Why the Lights of Times Square are a Beautiful Thing

Night-time view of NY's Times Square with the city lights and taxis

From the U.K. Daily Mail on 5/6/15:

The dimmer could be turned on the bright lights of New York City as the Big Apple is facing pressure to remove its iconic oversized billboards from Times Square.

A 2012 federal transportation law designated Times Square an ‘arterial route’.

It means that the famous Broadway and 7th Avenue intersection falls under the 1965 Highway Beautification Act which states that billboards within 660 feet of a highway can’t be more than 1,200 square feet.

Times Square’s luminous signs fall well outside of such restrictions and as a result should come down.

New York Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says the city is under pressure to get rid of the billboards – or give up part of the state’s federal highway funds.

‘All these billboards, they no longer meet the Highway Beautification Act requirements, and so now we’re going to have to go through kind of a complicated process with the state to yank them off ’cause the feds are threatening to take away 10 per cent of our money,’ Trottenberg said.

‘The signs in Times Square are wonderful. They’re iconic. They’re not only a global tourist attraction, they’re important to the economy,’ she continued.

But an official with the city’s Department of Transportation told FoxNews the signs will stay.

This story is a reminder of how precarious our industrial and technological civilization has become.

In her book, “Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution,” Ayn Rand (author of Atlas Shrugged) wrote,

In Western Europe, in the preindustrial Middle Ages, man’s life expectancy was 30 years. In the nineteenth century, Europe’s population grew by 300 percent—which is the best proof of the fact that for the first time in human history, industry gave the great masses of people a chance to survive.

If it were true that a heavy concentration of industry is destructive to human life, one would find life expectancy declining in the more advanced countries. But it has been rising steadily.

She went on to cite the figures of life expectancy (even higher today, in 2015, than when she wrote this), and concluded, “Anyone over 30 years of age today, give a silent ‘Thank you’ to the nearest, grimiest, sootiest smokestacks you can find.”

Absolutely right. It’s all in how you look at something. And before judging either a smokestack or a neon sign harshly, think about the facts — all of the facts.

Note that life expectancy rates go up in countries with capitalism, industrial and technological growth — and not in countries with none of these things. When an earthquake hits the city of a twenty-first century, post-industrialized city, there is nothing like the loss of life in a third-world country where there has not yet been sufficient (nor even any) capitalist, material and industrial development. Whenever something like such a disaster happens, we hear calls for charity — which is fine — but we never, ever hear calls for more capitalism, economic freedom, or rational enlightenment of the sort that guides science and innovation.

It’s the same with neon lights. Advertisements and billboards might not directly add years to human life expectancy. But they are glorious demonstrations of the fact that human beings are capable of altering, modifying and transforming their environment in any way they choose.

The lights in Times Square are a reminder of the fact that it’s only relatively recently (a century or so, as against thousands of years prior) in human history that we’ve had electricity. Electricity has made so much possible, including all of the technological developments (communication by the Internet just for starters) that most of us take for granted today.

These signs in Times Square are also a reminder of the fact that people have money to trade; i.e., to sell and buy advertising, and to sell and buy the products being advertised on the billboards. These are healthy indicators of relative economic freedom (although not what it should be) and continuing widespread prosperity (although not what it might be); rest assured, even the socialists and environmentalists among us would miss them if they were gone.

The question here isn’t whether the lights in Times Square will go out. The question is why anyone — anywhere, in the federal government or anywhere else — would want them to go out.

Why is it considered — in anyone’s mind — “beautification” to dim or even eliminate such lights? What’s the implicit standard here?

It all depends on how you choose to look at something. I’m not talking about rationalizing or lying; I’m talking about facts.

A few years ago, there were reports on satellite observations of North Korea and South Korea from space. See the following from earthsky.org:

City lights at night are a fairly reliable indicator of where people live. But this isn’t always the case, and the Korean Peninsula shows why. As of July 2012, South Korea’s population was estimated at roughly 49 million people, and North Korea’s population was estimated at about half that number. But where South Korea is gleaming with city lights, North Korea has hardly any lights at all—just a faint glimmer around Pyongyang.

North Korea is, to this day, a command-and-control economy, run by a Communist dictatorship. There are no profits, no free enterprise, no private sector — and consequently, no lights to observe from space. North Korea does not “assault” the environment as environmentalists claim that capitalist and semi-capitalist countries do; yet who in their right mind would wish to live there? South Korea, while not the opposite extreme of North Korea, is comparatively freer, and observe the difference in concrete terms most of us can readily understand.

Without the thought that goes into technological, industrial and scientific innovation, we wouldn’t have to worry about the billboards in Times Square, even neurotically and irrationally. When the lights go out in man’s mind, the lights literally go out on the streets, in the hospitals, in people’s living rooms, in their cars, in their offices — the lights, and everything else that’s the product of industrial and technological civilization.

Today, it’s considered “cool” and enlightened to worry about your carbon footprint, to denigrate capitalism and technological progress and yet — at the same time — to revel in that progress and expect it to continue. I find such a contradiction to be absurdity bordering on madness.

Whenever I visit New York City, my favorite moment is the first glimpse of the lights in Times Square. I literally get goose bumps. I find it thrilling and exhilarating, almost beyond words, to have lived in a time and place where man’s achievements and accomplishments could reach this level of energy, capability and competence.

Natural beauty has its place, and I have enjoyed those kinds of settings as well. But there’s no achievement in those. And enjoyment of natural beauty likewise presupposes technological achievement (e.g., a helicopter ride over the icebergs of Alaska) made possible by human innovation and capitalism. Earth left in its natural state would not only be boring, but also uninhabitable for human life, particularly human life as we have come to know it.

I want to live in a civilization with smokestacks, billboards, factories, advertisements and whatever other technological innovations — virtually limitless — that human beings have yet to devise.

There’s a lot more at stake in Times Square than the lights.


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