Free-Market Moloch? Paying to Make Red Lights Turn Green

Traffic timespace diagramI saw this on Twitter a while back, posted by someone who was attending the Wolfram Data Summit: “Data future vision: you're at a red light and can pay for it to go green.” Like a fragment from some lost Sumerian tablet, this cryptic comment is all we have. But it's enough.

Paying for a red light to go green is the sort of thing economist Tyler Cowen and blogging partner Alex Tabarrok (their blog is Marginal Revolution) like to file under a category called “markets in everything.” This seems to have been just a passing thought, but it lodged in my head and wouldn't leave. At first it seemed like the perfect example of the future as a technolibertarian nightmare – the future I fear and dread the most. Then I gave it a second thought, and a third.

And then, after much thought, I made up my mind. Yeah, it's a technolibertarian nightmare – although it's not nearly as big a change from today's reality as it first seemed. But then again, isn't that the problem?

How would something like this actually work? Would drivers buy something like an EZ-Pass that automatically provided preferential treatment at every traffic light? Would a prepaid device be sold with the car itself, perhaps included as a standard feature on larger, more conspicuously-consuming vehicles like Cadillac Escalades? Those ideas don't seem very imaginative – and they're not true to the original, shamanic vision: “you're at a red light and can pay for it to go green.” That seems to describe what economists and marketing types call a “point of sale” decision, not a premeditated bulk purchase.

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