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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Spontaneous Order and Signalling

Joseph Fetz posts an interesting video on a day without a traffic light versus one with the light at a fairly busy intersection. It certainly gives one things to think about.

But if you click through to YouTube, you find people making ludicrous claims about what the video "proves": no regulations are necessary and so on.

Here is the actual question the video raises: when do we need explicit signalling mechanisms to coordinate our actions, and when can we get by without them? It has nothing at all to do with state versus non-state solutions: Plenty of private entities create plenty of explicit signalling mechanisms: factories have bells to start and end work, private parking lots erect stop signs and create one-way lanes, drummers count bands into a song, coaches call out set plays in basketball, the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. Sometimes these are a good idea, sometimes not: For instance, I have seen it suggested that basketball coaches are far too anxious to run a set play at the end of a close game, and that they would be better off letting the players freelance.

Whether the intersection is publicly or privately owned does not, as far as I can see, have any bearing on the question of "Is it a good idea to have an explicit signalling mechanism here?"

16 comments:

  1. In fact, one could run the same experiment on a different intersection and see the opposite effect. I know quite a few intersections where things most probably would not run as smoothly. I will say that many American roads would probably fair a bit worse than some others, say, in Europe. Roundabouts just aren't popular in the US, I don't know why.

    One thing that I should bring up, however, is that I often see lights and signals that make no sense at all, or that it is obvious that its (signal/sign) prime purpose is to serve as a steady revenue stream for the public coffers.

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  3. "Whether the intersection is publicly or privately owned does not, as far as I can see, have any bearing on the question of "Is it a good idea to have an explicit signalling mechanism here?""

    So you mean that everything we learned from public-choice theory (and the "tragedy of the commons" meme) contrasting the incentives of private actors versus public ones couldn't help us predict which director of a resource is more likely to use better signaling? (not quite sure how we can actually do this in a way that doesn't violate the unthinkable comparison of intersubjective utilities)

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    1. iceberg, in your rush to be a wise-ass, you didn't really read what I wrote carefully. Look again:

      "Whether the intersection is publicly or privately owned does not, as far as I can see, have any bearing on the question of "Is it a good idea to have an explicit signalling mechanism here.?"

      What YOU pointed out is that "Whether the intersection is publicly or privately owned may have a bearing on *whether a good decision will be made* about putting a signalling device here."

      So, there are very different two questions:

      1) Is it a good idea to put signal X at location Y?
      2) Is Agent A likely to make the right decision about question 1?

      I wrote that public or private doesn't really seem to yield a different answer for 1.

      You responded, "You numbskull, doesn't public choice tell us this will matter in answering question 2?"

      Ahem...

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    2. That's because I think there is no objective standard by which to judge whether it is or isn't a "good" idea to put a signal device anywhere. In that sense, the only valid response to #1 is mu!

      (It could be that you noticed my unease with the matter of inter-subjectivity expressed above, but you may have missed this in your haste to praise my comment :) )

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    3. OK, iceberg, if your complaint was "Question 1 can't really be answered objectively" why did you phrase it as "You idjit, haven't you ever thought about question 2?"

      And if question 1 can't be answered objectively, how can question 2 possibly be so answered?

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    4. Gene, I think you are seeing scorn in my words that was never intended.

      As for answering #2, even if you have a difference of opinion with market anarchism, I don't see why you would then have to reject public-choice and other non-praxeological considerations to stab at the problem.

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    5. "As for answering #2, even if you have a difference of opinion with market anarchism, I don't see why you would then have to reject public-choice..."

      Iceberg, WHAT are you talking about?! I wasn't "rejecting" public choice in answering #2, because I WASN'T ANSWERING #2! I was only addressing question 1, for which public choice considerations are irrelevant. ("Would traffic flow better here with a traffic light or without one?" is not the sort of question to which one can apply public choice!)

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    6. Let's see how many ships this iceberg can sink before he melts.

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    7. You asked "And if question 1 can't be answered objectively, how can question 2 possibly be so answered?"

      So I explained why I addressed #2 even though #1 is technically a non-starter with me.

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    8. Ah, that!

      Public choice theory says that government officials may make inferior choices for the public because of self-interest. You deny that in terms of intersections, there ARE no objectively inferior choices.

      It's you who is rejecting public choice, mate.

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  4. I remember discussions of that on ancap boards a while ago. I was not alone, even there, in saying, "Er ... a privately run road system [say, for a small business district or Disneyland] would *also* have traffic lights and rules it enforced, at least sometimes. This evidence does not just apply to the state."

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    1. Exactly. If my experience with kanban tells me anything, it's that a private solution might have an even more ornate signalling solution. But the video linked in the original post does make a pretty good case for the inefficiency of the system at that particular place.

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  5. I absolutely agree with Gene here.

    The town I live (Graz) tests this FFA (Free for all) thing on junctions. They replaced a small but quite crazy roundabout with what they call a "Shared Space". In this junction now everyone (pedestrians, bicyclists, cars etc...) can go when and what way they want.
    It is not completely lawless there. Rules even if quite arbitrary that still needs to be fulfilled are:
    - Right has right of way
    - pedestrians are not allowed to suddenly enter the junction
    - car drivers need to slow down to a suitable speed
    - pedestrians need to cross it in a suitable speed

    Funny is though, this quite unique junction is not announced, so people who don't know about it are for sure surprised.

    And normally a "Shared Space" doesn't have an indicated roundabout in the middle (see the video below to see what I mean). Someone told me this was because the mayor wants to see the project fail and hopes this irritates people leading to some incidents... Whatever the motive behind this should be, I don't know. It certainly is strange to indicate a roundabout, because this way it is more like a roundabout just with less rules and not really a Shared Space..

    To be honest I don't see much of a difference to the way it was before, except nobody can fine me if I go round the English (left) way and that you can drive over the roundabout without damaging your car. So they blew 0.75 million EUR on not very much.

    See how it works:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgYzyGvMqjo

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