Spontaneous order, in a short description: order coming out of seeming chaos that is the result of action and not planning. One example I was once told of is that of a campus. Whereas the location of the buildings and pathways is the result of human planning, those pseudo-paths that form on the grass from people individually walking the path of least distance is the result of human action. Another example is language. Spanglish never had a chance because, as much as a bunch of people wanted to design a language, language is the spontaneous generation of people acting over time. A more familiar, closer example is that of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand.
Spontaneous order is used by some to argue that freer markets are a better way of allocating resources than any central planner could ever dream of. When governments try to disrupt the spontaneous order of society, they risk making things worse. Pouring salt on the wounds, governments try meticulously to solve the problems of disrupting spontaneous order by, you guessed it, disrupting the spontaneous order even more.
I came across a great example the other day of an entity trying to realign spontaneous order after disrupting it. It was in the movie Back to the Future. In it, Marty McFly goes back in time and accidentally makes his mother fall in love with him. This screws up the properties of time and Marty slowly becomes “unborn”. He needs to undo this and get his parents back together. Think of the “Butterfly Effect” here.
Like governments, Marty got in the way of how things were “supposed to happen”. Although most people don’t agree with how things are “supposed” to happen, Hayek would say that the best spontaneous order is the one that happens based on voluntary exchange of individuals in a system with legal equality. Unlike governments, Marty was able to correct the spontaneous order (only to be followed by a myriad of challenges, laughs, and excellent actions scenes in the second and third parts of the trilogy).
Governments, it seems, tend to do the opposite. Austrian economists would argue that all of the world’s ills (ok, maybe not all of them) come from the government disrupting spontaneous order through manipulation of the money supply. But I’ll give a more relevant example: minimum wage. Assume, for just a second, that my thoughts on minimum wage are correct: it creates a surplus of workers instead of its intended consequence of just raising the wage of workers. To combat this unemployment, the government raises welfare benefits which, as any cross-country comparison shows, creates a higher level of the natural rate of unemployment.
Maybe there were too many assumptions necessary for that example to be convincing. But I think you can probably think of an instance where government’s “cure” is worse than the disease – the disease it happened to have created. Plus, I figured it was about time for a more lighthearted post.