Anarchy, or Spontaneous Order, on the Streets of Saigon

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News of the
several successful experiments by several European cities with getting
the state out of traffic regulation created quite a stir last year.
(See European
Cities Do Away with Traffic Signs
.) Non-libertarian-minded folks
saw it as counter-intuitive, not self-evident, that people themselves
would do a better job looking out for their own safety rather than
relying on a nanny state to warn them of every conceivable danger.
But it turned out that drivers slowing down at intersections and
looking both ways was much, much safer than blindly trusting one’s
life to a mindless green light.

Perhaps these
successful experiments with traffic anarchism would have come about
sooner had planners visited a city ironically located in a socialist
country and renamed after a socialist “icon” of the 20th
Century. The streets of what is now called Ho Chi Minh City offer
the same lessons learned from the European experience, and much
more. Following is a description of what the author experienced
on a visit in 1997. In the intervening decade, I’m not sure to what
extent archy has broken out, if at all, and destroyed the glorious
freedom on the streets of the Paris of the East that I am about
to describe.

Saigon’s thoroughfares
are a breath-taking sight. The tree-lined boulevards teem with motorbikes
moving in every direction, competing with the Vietnamese pedicabs
known as “cyclos” (xch l), lovely o di-clad
lasses and others on bicycles, and the occasional car or truck.
The scene becomes even more remarkable upon first viewing an intersection.

There are no
stoplights. Nor are there the ubiquitous red octagonal signs one
sees in every script in just about every other corner of the planet.
Mayhem, blood, and death must surely result, no?

No. Traffic
merely slows, never stopping fully, and vehicles yield and merge,
and then safely pass through the intersection. They then accelerate,
and move on happily and unshaken to complete the process again at
the next intersection. It is, if traffic can be described in such
terms, beautiful. But surely, adding pedestrians into the picture
is a recipe for disaster and carnage, no?

No. Admittedly,
I found quite daunting the prospect of crossing one of Saigon’s
wide avenues the first time I had occasion to do so. After all,
growing up in the United States, I had taken in traffic signals
and rules with my mother’s milk. In the absence of both traffic
lights and stop signs, I resorted to the cardinal rule of street-crossing:
“Look both ways before you cross the street.”

This rule was
utterly useless, I found. Looking both ways, I was paralyzed with
fear. Getting struck by a motorbike or cyclo probably wouldn’t finish
me off, and colliding with a lovely o di-clad lass on
a bicycle might be a pleasant experience, but nonetheless I hesitated
to put my foot on the street. When I finally got up the nerve, I
hastily bolted through the traffic, looking in every direction and
wishing I had eyes on the back and sides of my head.

I grew anxious
every time it came for me to cross a street, and did so as quickly
as possible. I did not realize that my haste and overcautiousness
were putting myself and others in greater danger.

Then, I observed
the Saigonese. What was it that allowed the city’s natives to cross
so effortlessly across the teeming streets? At first, I chalked
it up to being one of the many mysteries of the East. “The Oriental
doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner,” said
General William Westmoreland. “Life is plentiful. Life is cheap
in the Orient.” Could this man I held to be a monster have been
correct after all?

Unlike the
general, however, I decided that there might be something to learn
from the Vietnamese, so I observed them. With Zen-like serenity,
they crossed the streets, with their eyes focused directly in front
of them, never glancing to the left or the right. This, then, was
the key, but I did not realize it until I gave it a try myself.

I crossed the
street slowly, calmly, without looking from side to side. Motorbikes,
cyclos, lovely o di-clad lasses and others on bicycles,
and even the occasional car or truck passed by without so much as
coming near me. They had no personal interest in hitting me, and
thus avoided me. I had simply needed to learn to place my trust
with my fellow human beings, rather than with the state.

In
The Ancient Chinese Libertarian
Tradition
, Murray N. Rothbard notes that the “spontaneous order”
spoken of by Proudhon and F.A. Hayek was presaged by the Chinese
Taoist Chuang Tzu (369 BC–286 BC). Said the sage, “Good order
results spontaneously when things are let alone.” The Vietnamese
are Taoists of the highest order, at least on the streets of Saigon.

I learned many
lessons during my short visit to Vietnam, a culturally-rich country
blessed with a joyful people. A visit to what was then called “The
Museum of American War Crimes,” with its rows of formaldehyde jars
filled with dead babies deformed by Agent Orange, taught me much
about American foreign policy. Witnessing the entrepreneurial vigor
of the Vietnamese taught me much about the triumph of the human
spirit even under socialism. But the “spontaneous order” I witnessed
on the streets of Saigon gave me perhaps the most valuable lesson
I took with me.

October
16, 2007

An American
Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send
him mail
] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where
he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science
and technology university. He blogs at The
Western Confucian
.

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