On Freedom and Traffic Lights

I recently watched the miniseries 1883, a prequel to Paramount’s hit, Yellowstone. The series had what might be my favorite performance of this young decade: the great Sam Elliott as grizzled Civil War veteran and wagon train leader Captain Shea Brennan. He’d been hired by a group of European immigrants — the subtitles insisted they speak a smattering of German and Slavic — to take them from Texas to Portland. What follows is essentially the grittiest version of the Oregon Trail you’ve ever seen.

My favorite line of this excellent show was spoken by Elliott’s Brennan, who was facing a challenge from the immigrants’ translator, Josef, who thought Brennan’s protection was overpriced and overrated. To that point, the 50 or so pioneers has fallen on hard times, lost some souls, and were getting a dressing down from their contracted Captain, who was endlessly frustrated by these untrained and unskilled Europeans thinking they’d have an easier time crossing the American wilderness. Near the border of Texas and unsettled America, Josef threatened — as if there were possibly a threat that could intimidate Sam Elliott or any character he plays — to take command of the wagon train and lead them west without Captain Brennan’s help. “It’s a free country,” a confident Josef told the astonished veteran, whose only mistake so far had been to accept the leadership of the most unprepared migrants in American history.

Brennan stared back at him, and in my favorite line reading of the show, barked back, “‘It’s a free country’? THAT’S (he points east) a free country! THAT (he points west) is Comanche land! Beyond it is no man’s land, and that’s where we’re going. You ain’t free yet.

In one blistering rebuke, Brennan lays bare the paradoxical heart of a liberal society. We’re only free if there’s government. We’re only liberated if there’s order.

It’s social contract theory 101. Since in our natural state we’d be self-interested and violent, we cede some of our freedom to a government in exchange for the government’s protection. We say we live in a “free country,” but we can’t actually do whatever we want. We’re not allowed to kill, assault, or steal. We can’t drive while drunk, or at a hundred miles per hour on our way to work, or park wherever we want when we get there. There are hundreds of restrictions placed on us in this supposedly “free country.” None of our above actions break any natural laws, but they do break moral and political ones. Those laws need a government to outline, enforce, and interpret those laws, ideally with the consent of its people, to help ensure our safety. And so now freedom means, to paraphrase an old saying, that the right to swing our arms ends at someone else’s face.

US government is by no means perfect, but I think Americans should consider themselves grateful to live in a land where many of its leaders, since the nation’s founding, have walked a narrow tightrope, with overbearing government on one side and survival of the fittest on the other. The Constitution was finely calibrated to empower the central government to act more efficiently than it had before, when the preceding Articles of Confederation had neutered the national government and its military while festering faction and economic anxiety. At the same time, the document’s bicameral legislature, separation of powers, checks and balances, and two-tiered federal government, where the national and state governments each had exclusive powers, ensured tyranny was near impossible, such as the tyranny experienced by the American colonists before the War of Independence. It’s from this history that the Constitutional framers learned balance, and it’s this balance that keeps us on the tightrope.

It took some time and bloodshed for the United States to extend this freedom to more citizens and then force its freedom (there’s that paradox again) across the continent, and it remains a work in progress. But at least progress is possible, quite unlike some other parts of the world and other times in history. I think we have a tendency to glorify prehistoric cultures — in the words of Lawrence Keeley, we’ve undergone a “pacification of the past” — when in truth, from the Old World to the New, those were much more savage times than we live in today. Americans should be grateful we live where we are in 2023 and not on the frontier 140 years ago.

I watched 1883 last month, but I only had the idea to write about this scene last week when I noticed the incredible patience shown by scores of drivers around a four-way traffic light, one that took some of us two full cycles to get through. There was no gridlock, no “blocking of the box,” and not so much as a beep. We all just minded the colors and waited for our turn.

It was a simple moment, but a telling one. Would we have gotten to our destination faster had there been no traffic light? Or had there been one but we ignored it? Of course not. We would have been snarled up in no time. The order provided by the traffic light made our lives better, not worse. And while there are plenty of bad drivers out there — not you, of course, just some of those other people! — we can only imagine how much more selfish or obtuse they’d be were there no regulations in place at all.

We have respect for the light, and I’ve seen this respect from urban America to rural. This yielding to the law is by no means a blank check to our government to control us in any way it wants (we may, after all, have a few too many traffic lights, particularly on Route 12 in Groton, Connecticut, if my local leaders are reading), but it is an acknowledgement that we work best when there are certain rules in place, and there are clearly times when we recognize this reality no matter our place on the political spectrum.

It was only traffic, but this scene meant something to me. After all, I’m the guy who once tweeted “Seeing a dozen patient cars perfectly merge from two lanes into one makes me more patriotic than, like, the Pledge of Allegiance.” I’ve been fortunate to travel to many countries in my day, and some of them had few traffic lights and, accordingly, few orderly drivers.

Anyone can mumble a pledge, but respecting one’s government and fellow citizens at a four-way traffic light? Now that’s freedom.

Today’s featured image of a traffic light was brought to you by Old Profile Photo at Flickr, which is a sentence that would have made no sense to the Constitutional framers who secured our freedom.


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