Social Cycles: An Example

March 29, 2012

by Gene Callahan

Earlier, I posted some preliminary thoughts on the idea of a general theory of social cycles. Today, I’d like to expand upon one of my examples a bit.

If you recall, I mentioned merging onto a highway as an illustration of adjustments and displacements — which I will henceforth call “disruptions,” by the way, since I think that is a better term.

Let us now imagine a busy highway with entrances and exits every mile. The entrances are not well-designed: there is no lane for smoothly merging into traffic while getting up to speed, but a stop sign at the end of the entrance ramp. (This, in fact, is pretty much a description of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut as of 30 years ago.) What this means is that every time traffic nears an entrance, there occurs a cluster of disruptions, as people enter traffic at a slow speed.

These disruptions will produce a cascade of further disruptions, as the adjustments made by drivers breaking for merging automobiles thwarts the plans of other drivers who wish to continue at a steady speed. Thus we get a logjam around the entrance ramp. This is the “bust” phase of our cycle. (We need a better, more general term here. Any ideas?)

But, gradually, the adjustments begin to produce dovetailing plans again, as drivers re-establish comfortable spacing between themselves and other vehicles, and regain the speed they had before the disruptions at the entrance. This is the recovery phase of the cycle. But just as our recovery is nearly complete, another wave of disruptions occurs — we have reached the next entrance ramp.

So here we have a social cycle with a period of roughly one minute, exhibiting the charateristics of our ideal type very clearly. What’s more, this is very much like what driving on the Merritt Parkway really was like thirty years ago.

5 Responses to “Social Cycles: An Example”


  1. So how is this different from Kling’s Patterns of Sustainable Specialization and Trade?

    (BTW: I love the Merritt Parkway. Beautiful drive back in the sixties. Busy drive these days.)

  2. Rick Hull Says:

    I like the thought experiment, and I think there is some explanatory potential there. I’m still not convinced that *reality* has a social cycle (or several) which demands explanation. That said, a real-world soundwave may not have obvious cycles yet it can be deconstructed to multiple sine waves which clearly do. Fundamentally, though: what cyclical behavior out there in the real world are we trying to explain?


  3. […] Social Cycles: An Example, by Gene Callahan […]

  4. gcallah Says:

    Well, Curt, one obvious way this is different is that this is about cars on a highway, and Kling’s work is about specialization and trade.

  5. K Sralla Says:

    “The entrances are not well-designed”

    The stop signs are the codified rules of the game. The stop sign happens to be a human-designed rule to prevent accidents, but in fact it creates lots of bottlenecks. A traffic light might help matters some, a traffic cop will definately make things worse, but the best thing might be to clear out many of these “designed” rules, and simply allow drivers to look over their shoulder and merge onto the parkway.

    The drivers will quickly learn how to watch for the unwritten signals and to create the proper spacing between their cars and others. Over time, and with many birds being flown out the windows, the informal “unwritten” rules of the road will emerge which allows traffic to flow as smoothly as possible (to minimize disruptions, yet occasional disruptions will sometime be a product of an initial value problem).

    The only thing we need is a few simple written rules like driving on the left hand side of the road (if we are in the UK) and a few lonely traffic cops to enforce the rules. The other rules will then emerge as drivers learn how to cooperate with one another in a way which best allows everyone to get to where they are going in the most expedient way. I like the roundabouts in the UK. A lot of folks complain, but I think they beat stop signs.

    So here we have a quintessential Hayekian problem. How do we choose the proper balance between designed rules and the informal rules tacitly held which emerge through group selection?

    It may turn out that the drivers association which promotes “good” driving habits allows it’s workers to cut a half hour off their afternoon commute through some of its club driving rules. The drivers association encourages the obeying of these rules through a system group insurance discounts, along with club social stigma. After a while, many folks begins to take notice that the drivers association drivers are saving on their car insurance, having fewer accidents, and reducing the time spent in their commute. These rules begin to be adopted, but the drivers association grows as folks voluntarily pay dues to have their car insurance rates lowered. Any association drivers who then begin abusing the rules and having wrecks must be kicked out for the good of the association, even if the wrecks may not be their fault.

    Here we see the importance of institutional evolution in the smooth ordering of society, and the importance of the enforcement of those rules for the survivial and betterment of the group. This in terms minimizes disruptions in the social order.


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