As humans, we are a product of spontaneous order, specifically of a version of spontaneous order that we call evolution. With no plan and no planner, innovations (genetic mutations) occur randomly, are tested in the marketplace of survival, and the most successful go forward. The outcome has been beneficial for the entire species.
Spontaneous order is a concept with a long history in economics and sociology. Steven Horwitz has traced the spontaneous order tradition from Adam Smith to Carl Menger to Hayek. It is F. A. Hayek who is viewed as the primary champion of the idea that the spontaneous collaboration of free people “creates things which are greater than their individual minds can ever fully comprehend.” Allowing spontaneous orders to flourish is the essence of a free society.
Why are we not more open to the idea of spontaneous order?
Why, then, is spontaneous order repressed in modern societies and economies? Why do we insist upon, and seem to prefer, hierarchies, authority, designed institutions and planned economies?
Our human brains do not seem to be able to understand or conceive of a system of emergent order for the social organization of the species. We insist on a linear vision of cause and effect, on hubristic processes of design, and on rigid authoritarian and hierarchical social structures.
If, instead, we could recognize the beneficial outcomes of spontaneous order and embrace a future characterized by conditions that favor spontaneous order, we’d all live better and more fulfilled lives.
Sync is everywhere.
Steven Strogatz can help to open our minds to this possibility with a book called Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In The Universe, Nature and Daily Life. Dr. Strogatz is a Professor of Applied Mathematics who has focused on a science of Synchrony, Sync for short.
He starts the reader of his book on a journey of explanation with a seemingly simple example. Fireflies are known flash in synchrony, each flashing on and off at the same time. How do they orchestrate themselves? At this point he introduces us to an important concept: coupled oscillators.
These are pairs of biological phenomena that can influence each other. If one firefly fires early, it can influence its coupled oscillator neighbor to speed up. If one fires late, it can influence its coupled oscillator to slow down. Eventually, each pair gets in sync and an entire neighborhood of fireflies can become synchronized. How do they do it? Dr. Strogatz reveals the big idea: they self-organize.
He then gives us additional examples of coupled oscillators synchronizing, including crickets chirping, the firing of pacemaker cells in the human heart, and stock market booms and crashes. The richness of the world is due, in large part, he says, to the miracle of self-organization.
But he observes, “Unfortunately, our minds are bad at grasping these kinds of problems. We’re accustomed to thinking in terms of centralized control, clear chains of command, and the straightforward logic of cause and effect. But in huge, interconnected systems, where every player ultimately affects every other, our standard ways of thinking fall apart.”
Free Markets In Sync.
In fact, he has given us our first clue to the acceptance of spontaneous order. We can think of individuals in unhampered economic markets engaging in mutually voluntary exchange as coupled oscillators. Buyers and sellers. Producers and consumers. Each aligns with the other through market feedback (when the producer observes what the consumer does and does not buy) and the pricing mechanism (when the producer discovers what value the consumer assigns to different choices available to them). These coupled oscillators can achieve sync if there are no restrictions on their mutual communication.
Sympathy Begets Sync.
Another chapter is entitled “The Sympathetic Universe”. Dr. Strogatz tells the story of the seventeenth century Dutch physicist Christian Huygens, who observed two pendulum clocks hanging close to each other in his room whose pendulum swings started out unsynchronized but, over time, synchronized themselves. He attributed the phenomenon to “a kind of sympathy” between them. In fact, Strogatz demonstrates that the effect springs from the laws of mathematics and physics.
Yet the word “sympathy” resonates, because Adam Smith told us (in Theory Of Moral Sentiments) that sympathy is the basis for the synchronized working of markets and societies.
We are each endowed with a natural sympathy towards others. When we see others distressed or happy, we feel for them. In markets, this sympathy results in entrepreneurs developing new offerings designed to alleviate others’ dissatisfactions and improve their lives. The feedback loop from customer to entrepreneur, indicating whether the new offering is accepted and valuable, is sympathy operating in the reverse direction. The entrepreneur and the customer are coupled oscillators synchronizing via sympathetic connection.
In the final section of Sync, Dr. Strogatz tells us about “small-world networks.” In studying the networks in which oscillators are connected, scientists have identified some conditions under which sync and the rapid, sometimes explosive, spread of information and ideas are most likely to emerge. The pattern of connections between individuals – “the architecture of relationships” – is what matters.
Structure always affects function. The structure of social networks, for example, affects the spread of information. The “small-world” structure refers to a complex network which includes a tight knit set of “local connections” (think family, friends, neighborhood, work colleagues) and a widely flung set of global connections (think people all over the world whom we correspond with on e-mail, our LinkedIn network of connections, globally distributed connections in a professional association, and so on).
The internet is one simple example of a small-world network. Most web pages link to others on the same topic, but occasionally may veer off onto idiosyncratic byways. To use the example of infectious diseases, “Ebola demonstrated that infectious diseases spread mainly within tight-knit communities, but also hitch rides on airplanes.”
Simple general rules determine how sync emerges in vast networked populations. In a separate TED talk, Strogatz explained the general rules for a flock of starlings or a school of fish to move in incredibly beautiful synchronized motions.
“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.”
This brings us neatly back to F.A. Hayek and his sociology of spontaneous order. He proposed that all individuals be free to act and to innovate in a system of general rules that apply to all, and do not favor one individual or group over another, or favor a predetermined outcome. They connect with each other through knowledge and information sharing, and provide feedback to each other through the price system.
Today, individuals can share and express their sympathy for each other both locally and globally, in what Dr. Strogatz would call a small-world network. And, as Brittany Hunter has pointed out, if we look, we find spontaneous order all around us.
Conditions are ideal for sync and spontaneous order – if we let it emerge.