Spontaneous Order

by Don Boudreaux on November 10, 2011

in Complexity & Emergence, Current Affairs

I’m guessing that the Occupiers did all of this without government and without a Central Plan – that is, without any institutionalized system of coercion turned to carrying out the vision of some ‘elites.’

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Jon Murphy November 10, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Fascinating stuff. I guess it goes to show how societies can grow without a central plan in place. I have to admit, for the faults the OWS might have, it is a perfect example of Hayek’s spontaneous order theory.

EG November 10, 2011 at 4:36 pm

What an awfully ridiculous article.

Jon Murphy November 10, 2011 at 4:43 pm

I have to admit, and forgive me for rambling, but this observation is fantastic. Hayek’s observation of spontaneous order is really a great leap forward for humanity and our understanding of one another. I’m really glad for the OWS people for bringing this to our national attention and this is one of the reasons I kinda root for them (I guess you can call this a Baptist moment). When I first saw spontaneous order in action, it was mind-blowing. Now I see it everywhere. Plus, when you realize it, the subtitle of this blog becomes really funny.

vikingvista November 10, 2011 at 4:55 pm

“Now I see it everywhere.”

Although the entropy of the universe grows, locally, order is spontaneous, natural, and everywhere. It is disorder that takes effort. It is deliberate efforts to force a different planned order upon spontaneous orderings that is the cause of much disorder.

Jon Murphy November 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Mind = blown

vikingvista November 10, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Regarding what best to do about ordering society, I think McCartney put it best when he said,

“Let it be.”

Seth November 11, 2011 at 10:17 am

Yet, even planned order is emergent.

vikingvista November 11, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Sounds like you are saying that emergence is emergent. The context of the phrase “emergent order” specifically indicates orders that develop without planning, not all noneternal orders. The purpose is to inform planners both that orders emerge without their planning, and that their plans interfere with such orders. The result of such interference is unintended disorder.

Slappy McFee November 10, 2011 at 5:20 pm

The real question remains. Once a leader rises from the ashes, will they follow his/her dictates like good little progressives or will they continue to choose voluntary association.

Miko November 10, 2011 at 5:44 pm

1) The movement is set up in such a way as to make the emergence of leaders intentionally very difficult.
2) While there are a few progressives trying to astroturf Occupy into something useless like the Tea Party, very few of the people involved with Occupy are progressives. Many of us are actively hostile to the ideas of progressivism.

Andrew_M_Garland November 10, 2011 at 6:05 pm

So, what are most “of you” actively in favor of?

EG November 10, 2011 at 10:26 pm

“The movement is set up in such a way as to make the emergence of leaders intentionally very difficult.”

Very true. Comrade Kim Jong Il is but a simple and devoted member of the Party. He has never held a government position. He is not a leader, but a devoted worker for the people. The Glorious Socialist Paradise does not require leaders, nor guidance. We receive our guidance from the people. The people are the leaders of the Party and of the Nation.

Methinks1776 November 11, 2011 at 7:21 am


Hornung November 11, 2011 at 4:30 pm

I actually voted for Kim Jong Il, what a charmer.

Josh S November 10, 2011 at 5:21 pm

This ability to spontaneously order themselves proves that they have what it takes to be the planners dictating order to the rest of us.

Hornung November 11, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Oh bleh, this article is just weak. Stating that this movement arose spontaneously is such a gross oversimplification that the idea itself illuminates very little. If you were to fly in from outer space and look down at this congregation of people in a park, you would say “oh look! what are they doing! grouping together” no “government” told them to. Horse poop. There is no prediction or explanatory power (let me check my tone for a minute – I could be wrong and misunderstand the principle) and the article seems like a “gee, huh, wild, I guess people utilize language to interact with each other and influence each others behavior”. If planners wanted to have urban renewal lets just have the economy take another nose dive. Lets drive unemployment up so that we increase the likelihood that people will “congregate” spontaneously.

What do you suppose motivated these individuals to “group” together in the first place (yes yes probably an amalgamation of reasons but in similar vein – “im getting screwed”). I would hope that it would be perfectly obvious that multiple contingencies (which are identifiable) played a role in shaping the behavior to create the dramatic display of behavior from people who are not given “directions” from the government or a leader. I think my whole notion of the world will collapse. They share a similar response class from several variables working in unison (probably). If they all had a job or werent dirty hippys they would be admirable tea party activists validating our view point that the individual (together with some.. other.. individuals) can determine his or her own fate (lost their jobs because they were probably lazy union members), it cant possibly be that they are effected in a similar manner by similar events.

in addition, they should do nothing. Because they are probably bored from not having a job and spending too much of that good wealthy tax payer money. That money spends better because it often has a pleasant baby powder smell to it.

Miko November 10, 2011 at 5:42 pm

No way: anarchists did something without involving the government? Stop the presses for that one.

A better observation is that all of those services mentioned are being provided free of charge to those in need. So, they did it all without that most pernicious of the institutionalized systems of coercion: capitalism.

EG November 10, 2011 at 5:56 pm

??? But they pay for it through donations (from people who generated the money through capitalism), and prevent free loaders from having access to it (or try to prevent them).

Hmm…we have both markets and property rights. Soon, we shall see even Kolkhozes rise :)

CalgaryGuy November 11, 2011 at 4:16 am

Apparently, not all Occupiers share in the what’s mine is yours philosophy. One group of Occupiers here in Canada started locking up their donated food after a homeless man was found taking some.

Methinks1776 November 11, 2011 at 7:26 am

And the Zucotti Park kitchen went on strike because “ex cons and the professional homeless” (i.e. ideologically impure) were freeloading.

Also, it’s interesting that any time the Tea Party wanted to hold a protest, it was forced to pay for all the required permits, while these guys are allowed to squat for months for free. And by “free” I mean at the expense of the taxpayers.

Josh S November 11, 2011 at 7:58 am

That’s because the Tea Party is a terrorist organization trying to destroy our republic by perhaps limiting the growth of government to as little as a mere 3% per year. The least they can do is pay cash for the right to be anti-social. By contrast, Occupy is promoting social justice, one flung turd at a time.

Economic Progress November 11, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Now the squatters are a health threat:


With wintry weather poised to swoop into the cramped outdoor quarters of Occupy Wall Street protesters, it may not be long before more campers catch what’s being called “Zuccotti lung.”

That’s what demonstrators have dubbed the sickness that seems to be spreading among them at an unpleasantly high rate these days: “It’s a real thing,” Willie Carey, 28, told the New York Times.

With little sleep in cold conditions, cigarettes and drinks being passed from mouth to mouth, and few opportunities to wash hands, Zuccotti Park may now just be the best place to catch respiratory viruses, norovirus (also known as the winter vomiting virus) and tuberculosis, according to one doctor.

The damp clothing and cardboard signs wet with rain are also breeding grounds for mold. Some protesters are urinating in bottles and leaving food trash discarded throughout the campground, providing further opportunities for nastiness.

Hornung November 11, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Thisw is a great point Miko. I suppose there are a range of options for individuals when the machinary of a society is gone. The very fact that these people “could” engage in this protest is evidence that having police, firefighters, trash collectors, public spaces etc. etc.” is completely wasteful.

jorod November 10, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Without socialism, peace reigns.

Greg Webb November 10, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Wow! Even libtards were able to organize a tent city without a great leader telling them what to do. But then libtards don’t want someone telling them what to do. Rather they want to tell everyone else what to do.

BZ November 11, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Pernicious bastards aren’t they? They want to tell everyone to .. I mean, they want to pass laws that make people .. umm … What I’m trying to say is they want to round everyone up and force them to … what .. get along?

Greg Webb November 11, 2011 at 4:42 pm

BZ, that is right. You should not “tell” or “force” anyone to do as you want them to. Your argument is the typical straw man argument of the left. The issue is not about “everyone getting along.” Rather, the issue is about a few “telling ” everyone else what to do and to think by using “force” if they do not agree.

W.E. Heasley November 10, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Spontaneous order yes. Spontaneous odor yes.

Had the pleasure of running into the local OWS. They decided to visit a public hearing. Their slogan should be “showers-r-not-us”. They were a might gamey to say the least.

One lost sole amongst them had apparently decided to accept every pamphlet, fliers, handout, etc. given to him in the last 30 days or so. He had obviously decided to store his collection in the pockets of his jeans. Each time he stood up or sat down the collection fell out on the floor. He would then pick up all the materials and put them back in his pockets each time. Then they would all fall out again when he sat down or stood up.

He was wearing a jean jacket and jeans. The dirt ground into his jeans made one think the jeans had not been laundered for more than a month. Then it struck me! You go to the department store and they have stone washed jeans, faded jeans, blue jeans, and then the “worn look”. This is the guy that makes the “worn look” jeans!

Rob November 11, 2011 at 2:15 am

Nice bit of cultural anthropology here. Was there something more or actually relevant?

Scott Murphy November 10, 2011 at 10:26 pm

cool! now all they need is a means of transacting quickly and efficiently. Some sort of abstraction to signal the relative value of the things they have gathered.

SaulOhio November 11, 2011 at 7:44 am

Also, a system or institution that allows them to determine who has the right to control resources, who gets to maintain posession and decide how those resources will be used.

Bastiat Smith November 11, 2011 at 1:16 am

Evidence that order will arise without a brain- er- central plan. :-D

SaulOhio November 11, 2011 at 5:11 am

Maybe they could have done a better job if there had been someone to impose order. ;)

Mark Anthem November 11, 2011 at 8:10 am

If Facebook is any indication, the Tea Parties are still 8 times more numerous than Occupy movements. Maybe this will awaken them to the fact that a bunch of inaccurate historical Live Action Role Playing in tri-cornered hats just doesn’t cut it.
Rather than archeologically trying to decipher what spontaneously happened to free us from the U.K. “let us spit on our hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” (H.L. Mencken)
What if Americans gather on private property and melt down their license plates from all 256 million of their vehicles and set fire to all stickers, drivers licenses, and other ludicrous state permission documents?
Then Occupy the DMVs and petty Municipal Licensing bureaus until they are disbanded and their tyrants reassigned, wouldn’t that be a more worthy tactic by our would-be founding fathers?

Hornung November 11, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Good god man, then we would have to walk. I would rather suck every drop of oil out of the middle east and then use their countries as giant ATV parks.

Daniel Kuehn November 11, 2011 at 8:14 am

Is Don finally realizing that libertarians aren’t the only ones that know that the interaction of free individuals produce spontaneous order????

We might have just had a break through, people!

Greg G November 11, 2011 at 8:25 am


Yes, this is “where orders emerge” except aggregate macroeconomic orders.

Greg Webb November 11, 2011 at 8:43 am

That is because macroeconomic orders are the pretense of knowledge by emotionally-insecure people who desire to control others so they can feel important.

Greg G November 11, 2011 at 8:46 am


Long distance psychoanalysis combined with a lecture on the pretense of knowledge. Well done. Thanks for my daily dose of unintended irony.

Greg Webb November 11, 2011 at 9:21 am

Greg G, it’s not long distance psychoanalysis when you post your silly emoting and false conclusory statements here at Cafe Hayek. Thanks for the case study.

vikingvista November 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm

You couldn’t be more wrong. Non-planned emergent orders exist at all scales. That is a different issue from the use of aggregates. The aggregates that macroeconomists use may be readily defined as a simple summation of individually interpretable quantities, but their macro interpretation is hardly the same as their micro equivalents. The inferences and models using them are highly questionable (to be overly generous).

Think about it. A demand curve for *everything*? Seriously? You’re going to take a demand schedule for the purchase of oil tankers and combine it with a demand schedule for popcorn (and everything else you can imagine)? You do the same with a supply schedule, and the resulting price means…what? Clearly the interpretation from micro of a market of individuals bidding for the trade of two items (say dollars and popcorn) does not apply, but macroeconomists model them and infer from them as if it is the same thing.

Macro orders exist, and economics even has something to say about them. E.g., I don’t know hardly anyone who doubts the exchange equation or income identity (you can partition total spending however you desire, after all). Hayek’s structures of production is also clearly a macro concept.

But most macroeconomists haven’t a clue (or, I’d say even a desire) to understand those orders. They prefer having something they can measure and mathematically manipulate, then lose those superficial trappings of science that would result from the recognition that they are manipulating misinterpreted or uninterpretable, and therefore worthless, quantities.

Greg G November 11, 2011 at 3:29 pm


I agree that a lot of what passes for mathematical macroeconomic analysis of aggregates is bullshit. But that is a different claim than one that I sometimes see here that there are no emergent macro phenomena with emergent properties worth studying as such.

Milton Friedman built a career on aggregate macro analysis and contributed greatly to our understanding of the Great Depression
and of inflation by doing so.

vikingvista November 11, 2011 at 3:36 pm

“But that is a different claim than one that I sometimes see here that there are no emergent macro phenomena with emergent properties worth studying as such.”

Who here is guilty of that? If it was good enough for Hayek, I presume it is good enough for Cafe Hayek patrons.

What you do see here is plenty of justified criticism of those who are studying macro phenomena. Because it almost all cases it is, as you say, “bullshit”.

Hornung November 11, 2011 at 4:15 pm

See… I love what vikingviking vista has stated (great points). I think there is hope for the libertariantard… wait how do I combine libtard and libertarian tard. Libertard-o-tards! You are all fricking libertard-o-tards!

Slappy McFee November 11, 2011 at 9:14 am

“Is Don finally realizing that libertarians aren’t the only ones that know that the interaction of free individuals produce spontaneous order????”

Is Daniel finally realizing that it is our actions that define us? It is these people utilizing their internal libertarian to produce spontaneous order.

It is only when they turn to the initiation of violence that they turn into something else.

From the most recent police blotters, the ‘progressiveness’ is screaming to be set free and burn something down.

Sam Grove November 11, 2011 at 12:02 pm

The question is whether Occupy-ers have noticed what Don observes.

GrizzlyAdam November 11, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Exactly. And no, they won’t.

OWS was mildly interesting, until it wasn’t. It’s devolved into yet another tribe of angry, entitled, delinquents busily demanding that the State (through violence, naturally) provide them with the fruits of other people’s labor.

Hornung November 11, 2011 at 4:16 pm

spontaneously unordered?

Martin Brock November 11, 2011 at 12:55 pm

The ones that know that the interaction of free individuals produces spontaneous order are libertarians, but some don’t know it yet.

Hornung November 11, 2011 at 4:28 pm

I suppose its on how you define spontaneous and how you defined ordered.

brotio November 12, 2011 at 12:37 am

Hey Daniel,

Remember a few months ago when you were fretting about the potential for violence from all of those agitating, Right-wing Tea Partiers?

Care to compare the actual violence from two years of Tea Partying to the last two months of the Left-wing Occupiers?

Martin Brock November 11, 2011 at 12:43 pm

It looks a lot like porcfest, so instead of telling these people that they all want more government so we’re having nothing to do with them, we should tell them that they all want less government and we’d like to make common cause.

But if we tell them that Wall Street is a haven for lovers of free, competitive markets eschewing political forces, they’ll just laugh at us, because the assertion is laughably ridiculous.

Dan J November 11, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Yet, this ‘spontaneous’ grouping is under the umbrella protections of the state. And, this ‘spontaneous’ group contradict themselves daily. They complain of not getting their fair share, then look to keep out the derelicts who were ‘homeless’ before the group left mom and dads abode for tents. The group complains about protocol and paperwork forms to get gear or ‘necessities’. The group seeks medicinal treatments, paid for by others without contributing their ‘fair’ share, unless CO2 is their contribution. They get their food and water from the market and the big corps that produce and bring to marketplace.
As people in the camps are now dying, suffering from diseases, violations of property and persons, etc.,… Will they self treat these issues or seek state help paid for by productive people paying taxes or by means of the products and services brought by corporations and businesses, whom they protest?

Hornung November 11, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Its hard to follow the logic of your post Dan, but I do get your disdain for percieved intellectual inconsistencies. Fair enough. I was just making fun of the hippy on the street decrying social injustice and then texting on his iphone.But, you know, kids will be kids and when they are stipped of the illusion that life is fair they sometimes become sad hippies. Sad hippies are like sad clowns.. sad :(

Dan J November 11, 2011 at 8:15 pm

I am attacking two hypocrisies of the OWS crowd and the ‘spontaneity’ of the group that can only exist under the protections of state, if it is spontaneous at all.

Dwall November 12, 2011 at 2:29 am

OWS – may have been organized by Soros group MoveOn org, SEIU Lerner, ACORN derivatives, and other such described with public info. You thought those cool pop-up domed tents, sleeping bags, kitchens, information centers and cool anti-USA, Marxist protest signs all appeared spontaneously? remarkable intellectual gymnastics..

Glen Raphael November 20, 2011 at 6:01 pm

The larger OWS events and a lot of the donations were definitely organized by MoveOn.org. I know this because I’m on their mailing list so I get to see the marching orders as they go out. I don’t think MoveOn created the whole thing but it’s clear they decided to jump on the bandwagon once it had started going and they’re trying very hard to amplify and spin the message to suit their ends, which recently includes whining about the possibility that the “super-committee” might actually decide to cut some spending.

Here’s their most cringe-worthy recent attempt to suggest that the OWS protestors want all the same things they want:


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