In the U.S. the boundary of space within which we are free to make our own decisions is shrinking year by year. In daily life we face a bewildering array of restrictions on our behavior. The government now dictates what medications we can purchase, the size of our drink cups, what advertisements we can see, whether we can eat fatty foods, what kind of milk we can drink, under what conditions we can or cannot own a gun, how and who we can marry, how we divorce, what jokes we can tell at work, what kind of medical care we receive, what the interest rate on our mortgage is, what kind of education our children receive, and which legal pleasures such as cigarettes and wine, are to be discouraged through higher taxes. Indeed it is difficult to find a meaningful choice that is not monitored by a bureaucracy and covered by some form of government regulation.
I am not naïve enough to believe that all these restrictions on individual choice have simply been foisted on us by an out-of-control state. I realize that many people feel that it is perfectly appropriate that these activities be regulated by government. The problem remains however, that when government forces people to do what it thinks is right, it prevents them from developing the instinct for learning what is right. Consequently, those who advocate freedom do so not because they side with one sector of society rather than another or because they want to experiment with exotic ways of living; they advocate freedom because it is only when men have the ability to choose wrong, that they can choose right, and so learn to be responsible human beings.
However, it is clear from some of the knee-jerk reactions to the recent Connecticut school shootings that we are not yet ready to welcome freedom with open arms. Furthermore, so many freedoms have been lost, and for so long, that most of us lack the imagination to conceive how things could work any differently. Change on the ground has to be preceded by a change of thinking and to affect that, people need to see how freedom actually works. What’s to be done?
One solution is to work incrementally to reintroduce freedom into our lives and observe how it works in practice. For example, reflect for a moment on what your initial reaction would be to the suggestion that we remove all traffic lights, signs, curbs and lane markings on some roads. I think it fair to say that most of us believe the result would be a chaotic mess at best and an anarchic bloodbath at worst. However, we would be wrong. This is exactly the experiment that has been carried out since 1999 in the city of Drachten, in the Netherlands. The experiment is counter-intuitive and contradicts virtually all conventional thinking about traffic engineering. However, it has also been a stunning success.
Before the invention of traffic lights there was a mutual give-and-take between pedestrians, carts, motor vehicles and bicycles. However, with the invention of the traffic light, the independent responsible judgment of motorists and pedestrians was replaced with a top-down engineered scheme of coordination. When the traffic light was removed it was as if these groups had suddenly been given a larger sphere of activity where they could exercise individual responsibility. Immediately everyone was forced to be more alert and to exercise a higher degree of common sense. The success of this experiment has led to a wave of ‘red light removal’ schemes across Europe and the United States. Freedom works. Let’s try it.
“It works well because it is dangerous, which is exactly what we want. But it shifts the emphasis away from the Government taking the risk, to the driver being responsible for his or her own risk.” Hans Monderman, Traffic Engineer, Drachten