Spontaneous Order

This is the type of thing that makes me believe a more libertarian society is possible, despite–or perhaps because of–how small the scale is. It’s also the type of thing that reveals my own professional hazard, seeing political lessons in everything.

My daughter has 2 hours of swim practice immediately after school, followed by a 45 minute break, then by 2 1/2 hours of band practice. That 45 minute break is all the time she has to eat dinner, and it’s not worth rushing home, so initially we were rushing food over to her. Then she told us we didn’t need to, because someone else was bringing her food?

Who? Why?

She has 10 teammates who are also in band, meaning they are in the same boat in regards to dinner. So now they have one parent each night bring food for their whole group. My daughter’s not sure how this got started, or who started it, or even whether it started this year or is a continuing tradition. All we know is that the girls have created an order of whose parents bring food when, which means only once or twice during the season do we have to take food over, instead of twice a week.

Without having the words to explain it, they’re engaging in politics to satisfactorily resolve a problem they share in common, and they didn’t need the rule to be imposed from above. The parents didn’t set it up for the kids. No school officials, swim coach, or band director did it. And none of those “superior powers” monitor it. The high school kids organized it and monitor it on their own. There’s a collective action problem here–free-riding is theoretically possible, but they’ve solved that by monitoring who’s contributed, doing what Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for showing that groups do.

I can see two ways this could be screwed up by the superior powers. One, some parents could step in and think it’s their responsibility to manage this, doing no better and depriving the kids of their autonomy. Or some level of government could find a violation of some rule about having licensed food servers, and wreck the whole thing. Neither of those has happened, and maybe neither is likely, but my point is that they’re possible, whereas there doesn’t seem to be any real possibility that intervention from above could actually result in any improvement to the current system.

Those who buy into Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone thesis worry about the future of self-governance because supposedly we’re not engaged in self-organized groups anymore, particularly at a young age (e.g., our kids play baseball in organized leagues where the rules are handed down, rather than playing ‘sand lot’ ball where they collaboratively decide that ‘over Mr. Hanley’s fence is a home run, but the batter has to go get the ball), so that they don’t learn the crucial skills of a self-governing society.

I’ve long thought the argument was specious; not that the skills are unimportant and need to be developed, but that adolescents today aren’t doing it. Maybe my daughter’s group is special (they are swimmers, and swimmers tend to be highly disciplined and organized), but I suspect they’re really not all that unusual.

Well, except that we’re talking about my daughter and her friends. On that grounds they’re special, of course, and I’m rather proud of them.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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10 Responses to Spontaneous Order

  1. But this spontaneous order is in the context of certain things made possible by a less spontaneous, or organized order. Swim practice and band are (I suppose) incidents of school, and the chief problem of scarcity is apparently one of time (the 45 minute interval between practices), not of food or resources to obtain food. The parents appear to be the outside providers of food–directly as distributors, indirectly as the people who work for the money to buy the food. Without this support, or subsidy (a loaded word, I admit), could the spontaneous order work in the way that it does here? I’m sure I’m botching the economic analysis here, but that’s something I see.

    By the way, you certainly have every reason to be proud of your daughter and her friends/colleagues. I’m just raising what I see as a qualification to the spontaneous order you identify.

  2. James Hanley says:

    Good questions, nothing botched that I can see. I would just take a page from the work of Elinor Ostrom and say that we have nested institutions. Whatever institutions evolve, forma and authoritative or informal and non-authoritative, will be in the context of other institutions, and will be shaped by those other institutions. In this case, in the absence of those formal institutions this informal self-governance would have no occasion to arise. If I don’t emphasize those, it’s only because I see them as background–a given context–for the examination of any particular nested institution. But a more comprehensive examination does have to take them into account, to be sure.

  3. What you’ve described is essentially how most cooperatives start out, including home schools. The “Bowling Alone” thesis is interesting. I’ll have to read more on the topic before making my mind up. Japan has this problem more than the US does, and it shows. Receiving ways to do things are part of the culture there more than the US (self-organization and self-reliance are more prized here.), but I’m not sure it boils down to anything more than values.

    I have a similar story where the authority figure comes in and wrecks the whole thing, but I’m afraid of telling it for obvious reasons.

  4. Matty says:

    I’m not familiar with bowling alone but I am very suspicious of any claim that implies people (as opposed to technology or organisations) are fundamentaly different today than in the past. Why would something like spontaneous teamwork last so long in our species and just happen to decline now?

  5. I share Matty’s suspicions, although I haven’t read BOWLING ALONE either.

  6. @Matty, are you asserting that teamwork is biological and not cultural then? Because I’m suspicious of claims that everything we do is just pre-programmed into our biology and not in fact the result of thousands upon thousands of generations of cultural inheritance.

  7. Matty says:

    I was going to try and correct the straw man version of the nature nurture debate but I’ll just put it down as hyperbole. My point doesn’t rely on claims about causation anyway, I just think that when something is widely observed in human societies across time and space an argument that we are different to everyone else will have a job convincing me. As I say I haven’t read the book, maybe it makes a very strong case but the bare claim is not.

  8. Matty says:

    that should read is not persuasive.

  9. @Matty, thanks for the clarification. Looking at the history of how civilization has conditioned humans to live lifestyles contrary to their natures, I’m going to keep an open mind (admittedly without having read the book.)

  10. James Hanley says:

    To be fair to Putnam, he’s arguing that changed social structures affect our behavior, which is hard to argue. And those changed social structures, he thinks, leads away from social interaction. He has carefully studied the decline in certain group activities (such as bowling leagues, hence the title). And he’s one of the leading scholars in the area of social capital formation.

    However my own suspicion is that he doesn’t give sufficient weight to new forms of organization and group activity, such as participation on condo boards. And he’s not an evolutionary theorist, so I suspect he does in fact downplay the natural groupishness of humans. Not that he doesn’t think we are naturally groupish, but I think he underplays the strength of that tendency in response to changing social structures.

    Still in all, though, his research does provide a good warning, especially to us libertarians. Self-governance isn’t an easy skill and it requires practice, and practice at it should be encouraged at an early age. I try to get my kids to do it….when I’m not too impatient to wait on a triad to come to agreement on something (in other words, not often enough).

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