What is Spontaneous Order?

One of the most powerful arguments against coercive government (and the will to control other people’s behavior in general) is spontaneous order.

But what is spontaneous order?

To understand the concept, I have found the ice rink analogy to be excellent.

Imagine you are on an ice rink with just one other person. The two of you try to move around in such a way as to prevent falling over, and of course neither of you wants to crash into each other. There are two ways this can be accomplished:

1. You both plan your own route, motivated by self-interest in avoiding collision.

2. A central planner stands on an elevation with a loudspeaker and shouts out commands.

With a population of just two people, both systems would work, assuming the central planner is even slightly competent. But as the population grows, centrally planning everyone’s route becomes geometrically more complex.

So with just ten of you, shouting out “Guy in blue shirt, swerve left between woman in red shirt and guy in poorly fitted trousers!” becomes more and more futile.

Some improvements can be made – you can all be forced to wear numbered clothes that make identification simpler, but these are band-aids on a failed system. With 50 people, the central planner will be completely overwhelmed. He will require complex computer simulations, a team of assistants, and an entire bureaucracy just to coordinate your movements. Most likely, he’ll require everyone to slow down so that he can process data and issue commands quickly enough.

And after all that effort, the only successful plan he can choose is one which will closely emulate the results of spontaneous order anyway. As a result, Ice rinks are not centrally planned. People, driven by self-interest, avoid hitting each other very efficiently, and the collision rate is relatively low. As low as the skill of the ice skaters permits. This is yet another example of how the self-interest of each individual is met by satisfying the self-interest of every other individual. You want to avoid being hit – and so does the other guy. You’re primarily driven not by the prevention of injury to others, but to yourself, but through that self-interest, you benefit others too.

Except an Ice rink is not a free market, and the levels of complexity are orders of magnitude different. With an economy, no amount of central planning can emulate and achieve the same results. Just trying to think about the complexity of producing a single pencil is mind-boggling enough – let alone a complex economy.

This is why coercive governments may feebly work at small tribal levels (though even there they are inefficient), but when it comes to planning for a large number of people, government becomes utterly incompetent.

If tomorrow government apparatchiks started telling everyone where to work and tried to solve the problem of the division of labor, the result would be horrendous poverty and mass starvation. But while people plan for themselves and there is a market in labor, even one that isn’t very free, this problem doesn’t even occur to us. We don’t see newspaper headlines screaming, “Labor allocation problems cause uncertainty and mass starvation”.

The argument of market advocates versus Statists is not at all one of chaos versus planning. Both want plans – the only question is who makes the plans. Is it every individual who plans for himself – resulting in a multitude of coordinated plans, or is it one plan made by a few and forced on everyone else?

The latter would be like advocating that factories produce shoes in just one size, because having different sizes that catered to differently sized feet would simply be “too chaotic”. I can imagine that in a world where shoes were made by government, Statists would make that exact argument.

So to answer the question of what is spontaneous order – just look at your own life, and your interaction with others.

When you go to the local corner shop to buy produce, and the man there has some to sell to you – that’s spontaneous order. To allow for that seemingly simple interaction, a complex network of plans had to be made. The shop owner made an order for produce. The retailer processed that order, and scheduled a delivery. The delivery people went to the warehouse, took the order, and brought it to the store. But where did the order come from in the first place? It did not manifest itself at the warehouse out of thin air. It was delivered there, too. And to be delivered anywhere at all, the produce first had to be packaged. And before being packaged, it had to be produced. And before being produced, laborers and machinery had to be obtained…

And of course, for the whole thing to work, the goods need to reach their destination – you, the customer. It is fascinating, the sheer complexity one runs into when thinking about something as seemingly simple as a transaction at the grocery store.

And yet, no central plan was required. No bureaucrat or apparatchik planned out the process by which the goods reached the store, nor did they tell you to appear there at that exact moment. It happened anyway – because both you and every one of the people in that long chain of production, was self-interested in making it work. They made their own plans, coordinated with one another, and as a result you have vegetables from halfway across the world in your sandwich.

The proof of spontaneous order is all around us. It’s how we live our lives. We’re just so preoccupied with other things that we don’t notice the greatest self-organizing system known to man – the market. The only role a central planner can play is that of disruptor. Of a pesky, intrusive, and meddlesome man, who sits around and plans how he can interfere with the lives of others.

Every social engineer, at one point or another, decided that he knows what you should be doing better than you do. And he’s ready to use the violence of government to force you to adhere to his plans, whether you want to or not. This is the essence of all intervention in the individual plans that constitute the market economy. All it does is throw a wrench into a well functioning system.

And when “unintended consequences” of intervention occur, such as youth unemployment resulting from minimum wage laws, politicians are at the ready to force on you more snake oil for a problem they themselves caused. This is why Robert LeFevre’s quote, “Government is a disease masquerading as its own cure,” is one of my favorite. First they cause the problem, and then they steal money from you to “solve” it, when in reality they only make it even worse.

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