Why do you stop at red lights?

I recently asked a co-worker this question when we were talking about law.  It went something like:

Me:  Why do you stop at red lights?

Her:  Because it’s the law.

Me:  You mean the law as in the rules on the books?

Her:  Of course.

Me:  Do you drive the speed limit?

Her:  Well close to it.

Me: But over it, right?

Her:  Well, yeah, doesn’t everybody?

Me:  Okay. Are you still sure that you stop at red lights because it’s a rule that’s written down?  You just admitted that you don’t follow another written down rule.

Her:  Not really.  So, why do I stop at red lights?

Me:  I’m going to give you a choice.  I can give you the answer and the way you look at the world may change.  Or, I will not give you the answer and you can go on believing the world around you behaves in a way that it does not.

Her:  Okay, quit the Matrix b.s. and tell me for crying out loud.

Me:  Well.  There’s a couple reasons you stop at a red light.  One is your own safety.  You know that you don’t stop at green lights.  And you know that nobody else does either.  So, if you ran red lights, the direct consequences could be great and you could do you and others serious harm.  The main reason you stop at red lights is because it pays off well for you to do so.

Her:  Okay.

Me:  Another reason is that at some point in time, the color red became associated with stopping in traffic.  No central body sat around and said red lights will be the standard for that.  It emerged somewhere as a practice and stuck.  As far as I know, most traffic laws are passed by city and state governments.  Yet, somehow, without a centralized standards committee on traffic signaling, red emerged as the signal for stopping and green for go.  And it’s just not in the U.S.  It’s pretty much everywhere there’s traffic — other countries, railroads, airport runways, boats and so forth.  So, that’s why you stop at the color red.  (This website claims that the traffic signal was adapted from the railroad by an innovative officer in Michigan).

Her: Okay.  So what’s your point?

Me:  My point is that you, like most people, think you stop at red lights because “it’s the law”.  It is in a sense, but not the sense you are thinking.  You are thinking of legislation, or the law that some governing body has written down on paper.

However, if we investigated all legislation, we’d probably find many “laws” that we break.

You stop at red lights because “it’s the law” in the sense that it’s an evolved social norm.  This norm evolved to help keep us safe.  And it works.  Do you know how I know it works?

Her: I bet you’re going to tell me.

Me: Because we still practice it and it more or less keeps hundreds of millions, if not billions of people safe.  I’m guessing if we looked into history, we might find that there were other things tried, but they didn’t work as effectively.

Roundabouts and cloverleafs, for example, also seem to be effective ways to handle intersections in traffic, the real estate and additional construction cost probably doesn’t make them as cost effective as traffic signals.

Laws are really developed in the crucibles of human interactions and emerge as social norms, customs and practices.

They rarely emerge from legislators or judges, even though most people think that’s exactly where they come from.

Her:  Gee.

This conversation was inspired by this lecture from Don Boudreaux:

The video is worth your time.  If you don’t have that kind of time to sit at the computer, then you can also download an EconTalk podcast from 2006 that’s essentially the same material.

Listen to it if you want to escape the Matrix.


21 thoughts on “Why do you stop at red lights?

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  3. I’m afraid my tickets for “failing to stop” at a red stop sign disprove your nicely stated argument.

    So does the fact that Brits drive on the “wrong” side of the road. Things don’t magically “just work out” without some democratically elected representatives flipping the coin and making the call.

    But your comments do reinforce an idea I’ve been kicking around, that Libertarianism is similar to a cult, with its own language and belief system.

    There is an almost superstitious fear of government that seems to possess the Libertarian mind. Most people can go outside, but an agoraphobic holds back. Most people understand that a government run by the people will indeed screw-up from time to time, but the people will eventually repair the damage and continue to have faith in the democratic process.

    • So you don’t stop at red lights, not even a high percentage of the time that encounter them? I guess you are right. My argument won’t apply to incompetent drivers.

      Local conventions aren’t the flip of coin. They evolve and then they are codified and then evolve more as they bump up against neighboring conventions.

      What’s the purpose of your cheap shots and straw man characterizations of libertarianism? That’s the same tactic a racist uses to maintain his false biases.

  4. Sorry to be so long. I’ve got to remember to check those “Notify” boxes before I start a comment, otherwise it’s too late!

    The Mormons believe that gold tablets were discovered documenting Jesus’s visit to American Indians.

    Libertarians believe that non-coercion gives them the right to throw a black man out of a restaurant displaying a “Whites Only” sign. See the problem?

    But the myth in your article above, is that government’s legislative function is unnecessary, because all the rules can be worked out informally.

    But the legislature is necessary to codify and enforce a standard set of rules of the road, including traffic signals, lane markings, warning signs, etc. The legislators may or may not personally work out the details, but they do create the departments that recommend them and the police who enforce them.

    The weird thing is that the people have obviously tried your methods over the years and the result is government. Why? Rather than mull around trying to get every individual’s personal approval, we delegate these decisions to people we elect specifically to study issues, consider options, and then create working rules to try. If they don’t work out, we send them back to the drawing board until we get a set of rules that do work.

    I believe that the myth you seem to be spreading is a religiously held belief among Libertarians. It seems to be confounded by the evidence of history.

    • ‘Libertarians believe that non-coercion gives them the right to throw a black man out of a restaurant displaying a “Whites Only” sign.’ Incorrect. You keep wanting to have that fight here, even though nobody here acknowledges it.

      “But the myth in your article above, is that government’s legislative function is unnecessary, because all the rules can be worked out informally.” Incorrect. That was never said. Good legislation tends to reflect the informal norms.

    • Marvin – You seem to have a real grudge against Libertarians and particularly against white folks from the South because of their beliefs in one case and race/location in the other. In the first case, that’s intolerance. In the second, it’s called racism. Rather than working things out with your neighbors, your solution to every problem seems to be to run to the government to go after the “evil” Libertarians or white guys. Yet, you expect race relations to improve if blacks and whites are just forced to interact. Let me give you a clue – if you cannot successfully negotiate and work with white people and run to the government every time things don’t go your way, they’ll despise you.

      As to your objections to Seth’s valid and true argument, you’re so far off base in terms of how much of our law is shaped – common law – that it bogles the mind. Your concepts of the American founding, constitutional principals and our legal system seem to be snippets you parrot from some leftist nitwits.

      I find your arguments regarding affirmative action, civil rights and revenge for what was done decades ago to other people and by people who are largely deceased both hypocritical and racist. You complain about white discrimination against blacks that occurred years ago, yet advocate black discrimination against whites today. Didn’t your mom ever tell you that two wrongs don’t make a right?

      You have stated that blacks should receive special favors until they advance to the point that they are on apr with whites, but that will never happen – on a permanent basis – as long as blacks receive special favors. Contrary to your convoluted understanding of economics, supplying blacks with special favors (affirmative action) removes the incentive for blacks to develop the skills to truly compete with everyone else based on productivity. As such, it encourages blacks to permanently remain second class workers. Of course, if your goal is simply to get the rewards without the work, affirmative action makes sense – but it’s also immoral.

      • Mike, I am very much against any “affirmative action” program that would promote or certify an unqualified applicant for any job or admit an academically unqualified student to college. As I’ve said several times here, that would be counter-productive to the goals of Affirmative Action.

        But if you have fully qualified black applicants, who have successfully passed the all the tests, and demonstrated that they are academically talented enough to enter college, then they should not be denied due to a few points difference in the SATs.

        If the only reason they would be denied is because there are not enough seats in the college classroom to accept all qualified applicants, then due to the fact that we have previously excluded them deliberately, we should deliberately include them now. That is just being fair.

        The New Haven firefighters case reminds me of the many religious freedom cases that pop up from time to time. A high school principal will get the mistaken notion that students may not pray in school, when that was never prohibited at all. In New Haven, they mistakenly thought they might be sued the other way, so they made the judgment error to discard the test results. The Supreme Court found that the testing agency had taken sufficient steps to insure racial neutrality, and the scores were upheld.

        It is not surprising that some high school principals make bad calls on religious liberty. After all, there is a lot of publicity out there by the right-wing claiming that prayer in school is gone and that our children are being taught secular humanism.

        It would be great if everybody acted on better information and less on rumor. It is only a false rumor that Affirmative Action lowers qualification requirements. And I wish that those who have a respect for the truth would stop spreading rumors.

        It is not a “special favor” to give a job or admit to college someone who has in fact taken the responsibility to become fully qualified and academically prepared. And it would be nice if rumors about Affirmative Action would stop.

        But that requires a commitment to truth.

        • I’m not sure if it’s naivety (that’s PC for something more harsh) or mendacity that allows one to suggest that awarding jobs to LESS QUALIFIED applicants because of their skin color is not racial discrimination and not harmful to our economy.

          Before I elaborate, let me dispel another lie put forth by those on the left. The gap in SAT scores between blacks and whites is not a mere “few points.” On a 1600 point scale, it’s 200 points. Indeed, not only are black Americans’ average scores far below the average scores of white Americans, they lag behind EVERY other ethnic group. What’s worse is that since the Civil Rights Act, the gap between the scores of whites and blacks has increased! Incentives do matter. When you tell someone that their skin color trumps SAT scores, they have less incentive to actually develop their academic abilities. Top (>700) SAT scores are rare in the black population. If admissions were truly color blind and truly qualified applicants were selected, blacks would be rare on Ivy League campuses. The fact is that UNQUALIFIED black applicants are being admitted to colleges based upon their skin color. Unlike Marvin’s fantasyland where blacks are selected form a pool of qualified applicants, colleges are creating a separate pool of black applicants and then taking the best black applicants from that pool. This is far different than only taking black applicants who are first qualified. The low graduation rate of blacks is a manifestation of this ill-conceived policy.

          Now, when we accept less qualified candidates because of their skin color rather than adopting a color blind selection (isn’t that what blacks claimed they wanted) process based on merit, i.e. selecting the most qualified candidate, we harm the entity that does the hiring and our economy.

          We are competing in a global economy. Let’s compare two companies. We’ll call one USA and the other CHINA. Both companies need to hire 10 people to make widgets and they develop a test for job applicants with some minimum standard. The test measures the quality and quantity with which the applicants can make widgets. Twenty people meet the minimum standard for each company. CHINA selects the 10 with the top scores, but USA selects the top 5 white scores and the top 5 black scores (which happen to be lower than the scores of 10 white applicants who are therefore not selected). Any guess as to which company will be more competitive in the global marketplace?

          In regards to college admissions and discrimination that occurred years ago and involved actors who are either not alive or not active, discriminating against a white applicant today neither fixes the discrimination done to some black person years ago, nor is it fair. When I was about eight years old, I was mugged by 10 black teenagers. Would it be “fair” if some white guy showed up at Marvin’s place of work and punched him in the nose to make up for the act of black people he has no connection with?

          In regards to the Ricci v DeStefano case, Marvin is correct that the New Haven threw out the results of the test that resulted in the hiring of the firefighter BECAUSE THEY WERE SCARED THAT THEY WOULD BE SUED BASED ON DISPARATE IMPACT. Rather than being a justification for their discrimination against the white firefighters, it’s an example of how egregious the CRA and affirmative action has become. For the courts to assume that discrimination must exist simply because the favored minority group isn’t selected in some predetermined proportion is an outrageous infringement on the rights of employers and non-minority applicants.

          The facts speak for themselves. The application of the Civil Rights Act and of affirmative action has not been to level the playing field for blacks, but to tilt the playing field in their favor by discriminating against whites with the goal being equal outcome, not equal opportunity.

          • Are you saying that every white applicant successfully graduates from college and that every black applicant fails? No? Then will you admit that some blacks who scored lower than some whites on the SAT were in fact fully qualified to tackle college academics and successfully graduated?

            The fact that speaks for itself is that blacks do successfully graduate from colleges, do post-graduate work in specialties like medicine, and become successful doctors, lawyers, businessmen, etc.

            The SAT is only one measure of college preparedness. Many students who do well on the SAT never finish college, because taking a test is different than actually mastering a college curriculum. College admissions normally do not decide based on the SAT alone. Your standing among within your high school class is important. So are the classes you chose to take in high school.

            We never know for certain who is qualified to enter college until we see who graduates.

            There has never been any discrimination “against” whites. You may argue that Affirmative Action discriminates in favor of blacks. But whenever there are more applicants than there are classrooms, no one can claim that a given seat belongs to them, so no one can complain they were deprived of anything that was theirs. All they may claim is that the criteria was not the one that favored them.

            But there were affirmative acts of discrimination against blacks. They were not allowed to attend white colleges.

            LESS QUALIFIED is irrelevant if you are FULLY QUALIFIED. A plumber who went to trade school is just as qualified as a plumber who went to Harvard.

            In Ricci v DeStefano it was the city, not the courts, that mistakenly assumed discrimination might exist. It is not “egregious” for the application of any law to be in dispute when the facts are grey, rather than black and white.

            But suppose there had been discrimination. Suppose the black applicants had scored higher on the test but been refused promotion because of their race — which would be historically true in most other cases. In that case would you not agree that the black applicants should have been promoted?

            By the way dude, I’m white. That’s my real picture and my real name in the gravatar image.

          • Marvin – Do you not think it’s possible that standards were lowered to be able to claim that all applicants were ‘fully qualified’?

            Also, from your own experience, were you ever included in something in which you were ‘fully qualified’ but everyone around you was much more qualified? If so, how did that go for you?

            I have. It didn’t go so well. In one example, I was the No. 4 math student on one of my school’s math competition teams (not a great way to pick up girls). It most of the finals, that made me an alternate for my team as the top 3 competed. One time, one of the top 3 was gone, so it was my turn to step up. Have you ever had one of those dreams where you were taking a test but you didn’t have a clue what the questions were even asking? Yep. I think Ihave nightmares about that. I’m glad I can laugh about it now (when I’m awake).

            I was fully qualified to be there. But, the distance in ability between No. 3 and No. 4 was mammoth. No. 3 thought in math. No. 4 happened to be just a bit more okay in math than No. 5.

            So, whenever you talk about being ‘fully qualified’ and bumping the 8th & 9th students for the ‘fully qualified’ 11th & 12th students, I think about what would have happened to my school’s math team had they regularly bumped the 2nd & 3rd students for 4th & 5th.

          • >>Do you not think it’s possible that standards were lowered to be able to claim that all applicants were ‘fully qualified’? <<
            Only if you sincerely believe that the standard was too high to begin with. Why, do you have any actual evidence of this happening? If so, how pervasive was it (one instance, few instances, all instances)?

            You can always tell yourself whatever you want to hear. And you and your friends can reinforce each other's beliefs. It seems to happen a lot on Fox News.

            About the 4th runner up in math. It is amazing to me how that works out in chess. A person may be just a hundred points ahead in their, but it seems like they are using magic.

            I don't think that applies to most things in the real world though. What is required for a job is a given level and breadth of knowledge and skills. The job that requires #3 math guy would probably exclude you (string theory calculations). But the #4 guy would be fully qualified for a different job (computing space trajectories).

  5. Hi Seth,

    The fact that Marvin doesn’t stop at red lights may prove something, but it’s not that your theory is incorrect!

    You might find this book of interest:


    In Order without Law Robert C. Ellickson shows that law is far less important than is generally thought. He demonstrates that people largely govern themselves by means of informal rules-social norms-that develop without the aid of a state or other central coordinator. Integrating the latest scholarship in law, economics, sociology, game theory, and anthropology, Ellickson investigates the uncharted world within which order is successfully achieved without law.

    Dr. Ellickson’s also has a related presentation on youtube:

    Of related interest is this paper by Ronald Coase:

    Click to access coase.pdf

    Which came first the government or the people? Long before people formed societies and created governments (and not the other way around), they learned to deal with simple problems like who goes first when two parties meet at a bridge. Having a customary approach cost much less than duking it out every time. If you understand the difference between common law and civil law, you’ll immediately recognize that you are correct in your assumptions regarding law in the US deriving largely from custom, i.e from the people or social norms.

    • I would call that moral evolution. Each new rule of ethics arises to meet the daily issues. People may argue whether to drive their cart on the left or right side of the road, and eventually by natural democratic processes, a rule is agreed to, and life goes on.

      But the state is also a product of the same evolution. I suspect the state arose from the need to protect against invading forces, which tended to come in waves, periodically. The army of knights probably selected a king. Eventually the king became obnoxious and the knights formed parliament.

      The problem with anarchy is that it reverse progress, sending us back to an earlier time and forcing us to repeat the history that we failed to learn.

      • “People may argue whether to drive their cart on the left or right side…”

        Sometimes, but much of the time the argument is settled without involving the public choice-limited state. But, don’t mistake that as Utopian case for anarchy from me. It isn’t.

        It’s just a recognition of how things actually work. What percentage do you court cases represent of the total number of disputes in society? I’m guessing its small.

        • I would certainly hope that most disputes are resolved directly by the parties. Or, next step with the help of a disinterested third party, or formal arbitration. Courts and lawyers are expensive, and should be a last resort. All that being said, we require law for the most important issues. Once law is established, the parties are not longer starting from scratch, but from a point of previous agreement.

    • Thanks Mike. I’ll check it out. That sounds very similar to the points Boudreaux makes in the video in my post. In it, though, he distinguishes ‘law’ from ‘legislation’. The former being the informal rules and norms that govern how we interact and the latter being how a small portion of those rules might end up being codified by government. He says that most people confuse the two.

      • I think legislation (as Boudreaux uses it) refers to civil law, whereas law refers to common law, social norms or customs or “precedence” refined by the courts (as opposed to the legislature). Our system is a mixture of the two.

        I think the problem that we have gotten into is that lawyers find loopholes that weren’t intended in civil law and the death of common sense (to borrow Philip Howard’s phrase) as hurt common law.

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  7. Pingback: Why do we stop at red lights? Part 2 | Our Dinner Table


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