Highways and Choices

A highway maze in Los Angeles (Glen Scarborough)

We’ve all been on these highway mazes. Millions of cars traveling back and forth, on and off, between lanes. It seems as though it is a catastrophe waiting to happen. As we travel on these highways, surrounded by vehicles, our own actions control much of our fate. If we fall asleep, fail to see the red light, or forget to check our mirrors, we could cause something very bad to happen – to ourself, the people close to us, or the people we have never even met. But we don’t have complete control over our fate while driving. We are always dependent, to some degree, on the actions of other people. If the person driving next to us is texting or drinking, our lives could be taken in an instant – regardless of how good of a driver we may be.

The highway mazes like the one pictured above work surprisingly well however. With such a potential for disaster, how is it that there is only about 1 fatality for every 100 million miles driven? Laws attempt to influence a person’s driving decisions by issuing penalties for harmful behavior, they can not actually decide where each car goes. If we were to attempt to regulate the motion of every single car in America, the resulting devastation would be far greater than the devastation caused now. This can be easily demonstrated by a quick game of Flight Control, where players attempt to guide planes to a runway without them all crashing into each other.

In some way, every one of us is trusting a system of choices by the people around us when we get behind the wheel of the car. Why? Because it’s the best system we have. Sure, it is not without problems. There are collisions and deaths every day as a result of mistakes and poor choices. Unfortunately, there is no way to reach a “perfectly safe highway system”. No matter how hard we try, we will never be able to eliminate collisions.

I think the highway illustration carries great similarities to other areas of our country. In education, we’ve seen government spending triple over the last 40 years – and yet, barely any improvement in scores. The fact remains that the federal government is not good at planning the personal educations of 70 million students. More “accidents” happen when regulations and qualifications consume the time that school administrators and teachers could be using to teach students. Quite honestly, the people who know each student’s struggles are best equipped to solve them. Again, like the highway, this doesn’t mean that all students will do well in school without “crashing”. A certain part of the responsibility lies with their individual work ethic. Some responsibility may lie with the family atmosphere. But decentralized education is the best type of system we can get.

The analogy can be extended to healthcare as well. The new healthcare law creates commissions to decide whether care is “effective” or “useful”. The law creates agencies to determine if insurance policies are “too expensive” or “not comprehensive enough” for selling to other people. But it misses the point that every person is different. What my doctor recommends to me could be vastly different from what he recommends to you for the same problem. By trying to find an agreeable solution for “the common good”, the government strips trust from doctor’s decision-making and assumes the responsibility of all the healthcare decisions in the country. Because there is no possible way to decide how to treat everyone effectively based on a set of numbers and files, the result is that the quality of care decreases. Personal relationships and observations still remain the best way to analyze symptoms and discover cures for illnesses.

If you take a moment to think about it, you will be able to find many other applicable examples of the “highway maze analogy”. The bottom line remains: the best system we have to prevent chaos and spur economic growth is a system of individual responsibility in which each person makes the decisions most beneficial to themselves, and by doing so, helps society. Government’s role is to hold accountable those who show a disregard for human life by breaking the laws or intentionally harming others.

This system of choices takes power away from one person or group, and gives it to all the people. Isn’t that what our founders envisioned when they stood up for their freedom in 1776?

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9 responses to “Highways and Choices

  1. I have to say i really enjoyed this blog post. To Tom’s point about where is the line drawn between government regulation and free markets is a hard one to answer. When you look at the scenario of an individual needing to stop at a light vs. breaking the law runs into a question of ethics. The very fact the stop light exists is a form of government intervention in the first place. Government, in my view, needs to set the “rules of the game” and not intercede with the physical actions of people. In the stop light example a complete free marketeer could contend that government is intruding into the lives of the individual dictating how traffic should flow, and the reasonable solution is that people should just use caution and we would have a more efficient system. I contend otherwise. In order for such a system to operate without stop lights is to believe that all people are inherently good in nature and would yield when appropriate. To draw an analogy to real world economics, this is to say also that if we lived in a world in which people where inherently good than all businesses would report their REAL income so that they will pay the right amount of taxes. But we live in a world that people are not inherently good…but in the place of saying inherently good I would like to introduce another phrase…inherently OK. In other words we do see that it would be more efficient to run through an intersection because there is no harm done which may result in getting to an important meeting that would benefit a persons family (pure example here but i’m getting somewhere with this trust me), and businesses do play some tricks on their net income to say a few bucks for that new phone system they desperately need. Now, there is the percentage that do it for greed, like someone running the intersection because they are 5 mins late to work, and the small business owner wanting to buy a yacht. However, the lights in the intersection are a mere form of government setting the rules and not intervening . You still have a choice to run the light or not. At that point, it becomes a question of ethics as it relates to abiding by the rules or breaking them. In some instances it is necessary to break the rules, but ethically you have to get your wife to the hospital, or like mentioned earlier, the office has to get a new phone system. Whether or not you get caught is the enforcement mechanism that is so vital in a free society. There has to be some sort of “black market” in order to allow liberty to rain free. Government can’t dictate where a person has to go, they do not have the knowledge necessary to predict the most efficient outcomes, but along the way they need to set the rules of the game. Those “rules” are the stops signs or lights, speed limits, etc. Now on another note, the government gets into murky waters when they start to step across the threshold and say that you can only do a certain kind of action while driving. You are in your car, and you make the choice of looking down to pick up your cell phone to talk to someone. You make the choice to be distracted, but is it the governments place to say your not allowed to be distracted? This slippery slope of dictating to individuals what they can and can not do while driving. If you can not text and drive, then you can not set up your GPS and look at it while driving, and you can not change the radio station while driving, and you can not eat while driving. These are things every person does around the world while driving, the problem comes when the person allows their actions to be so consumed with what they are doing they lose sight of the road – not the mere fact that they changed a radio station or were trying to wolf down a double cheeseburger. The fact is as a good driver you look out for idiots, and it is not the governments place to tell me how to act.

    – Mike “the Economist” from Unapologetically Right Blog

    • Interesting analysis. I think the trouble with that is anyone who disagrees with you will come back and say, “It’s the government’s place to tell you how to act if it affects others and saves lives.” Which turns into a big theoretical argument about freedom vs. planning.

      Or couldn’t they argue that the government is only making more “rules” for the game by making these cellphone laws? You still have the choice to follow or break them, and there’s still the enforcement mechanism.

      Just playing devil’s advocate to challenge us both.

      Thanks for stopping by Mike! I’m listening to your podcast (WiRe) right now!

  2. …One other observation: ConsiderAgain started by saying we have all been in traffic with millions of cars on the road. But if you look at the picture of the traffic maze at the beginning of the discussion, it is the middle of the day (based on the shadows) and seems to be summer (based on greenery on the land) and yet there are maybe 50 cars and trucks in that massive interchange! I would love to be able to have that lack of traffic in my metro area. Driving would be more fun, too!! How’d you do it, ConsiderAgain?! 🙂

  3. I agree that the free market, driven by individuals, will make better decisions and provide better solutions in the long term than just relying on the government entity which has no competition.

    But there is a line here, and government does have a purpose to keep this from going too far, right? ConsiderAgain says “The bottom line remains: the best system we have to prevent chaos and spur economic growth is a system of individual responsibility in which each person makes the decisions most beneficial to themselves, and by doing so, helps society.” But in the highway analogy, wouldn’t that mean that I should ignore stoplights if there is nobody waiting on the other street? That would benefit me individually – but that would quickly lead to chaos that would hurt society in general. I don’t want the government to force me to drive a certain kind of car…but it is OK for them to force me to stop at stoplights. Where exactly should the line be drawn?

    Andrew had an excellent example of the government not forcing air bags, so that consumers and the auto industry could work together to determine the best type of passive restraint from all angles. Some would say that the government should not force the auto industry to include passive restraints at all. But I believe that if the government did not require those, we would still have many cars without them today — or at least it would have been an additional 10 years before they become commonplace in cars vs. when they actually did. So I believe the government did it right by requiring passive restraints but not requiring specific air bags. So again…where exactly should the line be drawn?

    Seems like a much more complicated answer that is unique to each scenario – and certainly not as easy as keeping the government out of everything.

    • …Tom is right…there is not a simple solution of keeping government out of everything. And the great thing is that the Constitution did not propose that. The great thing about that document is that it limited, but did not ban, government involvement. Law, at its core, is a social construct that optimally, is meant to maximize social and economic utility by providing a system that people follow, backed up by enforcement. Traffic law is a great example! Without laws telling us which lane to drive, to stop at red lights (though many ignore that one!!) etc., we would have clogged streets and highways every day and mass confusion and essentially, economic collapse since no one could get to work, except those working close to home or those working from home.

      Societal and economic stress comes from over-regulation, not regulation per-se. For instance, there have been bills proposed mandating tracking people in their vehicles. I think that “jumps the shark” in that it overrides people’s rights to privacy. But the great thing about the whole traffic/highway analogy to other areas of regulation is just how well traffic works…because government does not overly intrude or over-react to events in this specific area…because people have to get to work. The government has not taken over all of the transportation system in the United States. There are many modes of transportation, many providers, and competition…all under a basic system of laws without over-reaching…so that competition still creates efficiency. It is not perfect…no system could be. People still have accidents and die. Contractors still over-bid on contracts for road repairs sometimes. But the government has not used those as excuses to take over that system. The government has passed a law to take over the entire health care system. They have taken over the Student Loan program. They have passed an almost 1,200 page document last year regulating monetary transactions, on top of a myriad of already existing monetary regulations, that no one understands, last year. And actions such as those destroy efficiency and competition and economic growth and opportunity.

      If the national government would apply the basic system in place over traffic and analogize that to other areas, we would have a much more vibrant economy. The Federal Reserve did a study a few years ago, and found that nations with fewer regulations had faster economic growth, and that nations with more burdensome regulations had slower economic growth. There was an inverse relationship between the two. The United States has 22% more regulations per billion dollars of GDP than just five years ago. And our economic growth rate has slowed in the past decade overall to 0.1% GDP. It makes sense…because regulations cost money and at a certain point past the maximum utility threshhold, make hiring people too burdensome because of economic uncertainty and compliance costs. Even if we could just cut regulations back to where they were in 2008, I think it would greatly spur economic activity in the U.S.

    • Exactly. Government does have a purpose. And that is why I am not an anarchist. However, one could argue that stopping at a red light if there is no one around is not something that needs to be regulated. (many do argue this in fact) Instead, (as seen in some cities), red lights after a certain time at night could be treated as stop signs. This is usually done by making the red lights flash continuously.

      I’m not arguing against all laws, just the ones that try to fix something and end up making it worse. But correct, there is no perfect answer. There will be times when government intervention is needed. I think the point is that those instances are not the rule, they are the exception. There’s an excellent flowchart that diagrams a “test” for deciding whether there should be government intervention. It’s by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, in his book The Road to Freedom:
      http://arthurbrooks.aei.org/2012/05/10/the-proper-role-of-government-in-one-chart/

      Keep in mind the chart is referring to free markets in general. However, almost every single economist in history has agreed that SOME government intervention can actually strengthen a society.

  4. Individual choice relies not just on the driving habits of others, but on free market based decisions, driven by consumers, rather than governmental regulation. In ConsiderAgain’s blog, he referenced the one fatality per 100 million miles driven. Some of that is of course due to the behavior of others, as well as the driver. But some of it is due to safety equipment that consumers have CHOSEN, instead of being forced to accept. A few years ago, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 206 (FMVSS 206) mandated that car manufacturers slowly incorporate passive safety equipment into their vehicles (such as air bags). But the government did NOT require air bags themselves.

    FMVSS allowed manufacturers and engineers to come up with different passive devices, and let consumers choose, based on cost, and comfort, and design, and reliability, etc…the type of passive restraint that they would most like to have and for which they would be willing to pay. The result was that many devices were produced – and the best one, according to car buyers, based on the criteria above, was the air bag. But we would have never known if a better system was available if the government had mandated a specific thing. And now, of course, more and more lives have been saved, at a price-per-life (effectively) that consumers find acceptable. It is just another example of optimal free-market solutions that almost always, if not always, trump governmental “solutions.”

    In fact, government solutions are almost always worse than free market solutions, because there is no competition with government mandates. There is no compelling interest to improve, since there is no competition. And there is no learning curve from failure of government mandates. They just perpetuate year after year after year. Just look at Medicare and Social Security and the massive deficits they will run – and have never been fixed or addressed by the government. ConsiderAgain’s observation is correct that the best solutions are usually the ones closest to the problem – and the corollary is that the worst ones are usually from far away Washington, D.C.

    Finally, people learn from accidents. They learn not to tailgate, not to speed, etc. Some will fail and never learn. But that is just human variability. Giving people the chance to succeed and the chance to fail, both on the road and in the market place is extremely rewarding and valuable and fulfilling.

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