Spontaneous or Planned: A Sharp Dichotomy, or a Gradient?

July 18, 2012

by Gene Callahan

I am writing a solicited comment for Dan Klein’s new book, Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation, for the journal Studies in Emergent Order. This is an especially interesting task for me, as Klein’s topic is obviously vital to my preliminary work on social cycles. And Dan is always an intelligent and engaging writer, so this should be a fun project. I find it helpful, in the interest of getting a paper done, to blog my thoughts as I go along, so here we go:

The first thing of importance I have noted is Klein, at least in the opening chapter, seems to posit a sharp dichotomy between spontaneous orders and planned orders. He uses the example of roller skaters in a rink: either they are each skating purely as they wish, or their movements are entirely planned by a “wise” planner. (This may well be modified by Klein later, but even if so, I have seen others treat this topic as if this was a simple dichotomy, so my remarks are, I think, worth making anyway.)

But real social orders are rarely (ever?) of either extreme. The extremes are ideal types, and real orders more or less instantiate the types.┬áTake musical groups, a social structure with which I have fair familiarity. Even in an orchestra, which is well towards the planned end of the range, the individual musicians still have room for individual creativity and expression. (Otherwise it is hard to imagine anyone spending their life playing in orchestras.) And even the most free-form, improvisational jazz group needs some planning: “OK, we’ll start at eight, and end at about eleven.”

I think most social groups are in the “somewhere in the middle” category: we each make our own decisions driving down the road, for instance, but within a planned framework of designated lanes, stop signs, traffic lights, and so on. A basketball team may run set plays, but the players must be ready to respond creatively to unexpected situations that arise as the play develops. Our discussions of these types of orders will benefit, I think, from seeing reality presents us with a gradient of mixtures of the two ideal types, and few, if any, pure examples of either.

Footnote: Klein is very skeptical about the ability of a “roller skating conductor” to direct skating in any way that is at all pleasant for the participants: “To prevent collisions, he would have to impose regimentation. Skating would be slow and simple. Skaters would be bored. Moreover, they would not find the joy and dignity that come from making one’s own course.”

But think of an orchestral conductor: he certainly does not have to play only pieces that are slow, simple, or boring! And it is not clear that the orchestral musicians cannot find joy or dignity following his directions.

8 Responses to “Spontaneous or Planned: A Sharp Dichotomy, or a Gradient?”


  1. I think all the metaphors fail here. And if the metaphors are failing, we are failing to understand the processes in question. So I think you’re right to point out that it’s perfectly reasonable to expect one could have a good time with organized or self-organizing roller skating — precisely because there are few enough people to organize.

    In “Getting to the Hayekian Network” in Advances in Austrian Economics, Vol. 15 ( http://www.emeraldinsight.com/books.htm?issn=1529-2134&volume=15 ), I describe the difference between organizational network structure, which is hierarchical, and spontaneous order network structure, which is scale-free. There are different kinds of each, with the most complex kind of organizational structure somewhat similar to the least complex kind of scale-free network. However, the differences are quite important. One can create definite goals for the organization, while one simply cannot create goals for the spontaneous order. This is precisely due to the network architectures. Scale-free networks are necessarily leaderless, and organizations necessarily have leaders, no matter how complex their network architecture. So there is a certain gradation, but there is also an unbridgeable gap between the two kinds of networks. In other words, Hayek was right that you cannot impose one structure on the other.

    It is possible to create an organization with 1000 people, and it is probably possible for a spontaneous order with 1000 people who have enough interactive density — but the network structures of the two will be completely different, and there will be completely different outcomes.


  2. Gene raises an important issue and I believe that a careful reading of Hayek supports his basic position.

    Mario and I dealt with an aspect of the issue in our distinction between typical and unique features of human interaction. Two authors meet to discuss a topic and could predict some general features of what will be discussed. But they can never predict the spefics of what will be said.

    I’ll be that even a well-oiled ensemble never plays a piece exactly the same twice.

  3. Ryan Langrill Says:

    David Hume would agree: “as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”

    In other words, even the most centrally planned government is a spontaneous order.

  4. Bill Stepp Says:

    I think you’re overintellectualizing this. There is no such thing as a completely planned order simply because socialism doesn’t work. In the Soviet Union, for example, there were pockets of property exchanges, bribes, etc.
    See Moshe Lewin’s book on the history of Soviet planning for examples.
    Anarchy would be a completely spontaneous order.


  5. OK, Bill, as an academic social scientist, I’ll make sure in the future I don’t theorize.

    Oh, and your two examples are silly, and pretty good evidence you are under-intellectualizing this. Anarchy is certainly not “a completely spontaneous order” unless no one creates firms or business plans, etc. And Mises argument against socialism only claims that a completely planned order that spans all of society is impossible. Since I was talking about things like orchestras, I was obviously contemplating more limited orders as well.

  6. Bill Stepp Says:

    Gene,
    Business planning and the existence of firms is part of the spontaneous order. Do you not understand the qualitative difference between that sort of planning and the central planning attempted by Comrade Stalin and Comrade Bernanke?


  7. “Business planning and the existence of firms is part of the spontaneous order.”

    No kidding, Bill! In fact, they are PLANNED parts of a larger, generally spontaneous order.

    Bill, I am talking about general types of planned and spontaneous orders: consider my examples of the orchestra and the jazz band. Not all of us look at every social science question as if the only thing that could possibly be of any interest to social scientists is eliminating the state.


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