Order: Emergent, Unplanned, Spontaneous

Lynne Kiesling

Last week while I was in nose-to-grindstone mode (and traveling too), Russ Roberts had a very nice post on the difficulties of the word “spontaneous” in “spontaneous order”, and in general the challenge that we dynamic, forward-looking, spontaneous order folks have in communicating our ideas clearly and persuasively. Like Russ, I have changed my language, using the phrase “emergent order” instead, unless I know I’m talking to an audience that understands how I am using the word “spontaneous”. “Emergent” doesn’t have the connotation of instantaneous, or on a whim, or unpredictable that “spontaneous” does. I also tend to use the phrase “unplanned order”, because then it gives me an opportunity to talk about how individuals can make their own plans for their own actions, but then even without groups of individuals coming together and making a group plan, order can emerge from the interaction of the individual plans. How cool is that?

It’s actually a nice metaphor for emergent order to have the language change like this over time. During the Scottish Enlightenment, when the phrase “spontaneous order” arose from those fertile intellectual interactions, “spontaneous” had a different connotation. But language is malleable and adaptable, evolving over time. Yep, it’s a nice metaphor.

Russ also mentions how easy it is to slip into implicit control language:

But I’ve been thinking lately about a different sense of the word spontaneous. It’s the ability of the modern economy to deal with our spontaneity as economic actors. (Notice how that sentence suggests the economy is doing something consciously to cope with our spontaneity. Try and reword it to get rid of that implied management. How about this: It’s how order re-emerges in the face of our spontaneity as economic actors. Better.) …

So when I marvel that the extended order of human cooperation delivers (oops, there’s that implied intention/control thing) allows me to buy a dozen bagels for a brunch without having to call ahead, it’s so much more than that.

I find this a constant challenge, because my audience is usually people who come from a control-and-manage mindset, and who either favor or are just accustomed to either implicit control or explicit control. That fact is reflected in the language. So I am very deliberate in not using implicit control language. That word “delivers” is a particular bugaboo for me; instead of saying “retail electric choice delivers” or “technological creativity delivers” I try to say “technological creativity unleashes”. I like the emergent connotations of “unleashes”, but it also has some stormy connotations that don’t please me. It also makes me sound like an evangelist, which I guess I am.