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Marcuse and the traffic jam

Herbert Marcuse had this idea that I quite like to repeat that individual rational actions can lead to irrational behaviour in aggregate. The example he used to illustrate his point was that every day people make the rational decision to drive to work, yet their aggregated individual decisions lead to a traffic jam. The point is significant in several ways, and it could easily be taken in a rightist direction—even though Marcuse was the darling of the New Left back in the 1960s (personally taught Angela Davis, the right-on black CPUSA candidate for Vice President, y’all).

Yet the traffic jam point could easily be taken to illustrate the “madness of crowds”, it could be taken to contradict the libertarian idea that catallaxy—spontaneous order—governs social relations if people are left alone to pursue their rational interests; they don’t even have to act in an irrational way for the overall result to be irrational and inefficient. Actually, if you just leave them alone with their automobile they all drive into a trap—a self-created trap; perhaps what they need is a maximum leader to direct…

Of course, Marcuse didn’t take it in that direction. His criticism was directed at “the man” (as they said in those days)—the traffic jam came about because technology is deployed in a certain way under capitalism, we need “alternative technologies” and “alternative strategies” to recreate both the capitalist West and the USSR.

It’s why the hippy lying on the sidewalk on the Haight-Ashbury circa 1967 with his guitar and blotter pad of LSD, perhaps himself a drop-out from a Marcuse seminar, would have had the following interchange with a crew-cut, suit-wearing “square”. “Why don’t you get a hair cut, take a shower, and get a goddamn job? Are you mad? Why can’t you be reasonable?” “Man, like, man, I tell you, brother—here’s the lowdown—you talk about being ‘rational’, man, but you’re gonna sit in a traffic jam for three and a half hours there and back to Fresno. And you call me irrational? Man, you’re outta sight, you’re kooky, brother. Ain’t no reason behind that, brother—no more than when LBJ fried those little Vietnamese babies.” <<Offers the square a flower, square storms off to nurse his nascent ulcer at O’Malley’s Bar>>.

Yet there is a point to the traffic jam story. A few years ago, I was in an Uber in LA. We were in a traffic jam and I nodded off to sleep in the rain, when I came round about an hour and a half had passed—we had moved a few feet. I lolled back to sleep—it had been a long day; it was that sleep that comes over you when you’re so tired you don’t have a choice but to sleep, no matter where you are. And that Uber was so warm and the LED lights were so dreamy and hazy through the rain-splattered windows. When I woke up again, four hours had passed—and, yes, we had actually made progress. I would be home in half an hour. I had travelled about eleven miles; it would have been faster to get out and walk, except there was nowhere to walk and it is reasonably dangerous to freestyle walk on an elevated freeway in the rain-spattered dark. Is this situation really rational?

I think the answer is no. Now, the hippy isn’t entirely correct—the guy who is stuck in traffic might be partially trapped by his reason, but his actual job is not unreasonable and neither is his suburban home and family. He happens to be trapped in a particular lacuna of reason and perhaps we could use reason to extract ourselves from it—as may happen (may happen) in LA if we get these hyperloop tunnels (an entirely reasonable system, although notably one that reduces individual rational autonomy—one in the eye for “spontaneous order” enthusiasts; the LA traffic problem may be alleviated by “Lord Musk” and a system that is hybrid between private car ownership and public transport).

Still, I think the point remains that there is a certain “irrationality to rationality” and many people would defend the irrational element in technology with the defence that “you could use your laptop to catch up on work” or “play video games on the backseat Uber system”—or, in true rationalisation, “you caught up on sleep so that was good, right?”. Yes, technology can patch technology—and perhaps the traffic jams are just a temporary logjam that “someone” will work out (perhaps we were just waiting for hyperloop—waited several decades, mind); and yet that doesn’t really address the point that reasonable behaviour does not reliably lead to reasonable outcomes—and that has implications for ideas like “the free market”, “the market place of ideas”, and classical liberalism in general.


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