Traffic Teaches

In general, I am not a fan of traffic. I have been known to drum my fingers on the steering wheel, and mutter to myself, if I am not moving within a few seconds of the light turning green. My opinion of the old fool lollygagging in the passing lane is highly unfavorable, even if that "old fool" is, probably, a few years younger than me.

I like to point out to anyone trapped in the car with me that traffic proves one of my theories about humanity: any activity undertaken by large numbers of people will be done poorly: the slowest hiker will lead the troop; the one with no compass or sense of direction will point out the way, the loudest opinions as to the proper destination will be expressed by the one most clearly an ignoramus, and the singing will be lead by the laryngitic, tone-deaf music-director. But then I recall what Chesterton said: anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.

In other words, despite the ineptitude of the average motorist, which, in traffic, is multiplied by a factor of a hundred or more, people get where they want to go. Moreover, they do it day after day, year after year, with rarely an accident, and almost never a serious one. And, most wonderfully, they do it in a state of virtual anarchy.

Indeed, anarchy is my point. I haven’t researched traffic laws, because it wouldn’t make any difference in the way I drive, but I am sure there are lots of them. Of course, we all know that there are posted speed limits, but most motorists have the good sense to substitute their own judgment as to proper speed for that of some group of legislators who didn’t know of the existence of the road on which they’re traveling. There are probably "laws" regarding passing, using signals, honking, and headlights, but it’s a safe bet that few people know them, or care about them. Yet they manage to get from here to there safely!

This is what I explain to people who recoil with shock as my suggestion that the best government is no government at all. "What?" they say. "Who is going to make sure our airplanes are safe?" (Well, how about the airlines, which have a lot more at stake than the government) "Who is going to guarantee pure foods and drugs?" (How about the people who produce and use them? Again, they’re the ones with something to lose) But mainly, I like to point to traffic.

Stand alongside a busy road during rush hour. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of cars will pass, in both directions, and often at fairly high speeds. How many will crash? Will the driver of that SUV cross the centerline and collide head-on with that truck? No, of course not. And is that because there is a law that prohibits it? If so, the driver is almost surely unconcerned with it. Does the lady in the min-van full of children make an abrupt right turn from the inner lane? No, and it’s not because she fears being charged with violating some ordinance. There might not be a specific ordinance covering it, but in any event, she doesn’t care. What she does care about is the welfare of her passengers and herself.

Think of it: thousands of cars driving at high speed and in close proximity, and nothing to prevent collisions but lines painted on the road! Traffic laws, if any, are unnecessary and ignored. Even drivers who are "financially disadvantaged," or members of "minority groups subject to discrimination" or "lacking proper health insurance," or "educationally shortchanged" drive by without incident, despite their status. Government might as well not exist. People are managing their own affairs remarkably well on their own.

Consider, as well, the baby-sitter. You leave your toddler in her care while you go out for dinner and a show. What do you know about her? What has her training, if any, been? Can she deal with household emergencies? Does she have good judgment? Possibly all you know about her is that your neighbor recommended her, and she seems like a nice girl. It has always amazed me that Congress hasn’t passed a few dozen laws regulating baby-sitting. Maybe the reason it hasn’t is because there doesn’t seem to be any problem with baby-sitters, and if there is, laws wouldn’t make much difference; or maybe it’s just because no one in Washington’s thought of it yet. I suspect the latter. But again, people can manage their own affairs quite nicely without official assistance.

So when people wring their hands at the thought of an ungoverned population (ungoverned by strangers, that is, not their own consciences!) I suggest that if people can manage such important things as the care of their children, or their transportation on the roads, without a government ukase, they should be able to manage other affairs independently of officious strangers as well. We’ll never know unless we try it!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.