Mises Daily Articles
Stop Signs and Liberty
It was the very stop sign one block from my house that was oddly stationed at a low-traffic, 3-way intersection, tempting every driver to slow down but not come to a complete stop.
How the city cleaned up on that one! I have personally coughed up in excess of $1,000 for tickets there, one time receiving two tickets in as many days. This sign was even the reason that I spent a day in jail for failing to fork over when the judge said I should.
I'm not alone: 93% of the drivers failed to come to a complete stop. Even so, I'm routinely lectured that my job as a citizen is to do precisely as I'm told. I've learned to habitually stop completely, even when the place looks like a ghost town with no cars anywhere in view.
Then one day the stop sign vanished.
What happened here? Did the cops finally get all the citizens trained to stop and thereby dissipate their opportunity for rents? Was there just no more money to be made from the disobedient?
Do I get a refund? How about compensation for the day I spent in jail? What about everyone else?
The local government must have extracted tens of thousands of dollars before good sense overcame our overlords and they decided to relent to reality. But no, there will not be compensation. The law changed its mind, and we are supposed to just deal with it. Now I must rehabituate myself to breaking — I mean keeping — the law.
One day, I'm jailed for failing to stop. Presumably, I could now get a ticket for stopping, since surely there is a law against suddenly stopping on a public road for no reason other than some vague memory than one had to in the past.
What is evil one day is mandatory the next.
Now, I know what some readers are thinking: here we go with the libertarian wacko complaining about the "coercion" of stop signs. For decades, conservatives have been poking fun, caricaturing libertarians as people who rail against stop signs and thereby reveal their personal problem with authority—even such obviously justified authority as government stop signs.
Don't we understand that these keep us safe, and so surely we should be willing to give up just a bit of license to speed around with abandon in the interest of the common good?
Even now, a quick google of "libertarians" and "stop signs" reveals many people on the Left and the Right who think it is just stupidly hilarious that libertarians talk about these issues.
As a matter of fact, the management of the roads is a hugely important issue, given that tens of thousands of people die on government roads every year. Private ownership would in fact lead to greater liability for the road owner — and also more rational rules of the road. The private road would be devoted to serving the customers, not looting them at the point of a gun. And not only are private roads viable; there is a long history and a present practice to draw on.
Walter Block's new book on road privatization makes the case that this is not an issue to ignore but one to solve through free enterprise.
In some ways, then, it is true that the stop sign — as with every regulation by the state — embodies all that is wrong with the public sector. The rules are made to benefit the state. You are on the hot seat if any policeman says that you have done wrong. The pretense of a fair trial is a complete farce, as you have to tangle with judges who hate you, waste several days of work, and throw yourself on the mercy of the court. Once you are entangled in the web, you can't really get out.
And who makes the rules? The central planners make the rules, and the public be damned. The rules are there to serve the state, not us, and the stop sign that is oddly placed in order to extract revenue makes the point very well.
When you are stopped, you become aware that the imbalance between the citizens and the state couldn't be more obvious. Deliver an insult and you are arrested. Try to run and you are gunned down. Fail to pay and you end up in the slammer. And maybe the cop will find something else about your life to be suspicious of. Whatever they want to know, you must tell them.
Government is not reason; it is force. What was the actual social rationale for that stop sign in the first place? You dare not ask, for then you are questioning the elites who are in charge of your life. And why was it removed? It's not for you to question why; it is for you to do or die. It was there and now it is gone. All "law-abiding citizens" must change with the arbitrary dictate of the traffic masters.
Now, I'm not saying that we don't need rules in society. But the question of who makes the rules and on what basis becomes supremely important. Will the rule making flow from the matrix of voluntary exchange based on the ethic of serving others through private enterprise? Or will the rules be made and enforced by people wearing guns and bulletproof vests with a license to shock or kill based on minor annoyances?
Something as seemingly innocuous as a stop sign can become the occasion for the use of terrible violence and terrible oppression. And think about it: we are talking about local government that is especially sensitive to public opinion. If we see corruption here, what about at the national level, where the citizens are nothing but an abstraction?
So, no, I have no problem with making the stop sign a symbol of the fight. It shows that even the least objectionable aspects of the state can mask despotism and that we should think hard — very hard — before ever ceding control of even the smallest parts of life to the state.
Ultimately, the state is in control or we are.
There is nothing in between.