Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Observations in the aftermath of Sandy

1. The traffic in the blackout areas of Manhattan is lawless in the most literal sense: the traffic lights aren't working, so the law cannot be applied as usual. But "lawless" doesn't seem to be a fitting description; the driving seems better-behaved than usual. We're so used to seeing people act under a system of government rules that it's easy to assume that without the rules, everything would descend into chaos. But perhaps free people are generally capable of acting decently on their own. Of course, that's never going to be universal; but then, people break the law too. In fact, a dense set of rules tempts people to see how close to (or how far across) the borderline of legality they can go without being penalized. In the absence of governmental laws, people might focus more on other kinds of laws: social norms and ethics.

[Added: There actually is a law that applies when the traffic lights aren't working, but people probably don't know about that law, and they definitely aren't following it. We never get the chance to do a pure experiment on how people would act in the absence of any government, but this is closer to such an experiment than we usually get.]

2. Whenever there's a high-profile disaster, whether it's a storm or a mass murder or terrorism, so many people's instinct is to declare that their political ideology has been vindicated.

3. I like Adele, but the people who work at Starbucks must get tired of listening to nothing but Adele.


Joaquin said...

“Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out.” Blow-Up (1966)

Lem said...

I love Adele too, but in the Skyfall chorus, I hear something that sounds off to me.

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together

She is going up and up and then at stand tall the transition is not clean... not smooth.

Otherwise its a lovely song.

Anonymous said...

There's been a few European towns that got rid of all their traffic lights and road sign rules. The results was traffic accidents dropping to almost nothing. People drove more slowly, watched more carefully at intersection. In short they spent their time driving safely instead of obeying every little rule.

Beth said...

After the levees broke and New Orleans flooded in 2005, most stoplights were out of service for months - at least six months, if memory serves, and maybe longer. We learned to treat major intersections as 4-way stops and traffic moved better than it does with traffic lights.

Beth said...

After the levees broke and New Orleans flooded in 2005, most stoplights were out of service for months - at least six months, if memory serves, and maybe longer. We learned to treat major intersections as 4-way stops and traffic moved better than it does with traffic lights.

kristinintexas said...

This reminds me of an old article on traffic laws or lack thereof: Why don’t we do it in the road?

Anonymous said...

John Stossel did a very interesting show a couple of years ago about the towns in England that have done away with stop lights. Here it is:

You also may enjoy this study by professors at Montana State University who looked at how society was organized and functioned in the Western frontier when there was little or no official government laws or an apparatus to enforce laws. It's only 21 pages and it is easy to follow.

Anonymous said...

Here in Huntsville, AL., after out disastrous tornado outbreak we had no electricity for 5-6days, and I noticed the same thing. People can and do rise to the occassiob.

Quixotic said...

Yesterday afternoon I walked a couple times around Bryant Park - unsuccessfully looking for the sign of an Express Bus to take me home - and I had occasion to stop twice and observe for about 5-minute stretches traffic at the intersection of 5th Ave. & 40th St. Not as major an intersection as one involving 42nd St. (which had functioning lights) - but still quite busy.

Bo traffic lights, and no traffic cops (and no pedestrians functioning as traffic cops.) Yet these were very well functioning intersections. Less beeping & less rudeness than I see on a normal day (and I'm a bike messenger, so I have a stock of experiences from which to compare.) People accommodated each other & acted intelligently. I actually entertained the idea of setting up a camera and filming the scene for 60 or 90 minutes, and give or selling the footage to some kind of municipal or private authority interested in this sort of thing. (Same principle: There's no ropes or bars to pen customers in all TD Bank branches, and yet the scene is just as orderly as at any bank, and less dehumanizing/insulting.)

Glen Reynolds just linked to this post, BTW, including a reference to research compatible with your observations.

WhatWasLost said...

The things you say about the traffic system are some of the same arguments I hear about anarchism.

Doesn't work.

The people in Manhattan are not behaving as they normally would precisely because their world has been turned on its head. If the absence of traffic lights were to become NORMAL, or even feel normal, their behavior would also revert to normal.

What does normal behavior mean? It means behavior that falls along a normal distribution.

The purpose of traffic laws, lights, etc, is to squeeze this normal distribution into singularity. Not because doing this to people is good in and of itself, but because without it traffic fatalities and damage to vehicles and surrounding objects would be much greater.

Anonymous said...

The more laws and taxes, the more lawbreakers and tax evaders.

--Lao Tzu

Peter said...

Take a look at a country like Argentina, where the vast majority of intersections have no signals or stop signs. Driving is chaotic madness, and the death rate due to car accidents is astronomical. The reason places like lower Manhattan and English villages can survive sanely without traffic laws and signals to enforce them is that the people there already understand the benefits of having them. The Argentines I know who come to this country are astounded and grateful for the orderliness of our driving. To think we'd maintain it indefinitely without laws and enforcement mechanisms is another libertarian fantasy.

TGGP said...

A relevant book is "Order Without Law" by Robert Ellickson. I've got a number of posts on it at my blog.

Joseph Angier said...

This kind of argument was thin when Rebecca Solnit came at it from the left in "A Paradise Built in Hell." But I'll eat my words if the lights (and laws) stay off for a few more days, and a libertarian utopia flowers in lower Manhattan and Staten Island.

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