Can Order Be Unplanned?

Tom W. Bell,

Release Date
April 5, 2011


Basic Economics

Some people assume that for there to be order in human society, there needs to be some central planning or direction. But as Chapman University professor Tom W. Bell explains, much of the order we observe in our lives is not the product of human design, it’s a product of spontaneous order. Drawing from the work of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, Bell describes how understanding spontaneous orders helps us to understand markets, language, social norms, customs, and society itself.

  • Football and Spontaneous Orders [Article]: Stephen Davies demonstrates that free association can produce order through complex rule-governed institutions that no single person or small group designed.
  • I, Pencil [Article] by Leonard E. Read. A classic 1958 essay that illustrates the process of spontaneous order through the story of the creation of a simple pencil.
  • I, Pencil (video): An exploration of unplanned, spontaneous order and the invisible hand.
  • I, Pencil (Video): Milton Friedman demonstrates through the example of a pencil how market prices provide just enough information to encourage social cooperation and prosperity.
  • Natural and Artificial Social Order [Article] by Frédéric Bastiat. A classic exploration of spontaneous order and the mechanisms of society.
  • Spontaneous Order [Article]: Nigel Ashford explains how order emerges in the absence of command in a free society.

Can Order Be Unplanned?
Have you ever been to the beach and wondered who’s in charge here? A keen eye will certainly discern intriguing patterns of certain people in certain places. In one area of the beach, for instance, you might spot a bevy of preening young ladies. Not far away, you will likely find young men showing off to the same. Elsewhere, you might see a cluster of families watching their children play together at the edge of the surf. Pale tourists clog some stretches of sand while others seem to attract only tanned locals. These mini neighborhoods of likeminded beach goers ebb and flow like the tide itself. Nobody plans them, yet they do not arise purely by chance. They result from human action but not from human design.
Social scientists call such organizations spontaneous orders. Once you learn to recognize them, you see spontaneous orders everywhere. From flocks of people to flocks of birds to prices in a free market to the very language we speak, spontaneous orders play an especially important role in classical liberal thought. Let’s explore why.
The notion of spontaneous orders first rose to prominence among the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, including the economist Adam Smith. Smith famously described how when making investment decisions even though each individual “intends only his own gain he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”
Among later thinkers in the classical liberal tradition, Nobel Prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek especially emphasized the contrast between planned orders and spontaneous ones, and he emphasized that we must understand both if we’re to understand social phenomena.
“Although there was a time when men believed that even language and morals had been ‘invented’ by some genius of the past, everybody recognizes now that they are the outcome of a process of evolution whose results nobody foresaw or designed. If indignant reformers still complain of the chaos of economic affairs, insinuating a complete absence of order, this is partly because they cannot conceive of an order which is not deliberately made.”
Failure to appreciate the distinction between planned orders and spontaneous ones leads to what Hayek called the fatal conceit, that central planners can organize an entire society as if it were an assembly line or a military operation. To the contrary, “it is because it was not dependent on organization but grew up as a spontaneous order that the structure of modern society has attained that degree of complexity which it possesses and which far exceeds any which could have been achieved by deliberate organization. To maintain that we must deliberately plan modern society because it has become complex is therefore paradoxical and the result of a complete misunderstanding of these circumstances.” Hayek and other classical liberals thus teach us, if we don’t understand spontaneous orders, we won’t understand markets, customary norms, or indeed society itself.
So who’s in charge of markets, of language, and of crowds at the beach? Everyone in general but no one in particular. Mysterious though that may sound at first, it all makes sense once you understand the power of spontaneous orders.