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The Traffic Analogy: Reconsidering Self-Organization

Traffic Jam

China. Nine Days of Traffic. Where are you going?

Some of the time, traffic jams are caused by accidents or poor driving conditions. Most of the time, however, they are due to human driving mentality. A video can explain this pretty well; it came from Japanese scientists at University of Nagoya studying how human tendencies can create traffic:

What we see is a slow in speed create a ripple effect that spreads backwards causing traffic for no apparent reason. In real-life traffic situations, these ripples are generally created when a driver is on another driver’s tail and the driver in front hits the brakes. On the other hand, these ripples are generally avoided or reduced when the follower leaves enough space between him and the car ahead of him. In other words, it is in the individual’s self interest to allow space between them and the car in front of them if they want the system to move quicker.

Self-organization affects us not only on the road but also in just about everything. And by that, I mean government. This traffic thought reminded me of some very fundamental assumptions of capitalism and free market principles–specifically capitalism. Capitalism is a system built on the assumption that individual pursuit of rational self-interest, and the preservation and advancement of the self, can lead to economic prosperity* (See “Adam Smith” on Wikipedia). So how has that been holding up?

As we see in the traffic example, driving as fast as you can is actually not the most rational way to get to where you want to go the fastest. Allowing space ahead of you to absorb breaks in the flow or traffic or to let people move into your lane and get up to speed improves the system for everyone. And similarly with capitalism, we see that rapid advancement of one entity is not only bad for the whole but ends up being bad for the individual. It is not rational to chop down all the trees in the world to sell as lumber to maximize your company’s profit (we need some trees for air).

It is no secret that there are fundamental flaws with capitalism. Nevertheless, it often seems as though capitalism is the most efficient system for self-organization because human nature appears to be full of greed and self-interest. “Socialism and communism just cannot work!” As we have seen them, they certainly cannot work. Capitalism has produced far better results… but we can’t turn a blind eye; capitalism and its ideals are failing us as well.

I used to be capitalism’s #1 fan, and I mentally closed off other possibilities. Reading Ascent of Humanity by Charles Eisenstein compensated for my lack of creativity, however, as I learned that in our history we did, indeed, self-organize without the principles of private property and rational self-interest. In the book, he points out that during hunter and gatherer times, we naturally acted in the best interest of the whole. This amazing trait was due to one simple truth: interdependence. Without the group, an individual in the wilderness would soon be dead. While the thought of reverting to hunter-gatherer times is a bit silly, it serves as a reminder that individuals acting in the best interest of the whole is possible.

What’s funny is that although we have advanced from hunter-gatherer times, we are still subject to the same interdependency–it is just harder to see. When you can sit in your house and order everything you need with a credit card and never interact with a human, you begin to believe you don’t need anyone else. But we can’t forget that without the trees, or the birds, or the insects, we would all be dead. If the Chinese make a species extinct, that will affect us all. If nuclear bombs go off, that will affect us all. Consider even, that without each other, money has no value, nor does prestige exist. Interdependence is law.

When we embrace our interdependence, we will increase our chances of survival. One who knows of his dependency on the whole will not steal from it. It is misguided to aim to create this interdependence. It is more correct to aim to realize that we already are interdependent.

Assumptions on these levels are healthy to question as #OccupyWallStreet protesters crowd the streets with unclear demands. They are healthy to question as voters prepare to rate politicians who offer band-aid solutions to problems and, along with the media, generally ignore conscious discussion of the underlying beliefs we share as a community. These days, we have become distracted by topical issues such as “what is the proper tax rate” or “should there be outsourcing,” and have moved away from more fundamental questions such as “what is the role of government?” Are we working in harmony with the natural law of interdependence?

“Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being.” Mohandas Gandhi

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*While one can easily argue that there is more “economic prosperity” today than there has ever been in history, one would have a much more difficult time stating that capitalism is the most effective system in “economic prosperity” advancement. I put quotes around “economic prosperity” because that term’s meaning is overwhelmingly subjective.

For more information on the traffic study, find the New Scientist article here (opens in new window).

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