I just returned from two weeks in China. Chinese traffic frightens me. Every time I crossed a street or, worse, got into a taxi, I feared for my life.
It’s not that traffic is so heavy in China or that they drive so fast. My fear came from utter unpredictability. The streets are crowded with cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and every possible kind of motorized contraption, including 3-wheeled vehicles powered by one-cylinder engines carrying goods, industrial materials, and people.
Lane lines are mere suggestions. People drive against traffic and up one-way streets, make left turns in front of oncoming traffic, and constantly weave back and forth. Scooters don’t obey traffic lights. Cars park in traffic lanes on major streets. Nobody gives way for pedestrians, even if they use the striped crosswalks. It’s marginally safer on the sidewalk, as long as you watch out for motorcycles.
Everybody honks at everybody else. In my hotel room above the city, I could hear a constant din of honking all day, and I was awakened in the night by horns just below my window.
Everyone drives egotistically, doing what is most convenient at any moment. The result is chaotic, inefficient, and dangerous.
Where vehicles are few, elaborate traffic rules are unnecessary. As soon as traffic becomes heavy, the flow must be regulated to promote efficient movement and to prevent accidents. Traffic laws give the smallest cars the same rights as an 18-wheeler; someone who can afford only a bicycle can use the roads the same as the richest Hummer owner. The individual freedom of drivers is highly restricted on modern streets in order to maximize the well-being of all. You barely notice how constrained your driving is, until you experience unregulated traffic.
Proponents of unrestricted individual freedom in modern society act as if universal egotism is unquestionably the best social system. They proclaim that social restrictions on the individual’s ability to do whatever they want are immoral and inefficient. They ignore examples like traffic, where their theories would cause chaos.
In complex modern societies and economies, individual freedom must always be balanced by the welfare of the community. Attempts to maintain or promote equality can conflict with the desires of the richest and most powerful to use their resources to their greatest advantage.
Where government regulation is weak, garbage is dumped where poor people live and public waterways are polluted by big industries. Workplaces are dangerous and food might be contaminated. The majority of ordinary citizens can only protect their individual pursuit of happiness by banding together through representative government, where each person has an equal vote.
The legislation in Congress to regulate Wall Street and the big banks is a perfect example of the clash of individual freedom and the social good. The freedom in question is that of a tiny minority of the richest Americans who control vast resources that we invest. Their selfish pursuit of greed brought down our national economy. We, the majority, have both the right and the responsibility to limit their freedom in order to protect our interests.
Egotistical individualism is unpleasant to encounter on a personal level. As the basis of society, it encourages honking at 2 AM.
I’d like to see the radical critics of our government’s efforts to promote a just social system try driving in China. It might help them see the flaws in their theories.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 11, 2010