Anarchy in the Streets

by: Butler Shaffer

Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.
~ Henry Adams

How often do discussions on the prospects of a stateless society produce the response that, without government, there would be “anarchy in the streets”? To many people, the streets are symbolic of society, and with good reason: they are the most visible networks through which we interact with one another. They are much like the major arteries (we even use that word to describe streets), veins, and capillaries that transport blood throughout our bodies. Each can be thought of as the carrier of both food and waste to and from individual cells.

The thought that city streets – upon which we depend for daily functioning – could ever become disorderly, leads most people to accept a governmental policing function of such avenues without much question. We imagine that without speed limits, traffic lights at busy intersections, and all of the varied warnings plastered on tens of thousands of signs that encumber streets in our cities, driving would become a turbulent and destructive undertaking.

For a number of years now, a number of cities in Europe have been experimenting with the removal of all traffic signs – including traffic lights, stop signs, speed limit directives – and with surprising results. Various towns in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, New Zealand – even the UK! – have joined in the experiment. Contrary to the expectations of those who might expect multi-car pileups throughout the cities, traffic accidents have been dramatically reduced (in one town, dropping from about eight per year to fewer than two). Part of the reason for the increased safety relates to the fact that, without the worry of offending traffic sign mandates, or watching for police speed-traps, or checking the rear-view mirror for police motorcycles, drivers have more time to pay attention to other cars and pedestrians.

The architect of this experiment, the late Hans Monderman, attributed its success to the fact that “it is dangerous, which is exactly what we want.” “Unsafe is safe” was the title of a conference held on this practice. Monderman added that this effort “shifts the emphasis away from the Government taking the risk, to the driver being responsible for his or her own risk.” Equally significant, drivers now focus more of their attention on other motorists – taking visual cues from one another, informally negotiating for space, turning into an intersection, etc. – instead of mechanistically responding to signs and electronic machines. Monderman stated: “When you don’t know exactly who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users. You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care.” He added: “The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior.” In words so applicable to the rest of our politically-structured lives, he declared: “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.” Monderman expressed the matter more succinctly in saying: “When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots.”

Formal rules divide us from one another; the more rules that are imposed upon our conduct, the greater the distances among us.

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