Thursday, June 16, 2005

Mr. Smith Does Traffic

Driving in the Northern Virginia 'burbs can be a competitive adventure. Often described as the rat-race, wave after wave of commuters herk-and-jerk their way down our increasingly crowded roadways. Who likes sitting in traffic? Even those that enjoy driving wish they could safely arrive at their destination more quickly.

I have a preferred route when travelling to and from work, but if the lights or traffic just aren't going my way I can make a turn and take an alternate route. WTOP graces us with traffic and weather together on the 8's so we can intellegently choose the best route. Getting home faster is good for me, but it helps other people too.

I have very little concern about the commute time of random strangers, but my actions help them get home more quickly. I see congestion and I follow my own interest - but in doing that I get out of the way for others. I help distribute traffic more evenly. My little car makes very little impact on the average travel time of the DC Metro commuter, but a whole lot of people making decisions impacts traffic greatly. Out of the chaos of all those individuals comes a strange sort of organization. If the roads and number of commuters stayed the same, could a well-intentioned bureaucrat do a better job directing traffic than all the self-motivated individuals?

Those who stayed awake in Economics 101 will recognize this as yet another example of the "invisible hand", an idea introduced by Adam Smith in his keystone book The Wealth of Nations. Could he be right? Even though we are selfish and greedy could we be inadvertently helping society?


  1. My gut reaction is to say no. Probably b/c to concede on that point is the entry point to all kinds of 'Corporations are Good' arguements. In the view of corporate greed, the idea is to buy WTOP, get contracts to put up electronic signs, and do everything to convince the masses that 495 is bumper to bumper - with every expectation of getting those people to steer clear and then use 495 for their own corporate executive driveway.

  2. Why focus on this mysterious identity "corporations". I am certainly the last person that would promote the the limitation of individual liberty to promote a special-interest like a corporation. I am talking about the invisible hand - through rationally self-interested behavior we help others, even though that is not our intention. You have no sort of altruism that leads you to show up at your job each day. You care about your own well-being, and by helping yourself you help your company, its customers, and its customers' customers.