When I first moved to Northern Virginia, I endeavored to find the quickest way to commute to my job in Washington, D.C. Driving was out of the question, unless I was prepared to leave home at 4AM. The closest Metro stop was twenty miles away and I had to negotiate the same traffic just to get there. After a short time, a friend of mine turned me on to "slugging."

For those who don’t know, here’s how it works. I95 in Northern Virginia has two High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes separated from the rest of the highway in between the northbound and southbound lanes. In the morning, these lanes are for northbound traffic only and in the afternoon they reverse direction. During these rush hour periods, only vehicles with three or more passengers may use these lanes. This encourages carpooling, energy consumption, and cuts the demand for parking in DC among other benefits.
Almost immediately after these HOV lanes opened up, carpools began to emerge to take advantage of these new lanes, which can significantly decrease travel time to and from work (a 90 minute commute can be cut to less than 20, for example). But these weren’t the type of carpools you’d expect, where people know each other and designate someone to be the driver that day. No, slug lines are organized hitchhiking. You never know who you’re going to ride with to work that day.
Out of chaos came spontaneous order. Driving to the Pentagon? There’s a line of people waiting to go right over there. Foggy Bottom? That line is on the other side. How do you know? There’s a website, but mostly you ask people who are more than willing to help because they were once new slugs too.
There’s an etiquette. Slugs don’t speak unless spoken to, don’t smoke or eat in the car, and don’t talk on their cell phones unless it’s an emergency. They’re polite, in other words. I’ve never seen these rules violated, even though no one is actively enforcing them. I’ve even seen drivers turn off radio shows like Howard Stern lest they offend their passengers.
Even better, no money changes hands. Ever. In and of itself this is a mutually beneficial transaction.
As amazed as I was when I first heard of slugging, I was even more amazed a couple weeks later when I was picked up by a pretty woman in her mid-twenties with her two year old child strapped into a carseat. Think about that for a moment. She had enough faith in this arrangement that she allowed a thirty something man whom she did not know to sit behind her and right next to her son for the entirety of her morning commute.
Perhaps less astounding is the fact that, aside from the creation of the HOV lane and the incentives to carpool, absolutely no government involvement was necessary to create this system. To the contrary, can you imagine what a system like this would look like if government did create it?
Recently, companies like Uber and Lyft have been attempting to bring an offshoot of this concept to other cities. Unlike slugging, it’s not a free service and there are no fixed pick-up and drop-off points. It’s more like a communal taxi experience where you request a ride through their service and someone who doesn’t normally drive a taxi for a living but maybe just wants to make a few bucks on the side comes and picks you up.
The service has been wildly successful in the cities it’s been allowed to operate, which creates a problem for liberals and other defenders of the status quo. Indeed, it strikes at the very core of their ideology.
That ideology places more trust in the government than it does in private individuals. This is an argument we should be having, but very few people, aside from libertarians, want to engage on these terms.
Which is interesting in and of itself. The left isn’t quite sure yet what to do with libertarians. Many try win the tactical battle by linking them with the cult of personality surrounding Ayn Rand. Others just label them "insane" thus forgoing debate.
Here we have Thomas Frank, of What’s the Matter With Kansas fame, interviewing Barry C. Lynn, author and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Their thesis is "free market ideology has killed markets" and "you have to regulate the system to get competition." In short, a free market system will, as a consequence of its ideology, create monopolies that will in time stifle competition and make the marketplace less efficient and free than it was before.

This is Barry Lynn talking about the book selling monopoly that isAmazon.com: "if you hack down government, then you’ll have government re-emerge, only the new government will be privately run…Amazon has so much power that it virtually gets to tell really big companies like Hachette, the French publisher, what to do…That’s not citizens trading with one another in an open market setting those prices, that’s a giant corporation setting those prices. Which means what we are witnessing in the U.S. book industry, I think, is a form of top-down government."

As a relatively new author who has yet to publish a novel, I can’t speak to Amazon’s power in the publishing world. What I do find interesting, however, is Lynn’s description of a company that was founded only twenty years ago this month taking advantage of a technology not widely in use at that time.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about this example is who Lynn chose not to cite: Microsoft. Anyone remember those heady days just over a decade ago where Microsoft seemed as if it was a similar behemoth of a monopoly in the personal computing space? Those were, if memory serves, the same days where it looked like Apple was going out of business. Could anyone, save perhaps Steve Jobs, have predicted what would happen since that time?
Who will knock Amazon off it’s perch atop the online retail sales market? I won’t pretend to know, but I will suggest that twenty years hence someone else will have emerged and this discussion will look a little silly.
In online debates I’m sometimes asked for an example of a libertarian utopia, usually after someone has cited Somalia as a (straw man) example. My response used to be that a utopia of that sort has never existed, but gradually I’ve come to realize that something close to a free market utopia does exist and we use it every day – the internet. There are few barriers to entry and with the arrival of low-cost smart phones those barriers are ever decreasing, especially for those in the developing world. There is little regulation except for where the laws of the physical world intersect with the world of the internet. An infrastructure that allows people to easily connect with each other will also allow child pornographers or other criminals to easily connect as well.
The internet has disrupted every industry to some extent and has even created a few of its own. Google has a near monopoly in an industry that not only didn’t exist but couldn’t have been imagined when I was born – the search engine.
Is this a good or a bad development? From Lynn’s perspective it’s catastrophic. For the most part the internet lies outside the realm of government regulation. Like the slug lines of Northern Virginia, its order grew spontaneously from chaos. In response to a developing technology and infrastructure that they weren’t quite sure what to do with, Congress chose to do very little.
It’s unclear, with the internet’s global reach, what they could have done in the first place. From Iraq I was able to video chat with my parents in the Midwest and my sister in Korea at the same time, for free (or for just the cost of internet access). How does a single nation regulate the data involved in that transmission?
It can’t – or won’t, at least right now – and that is a dagger in the heart of the Lynn’s ideology. Every example of an activity that allows citizens to interact freely and for their own mutual benefit without the watchful eye of a government regulating that activity is an example of the ineffectualness – or worse the deleterious effects – of government intervention. If a society can order itself to a high degree without a coercive government holding the reins people start to wonder why we need a government at all.
This is not to sing the praises of anarchy. There is a role for government to play in our lives and our mutual defense. But I argue that role should be limited. I argue that individuals can and almost always will make transactions with other individuals that are not only mutually beneficial but beneficial to society as a whole.
Which brings me back to Uber. Lynn’s monopolies are enshrined by law in many cities across the country in the form of cab service. In New York City, a taxi medallion can sell for as high as $1 million.
The free market didn’t create that monopoly, government did. Uber is disrupting an inefficient marketplace while offering the opportunity for drivers to make three times what a cab driver operating within that monopoly can make.
Better service. Lower prices. More flexibility. More money in the driver’s pocket. A free market may indeed create monopolies, but it’s also very effective at breaking them up.
What, then, should be the role of government? I would argue that Michael Crichton had the beginnings of an answer. Listen to the whole talk if you have the opportunity, but the relevant portion is at the link.
He focuses on complexity theory as it relates to the environment, but the lessons also apply to government. How does complexity theory apply to public policy? Here’s an answer, "this literature, when applied to policymaking, tends to encourage a movement from centrally driven targets, rules and performance indicators towards a more flexible understanding of rules and targets by local actors who are more able to understand and adapt to rapidly-changing local circumstances."
Federalism, in other words. Our founding fathers, without understanding the mathematics that underpin complexity theory, got it more or less correct.
Crichton became a pariah on the left because of his views on global warming. They should have been more worried about his advocacy of complexity theory.
Slug lines emerge spontaneously from a complex system. The order that now exists on the internet did the same. Disruptions in the marketplace caused by companies like Amazon and Uber are the result of a quickly changing environment in a complex system. A government cannot hope to control these things. This is precisely why government’s inaction in regulating the internet as it emerged was the right thing to do. Any action on their part likely would have retarded its efficiency or growth as a technology.
This is a hard concept to some people to grasp, the idea that inaction can often be the correct action. And it’s an issue that supporters of statist interventions and monopolies like cab companies have to address.
The enemy of the statist has been, and always will be, information. From1984to speech codes on campus to Citizens United to the Hyatt Place blocking conservative websites, the left needs to control the debate in order to pursue their control of the population. In the age of an unregulated internet governed by complexity theory, the level of control they envision will forever be illusory.
This is the real crisis of the left and, in too many instances, the right as well. And it’s also a debate that very few people, it would appear, want to have.
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