Rothbard The Urbanist Part 6: Traffic Control

Maybe the delay in posts led you to believe the Rothbard Series was complete.  The good news is that there are a few more posts to go, and the ones coming up next should be the most interesting to urbanists. 

If you haven’t kept up with our discussion, Murray Rothbard’s classic For A New Liberty can be downloaded free from Mises.org as pdf, web page, and audio book read by Jeff Riggenbach, and you can read the first five posts:

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 1: Public Education’s Role in Sprawl and Exclusion
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 2: Safe Streets
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 3: Prevention of Blockades
Rothbard the Urbanist Part 4: Policing

Rothbard the Urbanist Part 5: Diversity and Discrimination 

Not long ago, I posted a video from a friend showing one traffic intersection in Cambodia that appears to function well without any signaling.  Here are some other resources on the emergent order of traffic without signals:

I caught some flak from a commenter who considered it “disingenuous” to present the video of the intersection as evidence “of a workable intersection.”  Of course I had to remind the commenter that I don’t consider these types of intersection something that I advocate as a “free market” solution: 

Don’t mistake me as an advocate of a world without traffic signals. I am quite certain that some sort of traffic signaling would likely emerge from a free-market street system. But, my bigger point is that when information is dispersed widely among decision-makers without government monopoly, sustainable solutions emerge from the uncoerced behavior of individual agents over time.

This is a case where governance is needed, but not necessarily provided by government.  Some sort of cooperation would emerge among road operators, just like with technologies such as USB, DVD, or plain old electrical outlets and light bulbs.  A coercive government authority is not needed to dictate to manufacturers to use certain standards, manufacturers choose to produce industry-standardized equipment simply because it is what the customer desires.  If a lighting manufacturer decided to make a bulb that did not fit into standard sockets, who would buy it?  Probably nobody. 

I see roads as no different.  Road customers will likely choose to avoid intersections as nerve-wracking as the one in the Cambodia video if they have a more stress-free option.  Thus road operators will work to optimize flow through their intersections while minimizing unpleasantly stressful situations. 

Of course, Professor Rothbard communicates this more elegantly. I find the railroad example particularly interesting:

The principle that property is administered by its owners also provides the rebuttal to a standard argument for government intervention in the economy. The argument holds that "after all, the government sets down traffic rules — red and green lights, driving on the right-hand side, maximum speed limits, etc. Surely everyone must admit that traffic would degenerate into chaos if not for such rules. Therefore, why should government not intervene in the rest of the economy as well?" The fallacy here is not that traffic should be regulated; of course such rules are necessary. But the crucial point is that such rules will always be laid down by whoever owns and therefore administers the roads. Government has been laying down traffic rules because it is the government that has always owned and therefore run the streets and roads; in a libertarian society of private ownership the private owners would lay down the rules for the use of their roads.

However, might not the traffic rules be "chaotic" in a purely free society? Wouldn’t some owners designate red for "stop," others green or blue, etc.? Wouldn’t some roads be used on the right-hand side and others on the left? Such questions are absurd. Obviously, it would be [p. 208] to the interest of all road owners to have uniform rules in these matters, so that road traffic could mesh smoothly and without difficulty. Any maverick road owner who insisted on a left-hand drive or green for "stop" instead of "go" would soon find himself with numerous accidents, and the disappearance of customers and users. The private railroads in nineteenth-century America faced similar problems and solved them harmoniously and without difficulty. Railroads allowed each other’s cars on their tracks; they inter-connected with each other for mutual benefit; the gauges of the different railroads were adjusted to be uniform; and uniform regional freight classifications were worked out for 6,000 items. Furthermore, it was the railroads and not government that took the initiative to consolidate the unruly and chaotic patchwork of time zones that had existed previously. In order to have accurate scheduling and timetables, the railroads had to consolidate; and in 1883 they agreed to consolidate the existing fifty-four time zones across the country into the four which we have today. The New York financial paper, the Commercial and Financial Chronicle, exclaimed that "the laws of trade and the instinct for self-preservation effect reforms and improvements that all the legislative bodies combined could not accomplish."3

3. See Edward C. Kirkland, Industry Comes of Age: Business, Labor, and Public Policy, 1860-1897 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961), pp. 48-50.

  • Bill Nelson

    Actually, most motorist interactions area already like this. For example, most highway driving is presently pretty “chaotic” with laws routinely ignored; e.g., tailgating, failure to signal, speeding, etc. And yet, considering the lack of enforcement and the frequency of violations, collisions are relatively rare. This is partially because other drivers often anticipate these behaviors and adjust their behavior accordingly.

    But this isn't always because of cooperation. Instead, the game of “highway chicken” is played everywhere, and at least one player will back off. The end result is collision avoidance, though I would personally prefer road safety through cooperation and reciprocity. Which, I suppose, makes me a perfect sucker for a “highway chicken” challenge. Which in turn exacerbates the problem that I do not want to see.

    Question: At a rule-free intersection, who, if anyone, should be liable if there is a collision?

  • xristof

    This has been an interesting series. I want to thank you for your blog and your links for introducing me to other free market urbanists. I have long been fond of urban environments and unsettled by suburbia. Unfortunately for me, it seemed the only actively pro-urban folks out there were state intervention-friendly liberals. The small government types who commented on the issue were just a bunch of tooles, but I couldn't disprove them. Thanks to your blog, and others, I've been enlightened and my pro-urbanism and small government sympathies have now been properly reconciled.

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    I'm glad you've gotten so much from the site. Hopefully, our ideas
    will spread to throughout the urbanist and free-market communities.

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