Friday, November 25, 2005

Traffic as metaphor

This reminds me of one of my pet theories: the flow of traffic serves as a very nice metaphor for the effectiveness, and limits, of economic ideas of how people interact. You have a group of people with approximately initial equal endowments (cars). They are minimally supervised, if at all, and yet they all manage to interact in a manner that is largely mutually beneficial. Traffic flows and there are very few accidents (I've never witnessed an accident). Sure they aren't all brilliant drivers and sometimes they do stupid or annoying things. But people in general stay in their lanes and drive at an appropriate speed and don't make rash moves. They are competent. And traffic flows such that everyone gets where they want to go in an approximately reasonable amount of time. An effective and mutually beneficial order arises from a group of people with equal initial endowments.

But this order and this competence does not arise from nowhere and isn't a utopia. People's skills are not only licensed by the state, but there is also heavy socialization about appropriate driving behavior. You have government that makes laws and sometimes even enforces them. You have government to build and maintain roads (though some would claim that either god, or private companies can do this). You have accidents and you have unnecessarily scary experiences. We have odd phenomena of mass slowdowns, like "gaper's gap" and gridlock which could be alleviated by intervention of some sort. Because people are cautious and law abiding, they drive slower than they would if we had a traffic god with perfect coordination and perfect control.

Don't you see how nice a metaphor this is? And surely this could be expanded to include even more aspects of society that you wish to describe.


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