Why Isn't There Chaos When Traffic Lights Malfunction?

People adapt to the new situation, staying safe while caring for the safety of others. It's order without top-down authority.

Sometimes the lights have to go out for us to really see the beautiful anarchy that surrounds us.

That humans play by the rules even when it would be easy to get away with breaking them demands an explanation.As you may have seen in the news, my new hometown of Indianapolis was struck by a series of severe thunderstorms and even a tornado or two over the last few days. The rain and wind from those storms knocked out power for parts of a couple of days. Although not anything like what happened to the folks in Baton Rouge and elsewhere in Louisiana, it still caused some problems across the Indianapolis area.

One of those problems was that a number of traffic lights at major intersections on the northern side of the city were not working. On my drive home from work on Wednesday, I hit several of these intersections, including two on a road where the speed limit is 55 mph in parts.

Where Is the Chaos?

With traffic lights out, one might expect chaos to reign unless perhaps the police were there to direct traffic. In fact, what was happening at each and every one of those intersections was order without an orderer. They were perfect examples of the beautiful anarchy that is all around us.

In most states, the law requires that people treat intersections with non-functional traffic lights as a four-way stop. It’s not clear that every single driver on the road knows that law, but that is how Indianapolis drivers were behaving this week.

More interesting was that I saw not one driver try to take advantage of the situation by violating the somewhat more complex norms of dealing with a four-way stop at a busy intersection. Cars crossed the intersection one at a time in multiple lanes. Drivers yielded the right of way to oncoming cars or cars on the cross-street turning left.

I didn’t hear one horn honk or one curse yelled at other drivers at the multiple intersections lacking power.

Too often we think of social order and respect for others as requiring coercive enforcement. It’s true that there is a law for this situation, but consider the opportunities for cheating on the informal and formal norms here. You are at an intersection with dozens of other drivers, none of whom know you or will ever see you again. If you jumped across the intersection right behind the car in front of you, what could they do? They might honk and scream and think poorly of you, but would there be any practical consequences?

None that I can think of as it’s doubtful anyone is going to copy down your license plate and call the cops – and even less likely that the police would care in the middle of dealing with storm damage across the city.

The Explanation

That humans play by the rules even when it would be easy to get away with breaking them demands an explanation. One major answer is that we are hard-wired for reciprocity and what Adam Smith called “sympathy.” We approach that intersection and ask ourselves what we want others to do. We also understand that for others to respect the rules or informal norms and treat us the way we want to be treated, we have to do the same in return. We imagine ourselves feeling how they would feel if we cheated.

Anthropological evidence indicates that the more humans participate in mutually beneficial interactions of any sort, especially ones in the marketplace, the more likely we are to be generous to others because we expect reciprocity from them.

In more intimate situations, where we know the others involved personally, these constraints are even stronger. At a dinner party with friends, we limit how much we serve ourselves from a common dish to ensure that there’s enough for others because we expect reciprocity. We also do so because we want to be seen, in Adam Smith’s terms again, as “praiseworthy” in our own eyes and because we fear the reproach of friends.

The norms inculcated by our interactions with friends and family get translated to more anonymous interactions such as the intersections. Here too we expect reciprocity and we want to be seen as praiseworthy, even though the punishment mechanism for defecting from the cooperative strategy are much weaker. At some level we believe that if we play by the rules and expect others to do the same, others will be more likely to play by the rules not just in the moment but in other similar interactions in the future, having learned that everyone else will respect the rules as well.

Spontaneous Order

This is the spontaneous order of society. What the malfunctioning traffic lights remind us of is that there are dozens of little human interactions in which we participate each day and each week where we, or others, could fail to obey evolved social norms and cheat to our own benefit. Official rule enforcers cannot be everywhere. A polite and civil society relies on the capacity of humans to respect the rules and to treat others the way we would want them to treat us – perhaps the oldest and most important moral rule of them all.

Too often we think of social order and respect for others as requiring coercive enforcement. Too often we assume that people only obey the rules because authority figures, especially government, will punish them if they do not.

But how people behave when the traffic lights go out challenges that assumption. Many of the norms that govern our daily interactions emerge without design or enforcement by authority, and people will generally respect them out of a desire to be seen as good and the expectation that others will do the same. And that respect will happen even when the costs of cheating are low.

The Failings of Political Authority

We should remember this point when we are told that we need political authority because people can’t be trusted to obey the rules themselves. The reality is that we have plenty of examples of people obeying the rules by relying only their natural sympathy and desire for reciprocity.

Those human desires are strong enough to produce powerful social norms (as well as mechanisms to enforce them informally). We also know that much of the law itself is based on rules that evolved from self-enforcing norms among individual actors, and that these forms of governance (as distinct from “government”) still guide much private sector behavior today.

No doubt there are people who lack the desire for praiseworthiness and reciprocity and break the rules, and one of the hardest questions of political economy is how best to minimize such rule breaking.

Answering that question should start by realizing that the rule breakers are the exception not the rule, and that should lead us to think about how and why people obey the rules even when there is no designer and no enforcer and little cost to breaking them.


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