Guest Post: Spontaneous Order And The Jersey Shore

Submitted by James E. Miller of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada,

It’s tough to do just about anything today without experiencing the far-reaching hand of the growing regulatory state.  Virtually everything the average shopper see on the store shelf is stamped with government approval.  With the increasing use of red light safety cameras and even domestic surveillance drones, the dystopian world which George Orwell painted so brilliantly in 1984 is sounding more prophetic by the day.  The result is a new generation that is coming of age amongst a pervasive and all-inclusive nanny state.  With a federal register that grows by tens of thousands of pages each year, tyranny is spewing forth across America from Leviathan’s home of Washington D.C. every single day.

While the seeds of big, progressive government were planted decades before in the midst of the first World War and war between the states, it wasn’t until the New Deal did the United States finally succumb to a full blown welfare state.  Family support and voluntary mutual-aid societies were replaced in a matter of years by a coercive bureaucracy.  Perhaps the most unfortunate element of the rise of the welfare state is that the line between society and the state has blurred even further.  The growth of democracy is often accompanied by the public identifying itself with the state.  In the people’s minds, it then becomes impossible to imagine how society would function without the political class in direct control.  The state is gradually turned to for all of life’s dilemmas without proper consideration given to how peaceful solutions could be utilized.  Masked in its role as savior, the state is given an opening to extend its true role as the great societal exploiter.

This occurs even as there are many ways society can cope with perceived complications when left to its own devices.  It is a great myth that humanity can’t organize itself without the assistance of government.  There is, in fact, a natural order that develops within even the most unnoticeable of tasks.  The most immediate example is the queue line at any grocery store.  At least in America, it is generally accepted practice that one must wait their turn while wishing to be checked out.  “Cutting” in line is seen as a social stigma.  Yet nowhere is this written down as a formal rule.  Private grocers may enforce such a rule but often times there is no need to.  Decades of tradition have done the job for them.

The line at the grocery store is just one example of how order is established through unplanned methods; or what economist Friedrich Hayek referred to as spontaneous or “extended order.”  In his book The Fatal Conceit, Hayek described extended order as

a framework of institutions – economic, legal, and moral – into which we fit ourselves by obeying certain rules of conduct that we never made, and which we have never understood in the sense of which we understand how the things that we manufacture function.

To Hayek, civilization is the result of an “order” that was “not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices.”  The cooperation and division of labor which allow a market economy to flourish were the result of spontaneous order.  And because enterprise is the best means by which people can achieve their objectives, it can be deduced that the decentralized control of productive factors, otherwise known as laissez faire capitalism, is mankind’s saving grace from a life of incredible hardship.

The beauty of spontaneous order is that it is all around us whether we realize it or not.  Its biggest enemy is the encroaching omnipotence every government represents.  Politicians are infatuated with the idea of controlling others or they wouldn’t be politicians in the first place.  The idea that societal order can arise without their permission is a terrifying prospect.  To public officials, spontaneous order means “we don’t need you and your guns to tell us how to live.”  Politicians end up combating the notion by overly emphasizing any reported tragedy as a justification for more laws and governance.

Recently in the state of New Jersey, there has been a rash of drownings on the state’s shoreline.  So far this summer, there have been a total of five deaths related to drowning.  These drownings all have one thing in common: there were no lifeguards on duty at the time.  In response, one of the supervisors of state’s beaches is asking for the legislature to “pass a law imposing stiff fines for anyone caught swimming after lifeguards have gone home.”  Some lawmakers are considering proposals to alter the current laws so that towns are less liable for any drownings.  There is even some talk of extending life guard coverage.

What doesn’t get mentioned in any news coverage is that all of the recent Jersey Shore drownings have something else in common: they occurred on public, or socialized, beaches.  These beaches are governed primarily by local municipalities that leave them free to the public in the evening.  Many people visit public beaches during this time because, according to the Asbury Park beach safety official Joe Bongiovanni, “it’s free.”  Combined with government authority and the ability of victims and their families to sue the town for drowning accidents, beach-goers are given a false sense of security that someone will pay for the costs of their own mistakes.  In other words, they make choices they may not have made otherwise.  As Paul Mulshine of The Star Ledger points out, “people who take such risks feel it’s someone else’s responsibility to save them from themselves.”  Rather than stop bad behavior, increasing the amount of lifeguards on duty will just incentivize risk taking.

The real solution is to privatize the beaches by having the various local municipalities relinquish their control.  Allow the market to function and for the beaches to fall into private hands not through crony public-private partnerships but allowing individuals to procure the land through methods such as homesteading or establishing a type of joint-stock company.  The difference between the open market and government is that bureaucracies are always using a top-down approach to develop the perfect solution to even the most negligible of problems.  On the other hand, the market finds solutions in so many different ways that it is difficult to imagine just how it would operate when left uninhibited.

In his classic “Fable of Shoes,” Murray Rothbard demonstrates just how ridiculous it is for enemies of the marketplace to vilify supporters of enterprise by asking “how can business provide for so and so if government doesn’t do it?”

The libertarian who wants to replace government by private enterprises in the above areas is thus treated in the same way as he would be if the government had, for various reasons, been supplying shoes as a tax-financed monopoly from time immemorial.. [H]ow would most of the public treat the libertarian who now came along to advocate that the government get out of the shoe business and throw it open to private enterprise? He would undoubtedly be treated as follows: people would cry, “How could you? You are opposed to the public, and to poor people, wearing shoes! And who would supply shoes to the public if the government got out of the business? Tell us that! Be constructive! It’s easy to be negative and smart-alecky about government; but tell us who would supply shoes? Which people? How many shoe stores would be available in each city and town? How would the shoe firms be capitalized? How many brands would there be? What material would they use? What lasts? What would be the pricing arrangements for shoes? Wouldn’t regulation of the shoe industry be needed to see to it that the product is sound? And who would supply the poor with shoes? Suppose a poor person didn’t have the money to buy a pair?”

Judging by how abundant shoes have become, it should be obvious that the market, that is millions of people economizing and trading voluntarily, has done a decent job of turning footwear into a relatively inexpensive good.

In a free society, it would be unjust to force some into paying for the constant supervision of those less cautious of life’s risks.  Just as a child learns to avoid a hot stove by painfully touching it, we all learn through misfortune.  The Jersey Shore drownings, tragic as they are, should serve as a lesson all beach visitors.  Common sense isn’t something to be legislated.  It can only form when the right incentives are involved for people to make smart decisions without relying on a central source of authority.  And just like the free market, common sense is also a product of spontaneous order.


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