Friday, November 24, 2006

"Free Traffic" and an Agenda for Libertarians

About 40 years ago, I went to an Ohio State football game. We parked in a big open field off the Olentangy River Road in Columbus. At the end of the game, there must have 10,000 cars trying to get out of one tiny exit. I can still remember it as one of the more unpleasant moments of an (okay, pretty tranquil) life. No shots were fired, but my heavens, the yelling, the fist-shaking—the general air of rancor and Hobbesian competition. Oy, this may explain why I’ve never been to a big-time college ball game since.

About 20 years ago, for several months I did a daily commute from the San Fernando Valley down to the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse. There’s a place where I-5 merges into the Pasadena Freeway (link). This is, or was, another horrible bottleneck—about 50 lanes merging down to two, as I remember it. Any, there’s a potential for a mess here that would make an OSU football game look like a Vassar daisy chain.

Thing is, it never seemed to happen this way. Angelinos merge. Or did merge. Car from the left, car from the right, car from the left, car from the right—every day, I was greeted with a spectacle of implicit order.

I haven’t any idea precisely what moral I should draw from this seeming inconsistency but I thought of both of these episodes yesterday when I heard Ian Lockwood, a traffic engineer, on NPR telling how you can reduce traffic damage by knocking down the traffic signs (link). As you can surmise by the foregoing, my experience tells me that it just may work—but not always. What interests me is the way it opens up a great can of worms in libertarian political discourse—the question of when, and under what circumstances, the government can do better by doing less.

Libertarians love to talk about the crimes and follies of government, and for my money, they are nearly always right. Trouble is, they almost never consider the alternative. Will life, in fact, go better, if the government just gets out of the way? If, as I suspect the answer is “yes and no,” then I would hear more about the question of when and why.

Clearly, most libertarians have little to offer on this issue. My guess is that a good many of them just don’t realize that it is an issue. It’s the mirror image of the old lefty argument that capitalism is bad, therefore socialism must be better.

There are honorable exceptions. One of the most exemplary is Robert Ellickson’s instructive little book on how they settle cattle disputes in Shasta County (link). You get some serious discussion in the literature on free banking (link). Samuel Bowles (no standard libertarian he) offers some provocative thoughts in his Microeconomics (link). You can suss some of it out of the more general literature on game theory and behavioral economics.

Still, I don’t know very many people who address directly the kind of question I’m trying to raise here. I’m still agnostic over why (or even whether) the Pasadena Freeway is unlike an Ohio State football game. But if the stir over “free traffic” offers the promise of any insight, I’d like to hear more about it.

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