A Theory of Regulation

This story caught my eye:

Now another revolution on wheels is on the horizon: the driverless car. Nobody is sure when it will arrive. Google, which is testing a fleet of autonomous cars, thinks in maybe a decade, others reckon longer. A report from KPMG and the Centre for Automotive Research in Michigan concludes that it will come “sooner than you think”. And, when it does, the self-driving car, like the ordinary kind, could bring profound change.
Just imagine. It could, for a start, save the motor industry from stagnation. Carmakers are fretting at signs that smartphone-obsessed teenagers these days do not rush to get a driving licence and buy their first car, as their parents did. Their fear is that the long love affair with the car is fading. But once they are spared the trouble and expense of taking lessons and passing a test, young adults might rediscover the joys of the open road. Another worry for the motor industry is that car use seems to be peaking in the most congested cities. Yet automated cars would drive nose-to-tail, increasing the capacity of existing roads; and since they would be able to drop off their passengers and drive away, the lack of parking spaces in town might not matter so much.

I’ve written before about how government regulation causes the traffic problem instead of solving it (see here).  In one post, I even noted how the current solution to fixing the problem yields results similar to a laissez-faire approach.  One thing that’s important to note from that prior post is how unfettered humans have already attained a solution that the many are still striving towards.  This makes for an interesting question:  if the goal is more efficient traffic, why not simply give people freedom by eliminating traffic laws?
This may not be the right question, though, since it’s based on the assumption that result is more important than process.  To put it another way, by asking the above question, I’m implicitly assuming that reducing traffic is more important than having a problem to solve.
This then brings me to me theory of regulation.  People want to feel like they’ve accomplished something important, which generally means overcoming a difficult hurdle.  Some things are inherently easy, so the only way to make accomplishments seem more important is to add a handicap. An example of this can be seen way back when cake mixes were first introduced.  At first, the only thing you needed to do to bake a cake from a box was simply add water.  Sales never took off, so the marketing team for early cake mixes decided to add more steps, like adding eggs and oil.  Once cake mixes became more difficult to prepare, sales took off because consumers viewed making cakes from a mix to be difficult enough to be meaningful.  Before the recipe change, cake mixes were viewed as too easy, and therefore insulting, as if the recipient didn’t merit much effort.
In my theory, regulation exists as a handicap to make life more difficult, and therefore more meaningful.  After all, how meaningful can life be when there is no problem to solve?  Regulation provides meaning to life by making life more difficult.  You can’t solve the traffic problem if traffic doesn’t even exist.
Of course, the driverless-car solution will be difficult—if not impossible—to implement because of the sheer amount of technical data that is necessary, not to mention the sheer scale of implementation.  To centralize the process of driving everyone around, you will need tons of data, a network on which this data can be shared, and a minimum of automotive troubles.  Furthermore, you will need people to act according to a fairly rigid schedule, since driverless cars necessarily live by arbitrary rules (like speed limits).  This system will be less-spontaneous and more rigid, and will likely malfunction on a regular basis because humans are still very much a part of the system.
Nonetheless, the driverless car is a remarkably difficult solution that should engage a large number of otherwise bored people for a rather significant amount of time, without much hope of actually attaining a practical solution.  If you view traffic as the problem, trying to build a driverless car is not the solution.  If you view intelligent people being bored as the problem, trying to build a driverless car is the solution.
What’s pernicious about this whole system is that it concerns itself with the emotional state of technocrats.  These are the sort of people who constantly dwell on solving problems, and get bored if there are no problems to solve.  These are the sort of people who will invent problems out of whole cloth, or define features as bugs, or, worse yet, actually go about creating problems in order to have a problem to solve.  It doesn’t actually matter if they solve the problem; it matters that they have something to solve.
To this end, regulation is helpful in creating problems to solve because it gums up the works of functioning societies. Most people are capable of acting in their own best interest as well as cooperating with other people.  While human relationships and motives can be quite messy at times, they tend to work generally well, especially among those who make a point of functioning as adults.  This naturally leads to a rather boring society, as most people don’t look for perpetual problems to complain about.  If you need to get from point A to point B, you take the easiest path and negotiate clearly with others who share the road with you.  And if a given path is not efficient, take another one.  Technocrats see this as boring, because there is no recurring problem to solve, and so they first invent a problem (someone’s going to fast), then invent more problems, until they’ve created real problems, which they happily set about solving.
As can be guessed, this is a pretty dysfunctional way of going about things, since it necessarily imposes wasteful costs on society.  On the plus side, though, society is able to afford it—for the time being—so social wastefulness is, to be optimistic, a sign of great social wealth.  Still, it is sickening that there are some who are so bored that the only way to alleviate their boredom is to waste social resources.
Anyhow, that’s my theory of regulation.  There’s a good chance it’s nothing more than intellectual onanism, so feel free to take it apart in the comments.

1 comment to A Theory of Regulation

  • I think many of us are looking forward to the opportunities that driverless cars represent, and while the roads are getting their improvements it would be great to see other coexisting technologies introduced such as BiModal Glideway’s tech. More options are always better and how great would it be to have not just a car driving itself but a car driving itself a long a high speed efficient system that would allow more throughput and less congestion.

    Like your article and would like to get your thoughts on how this autonomous cars could work in conjunction with other transportation concepts.

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