Anarchy in Fairfax County.

Yesterday I left the house around 6:15 am to go to my gym. On the way there, I encountered a dead traffic light. No flashing yellow, no signals, nothing.

It was the intersection of a fairly major road and a minor road leading into a neighborhood.

The four or five of us on the major road slowed down and went through the light. The 2 cars on the minor road waited and went through the intersection after we’d passed.

On the way back though, traffic had picked up considerably and there were now cars waiting on both roads, in all 4 directions. To accommodate the heavier traffic, the flow had changed. Now people were treating the intersection like a four way stop. Two cars on the North/South road would go through, then 2 from the East/West road.

I sat through five or six cycles and not one person violated the norm of the four way stop.

That was it. No light, no traffic cop, no signals at all. Just anarchy, solving a problem among strangers.

Anarchy gets a bum rap.

When most people think of anarchy, they think of bomb-throwing radicals who want to destroy society.  If they remember any of their 7th grade history class, they remember that the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a supposed anarchist, triggering World War I.

These hardly seem like the kind of people who could solve a nasty traffic problem.

That’s because we use the word anarchy in several different and incompatible ways.  In popular usage, anarchy means a lack of law, a break down of the rules that allow society to function.  In this view, anarchists are bomb-throwing radicals bent on destruction for destruction’s sake. Technically, such people should be called Nihilists, not Anarchists, but the difference is lost on most people.

Donny: Are these the Nazis, Walter?
Walter Sobchak: No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there’s nothing to be afraid of.   – The Big Lebowski

There are economists who study Anarchy seriously, like Peter Leeson of George Mason University and maybe 3 others.  For them, anarchy retains its original meaning; not a lack of law, but a lack of rulers.  In this view, individual people create laws from the bottom up, based on experience and trial and error. They follow these laws because doing so helps everyone get along and make their way in life.

These laws are enforced through a variety of non-governmental mechanisms, including the threat of lose of reputation in the community, shame and shunning. These mechanisms are strong enough to cause most people to follow the norms of the society most of the time.

By this definition, there is a surprising amount of anarchy in the world. In international relations, most interactions between countries are between sovereign peers with no over-riding ruler enforcing treaties or borders. (There are some glaring exceptions in recent decades, obviously). Instead, threats of peer-to-peer retaliation, lose of access to international markets and funds and sometimes, military threats, are the stuff  of international regulation.

In modern times, international trade is largely regulated by anarchy.  In the colonial era, countries would use military means to enforce trade obligations and contracts in other countries (usually obligations and contracts which had been unilaterally imposed on the weaker country by the stronger).  This was law enforced by a ruler, usually a monarch.

Today, international trade disputes are much more likely to be settled using anarchic mechanisms like those used in international relations.

Anarchy even rules our every day lives.  The vast, vast majority of us behave as decent, civilized, social people, not because there are policemen constantly looking over our shoulders, but because we want to. Following the norms and emergent laws of our society, enforced by ruler-less mechanisms like reputation and shame, makes us safer, more productive and happier.

These anarchic mechanisms are even strong enough to order interactions between complete strangers who will never meet face to face.  Like drivers at a defunct traffic light.

A Note on Four Way Stops

There are times when the formal law, as defined by the ruler, conflicts with the emergent law of the anarchic people. In those cases, anarchy almost always wins.

Yesterday’s traffic light is a perfect example. The formal law says that at a four way stop or malfunctioning traffic light, one car should pass through the intersection at a time and right-of-way proceeds counter-clockwise (as viewed from above) around the intersection.

Of course, no one ever follows that law.  If you try to negotiate a four way stop using this rule, you’ll like be subjected to dirty looks, horn honking and other forms of social disapproval.

The way a a four way stop really works is that two cars on one of the roads, one in each direction,  cross the intersection, then two cars, again one in each direction, go. If someone has to make a left, the pattern is broken for one cycle, then quickly reforms. Frequently, drivers making right turns sneak through while two cars going straight occupy the body of the intersection.

Despite this apparent chaos, four way stops are not abattoirs. One rarely finds burned out cars and corpses piled around four way stops.

It seems that people are just smart enough to adopt rules which let them perform common tasks, like driving past another car, without risking certain death.

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About fzinger

I read and I write. I read a lot and I write when I can.
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3 Responses to Anarchy in Fairfax County.

  1. W.M. says:

    Dude, that wasn’t anarchy, that was state law. If a stop light is out, you treat it as if there were stop signs present. When you slowed down and went through it, you broke the law. Those coming from the minor road were simply smart enough to know that most people don’t know that law, and physics trumps right-away.

    http://www.virginiadot.org/info/faq/traffic_lights.asp

    • fzinger says:

      W.M. – Actually, this was anarchy in the sense I was using the word. No one was following the state law.

      The law says the driver on the left must yield to the driver on the right. So one car at a time goes through the intersection and right-of-way proceeds clockwise as viewed from above. No one treats a dead stop light or 4-way stop like that.

      Instead, as I pointed out in the blog posting, they go through in pairs, North/South then East/West. As traffic picked up, every single person who went through that intersection followed that norm. And every single one of them violated the state law.

  2. Jon says:

    Given the number of people who *also* violate traffic law by not using their turn signals, I never assume the guy going straight in the other direction at a four way stop is actually going straight. So at least some of us do follow that law, out of a sense of self-preservation if nothing else.

    Of course intersections aren’t going to be abattoirs even in the worst case scenario, since (a) people are rarely moving fast enough for collisions to cause burned out cars and corpses and (b) after the first visible accident, other people will become more cautious.

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