The world we live in is full of unpredictable, individual actors. This alone has been enough to justify state intervention in almost every aspect of our lives since the very first governments were formed among men. Yet, even though the world is full of chaotic moving parts, there is an organic order that occurs when individuals of all species are left to their own devices.
The belief in this natural alignment is what Hayek referred to as “spontaneous order” and examples can be found all around us, both in human society and in nature.
Throughout our lives, we have been told that there must be some sort of authority present in order to keep humankind in line and lead us to desired ends. This, it is believed, is the only way in which a society of individuals can be made to conform and coexist with each other.
But this is not so, as anyone who has ever attended a music festival can attest.
In my adult life, attending music festivals has not been a main priority. But set on trying new things, I accepted an invitation to electronic dance music (EDM) festival.
I will admit that upon walking through the gates of the Atlanta Motor Speedway, I was intimidated by the hordes of people all marching to the beat of their own drummer. As an avid individualist, I thought this would be my own slice of heaven, but I was mostly just terrified by the eccentricities of other festival goers. How would we all be able to dance next to each other without anyone fighting or getting hurt?
As I began walking toward the main stage where a crowd of thousands had gathered to watch their favorite DJ, I was taken aback by what I saw before my eyes. From a distance, it appeared that the entire crowd was moving as one. But this couldn’t be possible. I had walked around with these people all day and there was no way each unique spirit had made a coordinated effort to dance in unison.
But as I made my way through the crowd and to the very center of the action, I had a different perspective. There was no unity at all, in fact, each dancer still maintained their individuality perfectly. Yet, everyone was dancing to the same beat.
In the world of EDM, there are a few moments within in each song where the beat begins to escalate. Before this happens, each individual in the crowd is his own. He, or she, dances and sways in whatever capacity they feel so inclined. And believe me, this can manifest itself in all sorts of ways.
But as the music builds and intensifies, something quite extraordinary happens to the crowd, they work as one without sacrificing their individualism and without being led by any being.
And while I didn’t have the words to describe what I was witnessing at the time, I would later watch a lecture that perfectly summed up my music festival encounter.
Mathematician Steven Strogatz presented a TED Talk some years ago on the topic he refers to as “sync.” Explaining how all organisms are capable of “syncing” together and working as one without some sort of puppet master pulling the strings, Strogatz begins his talk by asking the audience to clap.
With any precognition, the audience manages to clap as one. But even more fascinating, the audience begins to pick up speed in unison as well. Again, this group had never been gathered together before this presentation. There was no plan in place and aside from the Strogatz inviting them to applaud, there was no leader. Yet somehow, the crowd managed to clap as one.
Explaining this phenomenon Strogatz says:
This is a room full of intelligent people, highly sensitive, some trained musicians out there. Is that what enabled you to synchronize? So to put the question a little more seriously, let’s ask ourselves what are the minimum requirements for what you just did, for spontaneous synchronization. Do you need, for instance, to be as smart as you are? Do you even need a brain at all just to synchronize? Do you need to be alive? I mean, that’s a spooky thought, right? Inanimate objects that might spontaneously synchronize themselves. It’s real. In fact, I’ll try to explain today that sync is maybe one of, if not one of the most, perhaps the most pervasive drive in all of nature. It extends from the subatomic scale to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. It’s a deep tendency toward order in nature that opposes what we’ve all been taught about entropy. I mean, I’m not saying the law of entropy is wrong — it’s not. But there is a countervailing force in the universe — the tendency towards spontaneous order.
Anyone who has ever watched a nature documentary has seen this occurring within the animal kingdom. Flocks of birds flying in unison and even swerving as one in order to escape a predator. Human beings are no different.
Commenting on spontaneous order as it applies to the animal kingdom Strogatz says:
There are just three simple rules. First, all the individuals are only aware of their nearest neighbors. Second, all the individuals have a tendency to line up. And third, they’re all attracted to each other, but they try to keep a small distance apart. And when you build those three rules in, automatically you start to see swarms that look very much like fish schools or bird flocks. Now, fish like to stay close together, about a body length apart. Birds try to stay about three or four body lengths apart. But except for that difference, the rules are the same for both.
What was particularly fascinating about these rules is that they are the same that I observed at the music festival while attendees were dancing. Commenting on the fourth rule Strogatz says, “There’s a fourth rule: when a predator’s coming, get out of the way.”
At music festivals, where alcohol is sold in abundance, predators come in the form of rowdy dancers who may not be completely aware of their surroundings. But again, without any preplanning, the crowd is able to swerve and sway and hold space in order to protect themselves. And while it appears to be done as a group it is not. As Strogatz says, “Even though it looks like they’re thinking as a group, they’re not.”
Similar observations can be made on a crowded Manhattan street. Anyone looking down from a skyscraper window would be amazed that so many people are capable of walking, each at their own pace and to their own respective destination, without colliding. Yet, every single day this happens and individuals are able to bob and weave and navigate their way around each other without placing a great deal of thought on the matter.
Central planners will often use the unpredictability of individuals as grounds for legislating almost all aspects of our lives. But when individuals are left to their own devices, not only does the world continuing spinning as it always has, people actually benefit from this great freedom.