The Beauty in Chaos
Adam Kogeman, KF10, Cambodia
The other night, I was on the back of a moto entering a major intersection. It was a typical Phnom Penh intersection: motos, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks and bicycles waited their turn to cross. Each driver determined the most desirable path for their vehicle and the many modes of transport were propelled at each other from seven different directions, narrowly avoiding head-on and sideways collisions, often within a hairs width. I tucked my knees in closer to the moto as we navigated straight down the densely packed street, slowing to allow a car to pass and turn left, speeding a bit to avoid the moto that barreled at us perpendicularly from the right, turning ever so slightly to allow more space for the moto next to us to advance forward. We got through the intersection with no problems, as did every other motorist.
At that moment, I realized that after four weeks of living in Cambodia, I was no longer surprised or overwhelmed by what I initially had perceived as chaos. I was not surprised that it is possible for hundreds of vehicles to come at each other from all directions and for all to emerge unscathed and be on their merry way. I could never again use the word “chaos” to describe the roads here. No, every rush hour is best understood as a ballet of considerate motorists carefully navigating the streets with, not against, each other. (Disclaimer: This is not to say it’s entirely safe. Drunk or otherwise reckless driving is a major problem here and road accidents are a leading cause of death).
It got me thinking about personal responsibility and development. In the scenario I described above, a scenario repeated many thousands of times every day on Phnom Penh streets, the motorists were all responsible for themselves and each other. Driving selfishly, recklessly or without regard for other motorists would probably result in multiple fatalities, including one’s own. Disorder ruled, and there was no one to enforce any traffic laws. No police officer was going to pull someone over for going through a red light, no one was going to be fined or go to traffic school for making a left turn from the right lane. Behaving responsibly and with consideration for others was necessary for self-preservation and to get to one’s destination. What’s more, with boundless options as to how and where one could direct a vehicle, drivers were extremely creative and efficient at getting themselves through the intersection. If you get in the right lane when you should be going left, isn’t it more efficient to just turn left when possible instead of having to find the nearest place to make a U-turn and suffering through an untold number of red lights?
Reduced certainty and loose regulation make for a society in which people accept greater responsibility for their actions and behave with greater consideration toward their fellow citizens (I would bet the American “wild west” was a much more civilized society than the one we live in today). A society with reduced certainty and loose regulation sees individual innovation and creativity soar because it is necessary to be creative and innovative; there is no safety net, no ever-present cushion, no “bail-out”. What happened when the financial crisis hit? Our uncertainty about the future dramatically increased. We started to use our money more efficiently and employed creativity to make it go farther and be more productive. What happens when stoplights go out at major intersections back home? People slow down and drive with greater awareness of their fellow motorists.
Reduced certainty and greater disorder can be a good thing. Viewing Cambodia through American eyes, I see that there is such a thing as too much development, too many rules. I certainly want Cambodia to enjoy strong rule of law, effective and uncorrupted institutions and a healthy infrastructure. I would hate, though, to see Cambodia descend into the sterilized, inefficient chaos we too often suffer in the US. A place where entrepreneurial creativity is stifled because of over-regulation and barriers to entry. A place where we sit in traffic for hours partly because it’s illegal to cross the double yellow line even though the next lane is moving more quickly, because it’s illegal to use the 8 ft emergency lane that could easily fit a car, a motorcycle and probably a bicycle. Some borrowers I’ve met in rural villages live in sturdy homes which last through countless rainy and dry seasons not because of robust building codes and strong enforcement, but because they can be trusted to do what is in their best interest and in the best interests of their community.
Living in Cambodia has brought me to realize development does not equal order, just as underdevelopment does not equal disorder. As the economics textbooks preach, humans will do what is in their best interest as efficiently as possible. It seems a bit of uncertainty and disorder enhance individual efficiency while over-regulation and over-development suffocate it. Let’s not forget that the US is simultaneously one of the most developed and one of, if not the, most wasteful countries in the world. There is beauty in “chaos” and it should not be assumed that the American model of rule-happy development is the best or most productive one for developing countries like Cambodia to pursue.
Adam Kogeman is a Kiva Fellow serving at CREDIT, a microfinance institution in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He encourages all Kiva lenders to travel in developing countries to enrich themselves and better understand the incredible positive impact they are having! Check out CREDIT’s current fundraising loans and join the CREDIT lending team!