Society Is a Spontaneous Human Chain


Much of my podcast listening happens while doing chores or driving around, so I hardly ever get through an hour-long episode in one listening.  By happy coincidence (if you believe things are mere coincidences), I happened to be working my way through an EconTalk episode about “emergent order” when I also read this story out of Florida about a spontaneous human chain that saved a family caught in a riptide:

Six members of a single family – four adults and two young boys – and four other swimmers had been swept away by a powerful and deceptive riptide churning below the water’s surface. …

There was no lifeguard on duty, and law enforcement on the scene had opted to wait for a rescue boat. People on the beach had no rescue equipment, only boogie boards, surf boards and their arms and legs.

“Form a human chain!” they started shouting.

“Emergent order” is when the drives and incentives in a system bring about organized action without any deliberate planner or coordination.  In economics, the classic example is the coordination of all the activity necessary to ensure fresh bread in the market each day.  Nobody dictates the process; people with incentive to make money find a niche in the process of bread production, and it becomes in the interest of each to maximize production and efficiency.  That includes redirecting resources when some related product has more demand, as measured by prices.

The human chain in Panama City Beach is an apt metaphor.  Sure, somebody was the first to utter the phrase “human chain,” but no well-trained government official showed up and took control.  Indeed, the authorities had concluded that it wasn’t worth the risk to attempt a rescue without the authorized equipment.

Instead, the demand of an endangered family was high, creating the opportunity for what we might call substantial moral capital.  That opportunity attracted a few people with high tolerance for risk and significant interest in helping others.  As more people joined, the appearance of risk decreased and spontaneous peer pressure lowered the price, so to speak, by which I mean the amount of a person’s intrinsic moral imperative needed to spur action.  The first few people were willing to risk their lives independently; by the end, people in the line may have been calling out to spectators and passers requesting help, putting a cost on refusal.

This particular incident makes me wonder how much the general expectation that government is taking care of things — that it’s somebody else’s job to take care of people in need — reduces the amount that folks will do so spontaneously, not only in helping, but also in the market.  Before the human chain, somebody looked for lifeguards and then the police.  The police assessed the situation and took the prescribed action, which wasn’t fast enough.

If those sources of aid weren’t expected, the crowd would have come to the conclusion of cooperative action sooner.  If society were less well organized, cooperative action might have been the habit and first recourse of the people in the crowd.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have lifeguards or police.  They help where other people might not perceive the danger, and they help in the ways safest for everybody involved (including through their training).  The development of the institutions of lifeguards and police is, itself, a higher-level emergent order.

The Florida anecdote does, however, illustrate the reality and importance of a tendency toward spontaneous human cooperation.  It’s a habit we shouldn’t let slip from our culture.  If our culture maintains the expectation that people can and should work independently together throughout most of life, we’ll have that mindset when official organizations break down or are inadequate, even if emergent order isn’t our solution to every emergency.