Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.
~ Henry Adams
How often do discussions on the prospects of a stateless society produce the response that, without government, there would be "anarchy in the streets"? To many people, the streets are symbolic of society, and with good reason: they are the most visible networks through which we interact with one another. They are much like the major arteries (we even use that word to describe streets), veins, and capillaries that transport blood throughout our bodies. Each can be thought of as the carrier of both food and waste to and from individual cells.
The thought that city streets — upon which we depend for daily functioning — could ever become disorderly, leads most people to accept a governmental policing function of such avenues without much question. We imagine that without speed limits, traffic lights at busy intersections, and all of the varied warnings plastered on tens of thousands of signs that encumber streets in our cities, driving would become a turbulent and destructive undertaking.
For a number of years now, a number of cities in Europe have been experimenting with the removal of all traffic signs — including traffic lights, stop signs, speed limit directives — and with surprising results. Various towns in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, New Zealand — even the UK! — have joined in the experiment. Contrary to the expectations of those who might expect multi-car pileups throughout the cities, traffic accidents have been dramatically reduced (in one town, dropping from about eight per year to fewer than two). Part of the reason for the increased safety relates to the fact that, without the worry of offending traffic sign mandates, or watching for police speed-traps, or checking the rear-view mirror for police motorcycles, drivers have more time to pay attention to other cars and pedestrians.
The architect of this experiment, the late Hans Monderman, attributed its success to the fact that "it is dangerous, which is exactly what we want." "Unsafe is safe" was the title of a conference held on this practice. Monderman added that this effort "shifts the emphasis away from the Government taking the risk, to the driver being responsible for his or her own risk." Equally significant, drivers now focus more of their attention on other motorists — taking visual cues from one another, informally negotiating for space, turning into an intersection, etc. — instead of mechanistically responding to signs and electronic machines. Monderman stated: "When you don’t know exactly who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users. You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care." He added: "The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior." In words so applicable to the rest of our politically-structured lives, he declared: "The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles." Monderman expressed the matter more succinctly in saying: "When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots."
Formal rules divide us from one another; the more rules that are imposed upon our conduct, the greater the distances among us. Of course, this is the logic upon which the state always acts: to insinuate itself into our relationships with others, substituting its coercively-enforced edicts for our interpersonal bargaining. We become conditioned to look upon strangers as threats, and to regard political intervention as our only means of looking after our own interests.
One sees this mindset of social impotence expressed throughout our lives. I am fond of asking my students why they do not negotiate with retailers for groceries, clothing, and other consumer items. They look at me as though I had suggested they attend movies in the nude. "You can’t do that," they instinctively respond. I then offer examples of persons I have known who make a habit of such bargaining, managing to save themselves hundreds or more dollars each year. Incredulity still prevails. On one occasion, a student raised his hand to inform the class that he had been an assistant manager of a major retail store in Los Angeles, adding "we did this all the time."
How easily we give up on our own social skills, and at what costs. These experiments with traffic-sign abandonment remind us how much we rely upon informal methods of negotiating with other drivers, and the socially-harmonious benefits of our doing so. My own freeway driving experiences provide an example: if another driver signals to move into my lane, or I signal to move into his, more than a simple lane-change takes place. From that point on, there is nothing this other motorist can do — short of intentionally crashing into my car — that will cause me to feel anger toward him. He’s "my guy," and I will feel a sense of neighborliness to him that will generate feelings of protectiveness toward him. "Neighborliness" is a good word to use here: how many of us could honk our horn or make angry hand-gestures at another driver we recognized to be someone that we know?
This is one of the unintended consequences of taking the state out of the business of directing our traffic: we regain our sense of society with others; strangers lose their abstractness, and become more like neighbors to us. If you doubt the pragmatic and social benefits of these experiments, try recalling those occasions in which a traffic light goes out at a major intersection. Motorists immediately — and without any external direction — begin a "round-robin" system of taking turns proceeding through the intersection. One of my seminar students related her experience in this connection. She was parked at the curb, waiting to pick up her mother. She noted that traffic was flowing quite smoothly, and without any significant delays. Then a police officer showed up to direct the traffic, with gridlock quickly ensuing.
A number of years ago, someone wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles newspaper, reporting on a major Beverly Hills intersection where some six lanes of traffic converge. There were no traffic lights governing the situation, with motorists relying on the informal methods of negotiating with one another. The writer — who lives in the area — commented upon the resulting orderliness, going so far as to check police records to confirm just how free of accidents this intersection was.
How counter-intuitive so much of this is to those who have become conditioned to think that the state is the creator of order in our lives. In much the same way that people are discovering how widespread gun ownership reduces violent crime in society, putting power back into the hands of individuals is the most effective way of fostering both the responsible and harmonious relationships we have so childishly expected to arise from our dependence upon, and obedience to, external authorities.
What if the idea of living without coercively imposed rules was to spread from the streets into all phases of our lives? What if we abandoned our habits of looking to others to civilize us and bring us to order, and understood that obedience to others makes us irresponsible? As government people-pushers continue their efforts to micro-manage the details of our lives — what foods and drugs we may ingest; how we are to raise and educate our children; the kinds of cars we may drive and light bulbs we may use; the health-care we are to receive; our optimal weight levels; how we are to provide for our retirement; ad nauseam — might we summon the courage to end our neurotic fixations on "security?"
Might the quality of our lives be greatly enhanced by the transformation in thinking implicit in these traffic experiments? Might they offer flashes of insight into how the individual liberty to assess our own risks and freely act upon the choices we make provide the necessary basis for a life that is both materially and spiritually meaningful? As our institutionalized subservience and dependency continues to destroy us, can we learn that what we and our neighbors have in common is our need to negotiate with and to support one another as autonomous and changing people in a changing and uncertain world?
(Those interested in reading more about this experiment, can google "european cities remove traffic signs," and find links to many articles on the subject.)
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.