Monday, September 20, 2010

Ruminations on Politics Inspired by Two Hours Stuck in Traffic

While heading home Saturday from seeing a concert in New York City the night before, I ended up spending over two hours traveling less than 10 miles.  Given my obsession with politics this gave me lots of time to contemplate how traffic jams could be applied as an analogy to political economy.

Specifically, I was considering how our normal day to day life in political society functions much like a road system.  Every car functions the same way as an individual does, it can self navigate through the vast system that is life in a civilized society to reach a vast number of ultimate goals, more choices than any individual can really comprehend.  The system makes it incredibly efficient for any individual to reach any point connected to that road system.  Within the system, the individual has complete autonomy to reach whatever points are desired and is best able to control its own direction, the individual auto is the most efficient unit for selecting and connecting any two points.  As a side note, between a few very well traveled points mass transit can be even more efficient, and an analogy can be made to society at large.  This point shouldn't need further explication by me so I'll proceed onto others.

Of course sometimes it is possible to go off road.  In some cases this is just less efficient, off-roading is much harder on your car than traveling on a road is.  In many other cases however, the terrain is simply too rough for a car to travel.  Without roads, there are many places impossible for a car to get to.  This is comparable to society, within society many, many things are easier to do.  A few things are basically unchanged.  There is also a third set of activities that are impossible without a highly developed society to act within, this sphere of activities expands on a daily basis.

There is another category though where individual action has negative consequences.  This is when some sort of bottleneck causes a traffic jam.  In this situation, the most efficient way through the bottleneck is for everyone to be coordinated so they can proceed in an orderly fashion.  While most people do this naturally, there are always a few who will instead jockey for position.  This has two effects.  First, it makes the situation that much more dangerous for everyone.  In the case of the traffic jam leading to these reflections, in addition to the main accident that caused the slowdown I passed what appeared to be a secondary accident, much less severe, that resulted in further slowdown and that I speculate was caused by the starting and stopping of the traffic jam.

The second effect is that everyone is slowed down by the few people trying to get ahead.  They push to get just slightly ahead of everyone else, often by just a car length.  Doing this forces everyone behind them to slow down, costing the system as a whole far more time than that person saved.  Of course, since it is never just one person doing this that means that the person fighting to get ahead is slowed down more as well since they are being impacted by the systemic effects of the actions of other individuals like themselves.

To bring this back to an analogy for society, these are the situations where coordinated action are necessary.  Many issues are more like the main road system, each individual can maximize their own efficiency by choosing their own path, making their own decisions, and setting their own speed.  Other situations are bottlenecks.  Each individual fighting to get ahead slows everyone else down and is in turn slowed down by others doing the same.  Coordinated action makes everyone better off than competition does.

Of course, society isn't as simple as a road system.  Identifying which goals are more like the endpoints of trips on the main roadways and which are plagued by bottlenecks is tricky.  But this isn't impossible, we're better off trying to identify which are which than we are saying everything is like the open road or that everything is a bottleneck.

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