Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Spontaneous Order or How to Make a Pencil

I commute to work by train every day, and at the end of the day, when I’ve taken the train back over the bridge and drive out of the commuter parking lot, I take a sort of “back” route, by which I avoid a lot of traffic, traffic lights, etc. Part of this route involves an intersection that was created a little while back as part of a larger roadworks project which involved reconfiguring a traffic circle, creating new jughandles, installing new traffic lights, the works. All ostensibly in the interest of making it safer and more convenient to travel on one of southern New Jersey’s innumerable – and chronically congested – roadways.

I mention all this because the intersection in question has no stop signs. Initially I thought it was because the project wasn’t quite finished and that, surely, sooner or later stop signs would appear. Maybe even the “pre-stop sign” signs that have been popping up in certain parts of the country, which announce – just in case you’re smart enough to drive but too dumb to know that you slow down when you approach a stop sign – “Stop Sign Ahead”. But so far no stop signs have appeared.

I approach this intersection at rush hour five nights a week, and at other times of day on other days of the week. And what’s astonishing to me is that I have yet to see an accident. Granted, I don’t live there. I haven’t seen footage from a traffic cam that monitors the intersection 24 hours a day. But thus far it appears that people are smart enough to know that, when you approach this intersection you slow down, stop if need be, and proceed with caution.

It seems to be an example of a phenomenon known as “spontaneous order” which, according to Lawrence Reed of the Foundation for Economic Education, “…is what happens when you leave people alone…” Reed’s take on “spontaneous order” is skewed more toward the notion of businesspeople and entrepreneurs and how savvy businesspeople see the desires of the public and provide for them, but the principle seems to apply in all sorts of areas of daily life.

Look at a crowded airport. Long lines and frustrated travelers notwithstanding, it really is pretty amazing that the mobs of people who pass through a given large airport on a given day aren’t constantly getting into fights, shoving or shouting matches or all-out brawls. People mind their business and go where they need to go to get where they’re going. They sit and wait. They eat. They have a drink. They read. Sure, there’s airport security around, but there’s no need for Hall Monitors to tell people to stop running or ask for bathroom passes. It all just…works.

Author John Stossel gives another example: “You are our Ruler. An entrepreneur tells you he wants to create something he calls a ‘skating rink’. Young and old will strap blades to their feet and speed through an oval arena, weaving patterns as moods strike them. You'd probably say, ‘We need regulation -- skating stoplights, speed limits, turn signals -- and a rink director to police the skaters. You can't expect skaters to navigate the rink on their own.’ And yet they do. They spontaneously create their own order.

Maybe spontaneous order is such a fact of daily life that it’s easy to not even notice it. And yet, as Reed explains, "We have this ingrained habit of thinking that if somebody plans it, if somebody lays down the law and writes the rules, order will follow. And the absence of those things will somehow lead to chaos. But what you often get when you try to enforce mandates and restrictions from a distant bureaucracy is planned chaos...”

The problem is that, most often, the people in that “distant bureaucracy” have nothing but the best of intentions: to keep us safe, to make us better people and to make our lives happy and problem-free. Utopia waits right around the corner. Thus, criticizing said bureaucracy sounds mean-spirited and misanthropic, and criticism of the bureaucracy is derided and makes people angry. Ah, well…
I was going to go into a whole “thing” about freedom vs. coercion and so on. But a wonderfully simple example probably says it better:

No one person can make a pencil. Probably thousands of people are involved in making the materials that are used in making a pencil: the wood, the brass, the graphite, the rubber for the eraser, the paint, etc. If you go back a step, there are the people who make and operate the machinery used to make the materials that make a pencil. One more step back: people mine iron to make the steel that makes the machines that make the materials that go into a pencil. It's all done without these people even knowing that their work will eventually result in a pencil. Thousands of people going through thousands of steps -- and yet you can buy a pencil for a few cents

It really is kind of a miracle. 

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