David R. Henderson  

Spontaneous Order in New York City

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The traffic in the blackout areas of Manhattan is lawless in the most literal sense: the traffic lights aren't working, so the law cannot be applied as usual. But "lawless" doesn't seem to be a fitting description; the driving seems better-behaved than usual. We're so used to seeing people act under a system of government rules that it's easy to assume that without the rules, everything would descend into chaos. But perhaps free people are generally capable of acting decently on their own. Of course, that's never going to be universal; but then, people break the law too. In fact, a dense set of rules tempts people to see how close to (or how far across) the borderline of legality they can go without being penalized. In the absence of governmental laws, people might focus more on other kinds of laws: social norms and ethics.
From Jaltcoh, "Observations in the Aftermath of Sandy."

HT to Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit.


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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Alex Godofsky writes:

Yeah, I'm not buying it. It isn't surprising that legally enforced social norms are durable over the course of a few days.

Greg G writes:

"Whenever there's a high-profile disaster, whether it's a storm or a mass murder or terrorism, so many people's instinct is to declare that their political ideology has been vindicated."

Yup. This post surely confirms that point. David sees it as the occasion to romanticize the absence of centralized organization and the development of spontaneous order.

Meanwhile New Yorkers long for the return of a centrally organized system of traffic lights, power supply and mass transit as they move through the city at a crawl and return to dark and cold apartments.

Tom West writes:

Actually, I quite like that both left and right use the fact that people are basically decent and (mostly) want to do the right thing to bolster their case.

Tomorrowist writes:

Reminds me of traffic circles. They are safe because people are more alert when approaching and driving through them.

Ricardo writes:

"The traffic in the blackout areas of Manhattan is lawless in the most literal sense: the traffic lights aren't working, so the law cannot be applied as usual."

Not true. When lights aren't working, the law is that the intersection becomes an all-way stop. Not the slightest bit lawless.

Ken B writes:

Ricardo is right and has changed my mind. There is a law, most drivers know it. It's not spontaneous because it is 1) taught in driving class and 2) the same as other prexistent signal-less intersections drivers are familiar with and where the law is clear.

Dave writes:

To a great extent it's what you are used to (norm). Ever drive in Bangkok?

N. writes:

So, I now have as much relevant experience with this event as any random New York Joe, and I have a few observations to relate.

Yesterday I walked home from work through the "Black Zone" beyond the 34th street parallel that demarcates this "lawless zone" (fact: police officers were mostly guiding traffic at large intersections, so the law was definitely present, if a little sparse), partly because I didn't want to risk the traffic snarls, but partly because I wanted to see what it was like. I also wanted to check on a largley house-bound friend of mine who I hadn't been able to contact.

What the author of the article above reports matches largely with my experience. Drivers, /were/ better behaved, by and large, and at intersections would exchange friendly glances with the pedestrians. There was one notable exceptions to this. I was crossing a three-lane one-way street (it was near Union Square, if you are curious) and while two of the cars slowed to let me cross, one /accelerated/ and for a heartbeat I thought was going to plow right into me -- until he swerved and sped off. I couldn't see the driver, but there was little question in my mind of intentionality. All I could think was, 'some men just want to watch the world burn.'

On the other side of this, my experience with the NYPD (who are often made out to be little more than brutal trigger-happy thugs) has been excellent (not just this time, but in general). When I arrived at my friends apartment building, the stairway was (predictably) pitch black and I (predictably) didn't think to bring a flashlight, so (after being turned down by several building residents) I tracked down a cop and asked him to escort me. He was clearly assigned to that particular corner and reluctant to leave it (I had thought he would radio someone else) and I watched him wrestle with it for a moment, but he firmly agreed and once I pointed out the building, led the way. (Full disclosure: once we got into the stairwell, a building resident with a flashlight was on his way down and agreed to take me to check on my friend (he was fine) and the cop left). Without exception, the interactions between the people and the police that I witnessed were friendly. (I understand this morning, when the cops were staffing the wrong traffic stops, they were much less so.)

This is all very interesting to me, and as I've said elsewhere, I predict this will be just another New York story and not metastasize into anything worse. Outside of the city proper, I can't say. New Jersey residents may have very different stories to tell, once their power comes back on...

Hadur writes:

Suppose you are an academic interested in determining which model of the "state of nature" is correct, a theoretical political scientist or something like that. Natural disasters are pretty much your best shot at doing empirical research, no?

I was quite the Hobbesian in college, and I can't say I felt any wronger after Katrina...

mike shupp writes:

The lights haven't been out for all those many days and in their absence people are being rather conservative (or even timid) about hard they should press in traffic. Give them time for adjustment -- a month say -- and New Yorkers'll be handling traffic squabbles with 45's.

That's MY generalization.

Jim Glass writes:

As a NYC driver writing from NY, I can tell you that post is bunk.

1) There's plenty of law, as Ricardo and Ken B have noted. And NYC drivers have plenty of experience applying the law at no-light intersections (if not usually at all intersections at once). And there are plenty of cops at those intersections too.

2) NYC yesterday was one giant Ultra-Mega Traffic Jam. Today too, according to a friend who had to spend four hours driving from side of Manhattan to the other.

What's the real point of that blog post? That when while stuck for hours in an giant ultra-mega traffic jam we NYCers don't pull out (extremely illegal) guns and shoot each other we are proving a Libertarian belief about the lack of need for government?

And this foolishness is being passed fast and furiously through Instapundit and the libertarian wing of the blogosphere?

Hey, I have libertarian sympathies -- but lets protect our side's credibility by not falling for the made-up stuff and shooting it along in a circle of confirmation bias as the left so often does.

Lewis writes:

Instead of "spontaneous order" you should call this "tolerable disorder."

I'm getting my phd in transportation engineering. I have to say this post is badly informed. A primary purpose of all those signals is bringing traffic flows closer to optimal by prioritizing certain flows, reducing queues that spill into other intersection, etc. If top-down rules for queues served no function we wouldn't see private firms adapting them constantly at airplane boardings, theme parks, restaurants, etc. Without signal optimization we should expect to see horrible traffic jams, and that's what we see here...although there are many factors at work here in addition. In India you can see traffic with de facto no top-down governance, and it isn't fast or courteous or safe.

The main thing stopping casualties here is the fact of gridlock...not social norms or courtesy.

Ted Levy writes:

Ken B: I don't think the mere fact something is taught in driver's school is sufficient evidence for the claim that people, years later, act in a certain way because, and only because, they remember the appropriate law (which in the intervening years they never consulted or had reason to consult).

I think the more likely explanation for their actions, as David H. suggests, is a spontaneous ordering. It's natural for two people at an intersection with a stalled light to act in a way that lets them both through in a safe and harmonious fashion, and other people observe and act similarly, though with no order to do so, much as the classic path-is-formed-in-the-woods example.
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It is also insufficient, as some above imply, to note that the traffic currently isn't moving optimally and conclude that therefore this spontaneous order stuff is crap. First, spontaneous is not synonymous with instantaneous. It takes time. The traffic lights have been out for only a few days. Second, bad as it is, I'm confident it could, in a city of many million, be far worse.
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Ken B writes:

@Ted Levy:
Which is why I pointed out that most drivers have experience with other unsignalled intersections, so are already familiar with the rules.

I don't think I need to establish "only because". We have a law, it is clear, it is widely known, and widely experienced by drivers. And waht we see is people conforming to it. Enought to suggest it's not sponataneous law-free goodness.

Rob writes:

There is something to be said for natural morality, which has evolved in many species. But natural law and order? Yes, this is possible, if everyone has equal access to food and water and other resources required to live.

However, that is not the case with Manhattan - a tiny island populated by almost 2 million people, but not a single farm. Without law and order, NYC and every big city like it would decay into chaos, rapidly.

So the traffic lights went out? Big deal. That is not at all equivalent to general lawlessness, as the author has tried to suggest here (with an almost intractable amount of naivety).

New Jersey residents may have very different stories to tell, once their power comes back on...

Which, as I predicted, will take a little longer than need be, because non-union electrical workers from Alabama who came up to help were rejected.

MGJ writes:

Speaking of spontaneous order, have you ever taken a drive in, say, Cairo?

David L. O. writes:

Hadur, could you clarify something?

You wrote: "I can't say I felt any wronger after Katrina." The first time I read this, I misunderstood you to mean that after Katrina you felt the most wrong you have ever felt. I read it that way because of what happened to me.

About a year before Katrina, I came across Henry Fischer's disaster book, "Response to Disaster: Fact Versus Fiction & Its Perpetuation." The author's research led him to abandon a Hobbesian stance. Reading about his research caused me to abandon my Hobbesian stance.

But then Katrina happened, and I watched the news coverage. The early coverage painted a picture in tune with Hobbes. So I told people that both Fischer and I were wrong, and Hobbes was right. I hoped Fischer was going to come out with a new edition tempering his argument in light of the new evidence from Katrina.

But then later I found out from various sources, including Reason Magazine, that the negative coverage was exaggerated or false.

The incident that stuck out in my mind as the proof of Hobbes and disproof of Fischer was the people shooting at rescue helicopters. But, as later discussions (more than just the Reason article) showed, that turned out to be a falsehood.

So my impression at the time was that lots of media reported the negative falsehoods about human barbarism in the wake of Katrina. My other impression was that relatively fewer media reported the debunking of false reports of human barbarism.

This lopsided coverage, biased in favor of repeating Hobbesian stories even if false, and downplaying stories of kindness, even if true, reinforced Fischer's research findings that the media out of its self-interest, paints a misleadingly negative portrait of human nature in disasters.

So I went from Hobbesian, to anti-Hobbesian in face of research, to Hobbesian in face of early Katrina reporting, to anti-Hobbesian in face of more thorough Katrina reporting.

Disclaimer: I am subject to confirmation bias.

ajb writes:

One can make the opposite claim here. The media seem to be repressing looting stories about the current storm. Hmm, I wonder if the election has something to do with this "lack" of piling on?

Cf. http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/news/press/atlantic_city/widespread-looting-reported-in-atlantic-city/article_f6ba55d0-2493-11e2-a0cf-001a4bcf887a.html

stuhlmann writes:

Perhaps the drivers are behaving in an orderly fashion due to good old self-interest. If you are in an accident, your car (and maybe you too) is also damaged. Even if you could assign blame to the other driver and get his insurance to pay, you still have to deal with the hassle of getting your car repaired. I'm sure all the body shops are booked out for months already. No, it is better to drive defensively.

Joe Cushing writes:

I remember reading somewhere that if you ignore current rules in intersections and just kind let the traffic meld, that they can flow smoothly. I suspect that is what people are doing. I doubt they are coming to a full and complete stop on the line before the cross walk, waiting their turn, and going. It may have started this way buy by now the traffic is probably just kind of creeping through without stopping ever. Hence lawless, because that's not what the law says. This is pure speculation but reasonable based on experience.

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