During past summers, I have noted the connection between Adam Smith’s laissez-faire and no traffic lights here in Nantucket. But things have changed.
My Original Post
Located 30 miles from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the island of Nantucket has no traffic lights. Instead, drivers respond to stop signs, rotaries, and courtesy. More often than not, if a pedestrian, a walker, or a biker needs to cross the street, cars stop. When someone is making a left turn or leaving a parking lot on a busy street, cars stop. And, drivers usually smile and street crossers wave thank you.
Nantucket’s lack of lights started me thinking about Adam Smith. Economic thinker (there were no economists in 1776) Adam Smith suggested that less government was better than more government. Smith believed that human nature was so diverse and policy consequences so unpredictable, that, although imperfect, less government could ultimately lead to more virtuous human behavior. For example, told their taxes will be increased to help the less fortunate, certain people express resentment. However, voluntarily giving the same amount to charity can evoke pride and generosity.
A Post Script
Furthermore, we can always remember the benefits of self-interest even when virtue is absent. As Smith explained, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
I am concerned though that this year, fewer cars are stopping. So yes, there is still that pleasant connection between the pedestrian and drivers when they let someone cross. However, five, six or seven cars can speed by me before one stops. And when I let another driver enter the road from a cross street, all too often, I get no wave that says thanks.
Our Bottom Line: Laissez-Faire
So I guess I have questions about laissez-faire that I have not had in the past. Yes, it is ideal to encourage our own virtue and even our self-interest. And yes, I would like to depend on less regulated markets. However, I do wonder how many cars have to ignore me before I start to contemplate the value of a stop light.