though erected by the state for the sake of "public safety," encourage dangerous and aggressive behavior, contradict other laws at the expense of justice, and are responsible for the loss of vast amounts of wealth and countless lives. The traffic light is perhaps the most destructive machine yet to be devised by man.
Most often, the installation of a traffic light is the state's response to an earlier failed policy of "road priority." Under this system, certain roads are given priority over others by being granted the title of "major road" as opposed to "minor road." On the minor road, stop signs are placed at each intersection. The drivers on the minor road must stop and wait for it to be clear to go, while drivers on the major road are permitted to drive without obstruction.
The most frequent and most severe type of accident at a major/minor road intersection is the right-angle collision, generally blamed on the side-street driver's right-of-way violation. The major road makes motorists go fast without looking left or right, while the side-street drivers are given a highly complex task. They have to look left and right for pedestrians on two crosswalks, one on the near side and one on the far side, and also for two vehicle streams, one from the left and one from the right. The left-turner has to deal with yet another traffic stream, the one from the opposite direction — seven conflicts in all. Safety advocates have long said that complex tasks should be avoided. They distract our attention from one conflict while we concentrate on another; road users should have to deal with only one conflict at a time. (Todd, "Traffic Control," pp. 2–3)
The saying is well-known in almost any rural town: "They never put up a light until someone gets killed." The tragic reality is, however, that the traffic light and crosswalk does not solve the problem of the deadly intersection.
An accident risk arises whenever a vehicle gets obstructed from leaving an intersection. Consider the driver who is turning left when a pedestrian steps onto the far-side crosswalk. The driver stops for the pedestrian, as required by law, and now sits broadside across the path of vehicles from the opposite direction. Going fast in the belief that no one would get in their way, these drivers are forced to a sudden, unexpected stop. If an accident happens, the left-turner get[s] the blame, even though it was the law that created the dilemma.
To escape the dilemma, many a left-turner disregards the pedestrian's right-of-way and puts them at risk by failing to stop. At signalized intersections, where this problem is particularly severe, left turns were found to be four times as hazardous to pedestrians as right turns.
How do pedestrians get across a busy road? While side-street drivers must wait at the stop sign until it is safe to cross, the law gives the opposite instruction to the pedestrians. Their right-of-way on crosswalks encourages them to do what is forbidden to the side-street driver: get in the way of fast-moving traffic. Pedestrians who put their trust in the law are struck by drivers who are unprepared to stop, thinking that the major road was meant to let them travel without interference. Many drivers are reluctant to stop for fear of getting rear-ended. Like the green light, marked crosswalks put pedestrians at risk by giving them a false sense of security. Reliance on the law has been called the greatest traffic hazard of all. The safer people feel, the less they look out for hazards, and the less road sense they develop. (p. 3, emphasis added)
It is the green light that encourages speed. The driver, being an acting individual whose actions are governed by time preference, wants to avoid the red light because he is compelled to stop at the red light against his will, regardless of the circumstances. The result is streets that are very dangerous, if not impossible for pedestrians to cross without a crosswalk.
With the crosswalk and laws against jaywalking, the pedestrian is forced to cross the street at the most dangerous part of the road: the intersection. When drivers have their eyes on the traffic light, they are not looking out for pedestrians. "That signals did not improve pedestrian safety was known 70 years ago. As many get run down walking with the green light as get run down walking against red" (p. 4).
In addition to all the deaths and injuries that traffic lights are responsible for, they have also caused a tremendous loss of time, wealth, and efficiency. Traffic lights force the motorist to stop, and often stop short, even when it is safe to go. This, coupled with the encouragement to speed, causes massive wear and tear on the vehicle, especially on the tires and break system, resulting in breakdowns and loss of capital value that would otherwise never have happened.
Traffic lights are also the greatest cause of delay, because they force motorists to stop and wait for the light to turn green. This results in large numbers of vehicles queuing up at the intersection, finally being allowed to move at a green light, only to be caught in the very same problem at the next intersection. When drivers crossing the intersection during a green light misjudge whether or not their vehicle will fit on the other side, they get caught in the middle of the intersection. When this happens, the drivers in streets perpendicular to the trapped driver are now unable to cross, even when they have the green light. This is how congestion and major traffic jams are formed.
When one really thinks about it, it truly is Orwellian how one mindless machine can dominate and control the lives of hundreds of millions of rational human beings through willing, blind obedience.
The evidence is clear. Road signs and lights that regulate driver behavior at intersections are an abominable menace to society that must be abolished and followed by the complete deregulation of intersections. With the end of traffic control, we can see the end of dangerous roads forever. Once the state is no longer policing the roads, we will soon see an end to all the other ludicrous invasions into our private lives: drunk-driving laws, vehicle inspections and registrations, and driver's licenses.
All libertarian efforts on the national level have been a failure. Every time a corrupt regime gets voted out, an even more corrupt one get put in its place. The more heads we chop off, the more heads sprout up; the more government agencies are spawned. Yet, the Leviathan is not immortal. We simply need a new strategy. We start by chopping off its legs.
In the age of the Internet, ideas can spread like wildfire. Show Cassini's videos to everyone you know and show them that freedom really does work. We have the opportunity to strike a fatal blow to the monstrous parasite of government in the realm of ideas. People will begin to see clearly that even small local government creates nothing but death and destruction, and its elimination can bring about a new age of untold peace and prosperity. Once that happens, the state doesn't stand a chance.