I like traffic lights.


I was driving on abandoned streets after a hurricane. My future wife was with me. Trees were down. Power was out in many neighborhoods. When we got downtown and I saw that traffic lights were working, I said, “I like traffic lights.”

My then-girlfriend-not-even-yet fianc�e said, “But you’re an anarchist.”

I said, “And I like packet routers on the Internet, too.”

According to the manuscript I’m editing, “Generations of students were taught that socialism was, in theory at least, a viable economic system; some authors even went so far as to argue — statistics at hand — that the Soviet economies of Eastern Europe were superior or about to become superior to the capitalist economies of the West.”

A footnote adds: “See in particular the various editions of the most important Western textbook of the postwar years, Paul Samuelson’s Economics. In the very last edition that appeared before the collapse of the Soviet empire, Samuelson stated that it might soon surpass the Western economies.”

I audited an intro econ course with Jim Cox. The text he used was McConnell & Brue. I was pleased to be exposed to what mainstream neoclassical mishmosh is the most popular intro text in college economics — pleased the way I’m pleased to have visited places I never want to return to, or witnessed events I hope never recur.

In the 800 page text, the question of economic freedom gets exactly one page, with “conservative” Milton Friedman’s perspective given first.

Friedman basically argues for localism, federalism, and the right of exit — very straight-forward decentralism, presented pragmatically, not ethically. (I’m not sure how well that actually represents Friedman’s policy proposals, but it’s what he said in the one paragraph the textbook quotes.)

Then we get “liberal” Paul Samuelson’s “rebuttal”:

Traffic lights coerce me and limit my freedom. Yet in the midst of a traffic jam on the unopen road, was I really “free” before there were lights? And has the algebraic total of freedom, for me or the representative motorist or the group as a whole, been increased or decreased by the introduction of well-engineered stop lights? Stop lights, you know, are also go lights…. When we introduce the traffic light, we have, although the arch individualist may not like the new order, by cooperation and coercion created … greater freedom.

— Paul A. Samuelson, “Personal Freedoms and Economic Freedoms in the Mixed Economy,” in Earl F. Cheit (ed.), The Business Establishment (New York: Wiley, 1964), p. 219.

As an “arch individualist” I spend way too much time arguing with people who don’t even understand the position they think they oppose. Philosophical individualism isn’t just one straw man, but an army of them. An army of straw zombies. (Yes, the mixing of the metaphors compounds.) As soon as you take one apart, you’re expected to defend the next one. I realize that defining terms is essential. I realize that we will often have to remind people of those defined terms. But for some reason, everyone thinks they know what individualism is and most of them will return to that impression no matter how many times you point out that they’ve changed the subject. It grows really tiring.

So I leave Samuelson’s strawman as an exercise for the reader.

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2 Responses to I like traffic lights.

  1. born to run says:

    I’ll take a run at the strawman. First, such a scenario supposes the existence of public roads. Otherwise, the private owner of a road would be free, from a free-market standpoint, to create whatever regulations he desires. Therefore, the only reason the issue of traffic lights arises is because of public roads. Before one can comment on the “freedom” granted by traffic rights, one must first demonstrate how one gains freedom by being forced to pay for public roads.Further, any situation involving coercion must grant one set of individuals a benefit at the expense of the coerced. For example, the motorist who is late for work and is stopped at a traffic light suffers a loss of freedom to continue driving. This logic ultimately leads to the conclusion that the minority may be coerced into or out of actions that benefit or harm, respectively, the majority. Such logic could be used to say that that had the average German citizen benefitted from using Jews for slave labor or stealing their possessions and thus had freedom to occupy land previously occupied by Jewish people or spend money once owned by Jews, Nazis created more freedom because the majority benefitted from the horrible treatment of the Jews.

  2. iceberg says:

    Born to Run pretty much said what I was going to in his first paragraph.Anyway, what I wanted to add was the < HREF="http://blog.mises.org/blog/archives/002834.asp" REL="nofollow">Mises blog entry<> on a December < HREF="http://wired-vig.wired.com//wired/archive/12.12/traffic.html?pg=1&topic=traffic&topic_set=" REL="nofollow">Wired article<> which came out in favor of Road Anarchy.

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