Friday, December 21, 2012

Unregulated (but fun) chaos

What can ice skating teach us about self regulation?  Much, I think.

I happen to believe an ice skating rink of any size is the source of much hand wringing and anxiety for many a regulator.  Consider the following:  a mass of human beings with metal knives strapped to their feet sliding around, all at varying speeds, wearing very little protective equipment.  Throw children into the mix and this must surely create feigned nervousness for those with a hankering for government rules.

There’s more.  Inside the rink, the absence of life saving safety devices is forefront – no stop signs, warning signs, speed bumps, traffic signals, right-of-way indicators, flares, flashing signals, directional indicators, or other crucial safety controls are present to warn wary skaters of the obvious dangers.

How is it then, despite this unabridged lawlessness, very few accidents actually occur.  (I base this on my own experience skating)  Given that during one hour of skating on an Olympic-sized rink filled with 350 skaters, opportunities for accidents must be north of 10,000.  In fact, casual observation of skating would seem to suggest that it’s suicide.  At the conclusion of one hour of frolicking on the ice one would expect to carry off numerous dead bodies, sweep rows of teeth off the rink, and mop the blood from the ice.  Yet, with few exceptions, this isn’t the case.

Yesterday, I took the family skating in Seoul plaza in downtown Seoul.  A mere 1,000 Won got you onto the rink, skates included.  They limit the number to 500 each hour (at only 1,000 WON, there is almost unlimited demand, so they ration).  During our hour-long skate, I noticed several accidents, but most were the result of inexperienced skaters stumbling and falling, not reckless careening into other people.  I was amazed at how, as human beings, we instinctively know how to avoid an accident.  People are adept at self-regulating and social adaption.  We rarely require prodding and herding.

The lesson here is this: observed chaos needn’t always regulating.  Top-down rules, well-meaning regulations, and other impositions by the state often lead to unforeseen and undesirable consequences.  One example is traffic on Yongsan (Army base) during school hours.

School hours on post are marked by interminable waiting and dreadfully long lines of traffic.  The cause, at least in part, is the over-regulation by the MPs (military police).  During school hours, MPs erect barriers, traffic cones, and other vehicular impeding devices, all in an effort to manage the traffic.  Army officials see traffic and devise plans (rules and regulations) because they think their plan for managing it will result in fewer accidents and decreased wait times.  I would argue their plans have the opposite effect.

If, instead, officials allowed traffic to behave organically and instinctively, results would dramatically improve, and at much lower costs.  But this rarely happens.

Why is the proclivity for regulating chaos so prevalent in our society today?  Why have we been fooled into believing that top-down instruction is always superior than bottom-up self regulation?  Not only do we tend to surrender our liberty with all this oversight, we are left with fewer (good) choices.   

So, the next time you witness chaos, tarry a bit before calling for government oversight.  Chances are people will figure it out on their own.


  1. I can't find the video anymore, but there was tape showing what happened at a busy New Zealand intersection when the traffic lights failed. Previously, there had been long waits for the lights to change, and periods of waiting when no cars were coming. When the lights failed, the traffic moved much more smoothly, and there were no accidents. All in all, a net increase in efficiency with no detrimental events. Turns out, we don't actually want to have car accidents, so we all drive pretty carefully, and can in fact regulate ourselves.

  2. I also remember seeing a similar example. I'll look for it and post it if I run across it.

    Interestingly, the Koreans are much more cavalier than Americans with regard to driving (and other aspects of life). I'm working on a blog about motorcycles, but I want some video to accompany it. It's initially shocking to see how motorcycles navigate the streets over here, but then you just learn to accept it. More to follow on that.

  3. I added the video I took of us skating.

  4. Ha! Looks like fun. I haven't been skating in God knows how long.

    I must say, I miss teaching soldiers (and former Marines). Y'all were the cream of the crop.

  5. Thanks for the compliment.

    What? No ice skating in MN? That's skating country, no? Do any ice fishing? Do Minnesotans drag their shanties out on the ice and drink beer and fish on the weekends? Sounds kind of fun.