I’m in San Francisco right now in the middle of a three week roadtrip. More on that some other time, but this morning as I was drinking my covfefe and staring at the bridge, I began to think on the complicated and elaborate process by which that hunk of metal was constructed. As impressive as the construction of the Golden Gate is, what seems even more impressive to me is the emergent order that existed around the building of the bridge.
The way I figure it, there are four types of activity. There are things that I do myself, such as mow the lawn or brush my teeth. There are things that other people do, such as cutting my hair or bailing on roadtrips. There are things that happen in the environment, like rain or fog. Then there is what Hayekians call the “emergent order”. Simply, the emergent order is the appearance of orderly systems out of unplanned group activity. For example, the baker bakes bread every morning, but he doesn’t grow the wheat or design and build his own ovens. Neither does any other baker, but they are all part of a logical system of organised panning that has arisen without the need for a central planner deciding who gets what flour or how many eggs. It just…happens. As if, as Adam Smith puts it, an “invisible hand” guides the entire process.
That bridge is a monumental achievement of engineering but also blood, sweat, and tears. But, the bridge itself is only part of the story. Consider the amount of labor and capital it takes to mine the steel that goes into the bridge or the amount of effort it takes to organise the trucks that carried everything to the job site. Even consider how ultimately complicated the chain of events was to put a sandwich in the lunch boxes of the workers. It was millions and millions of people working in harmony with each other, each pursuing their own ends but somehow, almost mystically, working in concert with each other in such an efficient way that the Golden Gate was able to be constructed without the designers of the bridge having to grow the food to feed the workers or invent trucks to carry the materials.
This emergent order seems planned, almost as if it was created by design, but the fact is that this process is ultimately extremely chaotic. And yet, despite the chaos of this remarkably complex chain of allocation, resources can be readily supplied to virtually anyone who needs them- cheaply and efficiently.
It struck me that while the bridge is a really impressive project of civil engineering, the emergent order that made the building of the bridge possible in the first place is the real wonder here. Everything from the steel workers, to the builders, to the designers and engineers, to the waitresses that served the workers their morning covfefe, what great things we accomplish when we allow the natural and organic process of the market to guide our decision making.
“Look upon my works ye mighty, and despair.”