One of my favorite examples of the Hayekian concept of “spontaneous order” is stairway traffic. In the subway at rush hour, when people are trying to get up and down the stairs in a hurry, two lines always form between the guardrails, and they are always on the right. Any idiot who tries to plow through on the left is forced to the right by the sheer mass of the traffic. The escalators, two bodies wide, work the same way. The stationary riders stay to the right, and the walkers to the left, the passing lane, as it were.

Hayek explains far better than I ever could why such rules arise. But why this particular rule? I theorize that it’s because in America we drive on the right and pass on the left. This hypothesis is easily tested: in England or Japan or any number of other countries, where they drive on the left and pass on the right, do they walk the opposite way we do? If so, that would suggest that spontaneous rules are formed by analogy with preexisting rules. If not, it’s time for a new hypothesis. Can any readers enlighten me on this score?

Aaron Haspel | Posted March 19, 2003 @ 3:10 PM | Heuristic

10 Responses to “Spontaneous Order”

  1. 1 1. Bill Kaplan

    What you should read is "The Evolution of Cooperation" by Robert Axelrod. He deals with the creation of spontaneous order by analogizing specific types of interactions to iterated prisoner’s dilemmas. Cooperation is rewarded by the order created. You may very well be right about HOW the order is created, but his book explains as well as I have seen so far why it is created.


  2. 2 2. Jim

    If they walk the way we do in England and Japan, then my armchair hypothesis would begin with the fact that our bodies are made up of many chiral molecules: molecules that twist to the right (or left). If two molecules are made of the same stuff in the same order, save that one twists to the right, while the other twists to the left, they can do radically different things at the macro level. One can be deadly poison, the other valuable medicine. The brain might be made of chiral molecules and, somehow, make it feel easier to go right than left.

    From my armchair.


  3. 3 3. Aaron Haspel

    I should know better than to solicit hypotheses from philosophers. Oh wait, I didn’t solicit hypotheses…


  4. 4 4. Erin O'Connor

    I’ve been living in England since September, and I can tell you positively: the English walk on the left as Americans walk on the right. I have yet to adjust and am continually finding myself in the wrong "lane" on sidewalks and on staircases. Such is the depth of pedestrian habituation.


  5. 5 5. Deb

    I have visited England and found myself bucking the current by trying to walk on the wrong side. I thought it was due to the traffic lane distinction which also made simply crossing a street a death defying act.


  6. 6 6. Aaron Haspel

    Now if someone would just tell me if the passing lane on escalators in England is on the right, I’d be in business.


  7. 7 7. Michael "Southpaw" Krantz

    I was about to (bitterly) predict that walking on the right is universal because 90% of all humans are right-handed, but I guess that isn’t the case.


  8. 8 8. Riedwaan Bassadien

    I’ve travelled the world a bit and I can tell you this.. In England (London underground) you stand on the right and people in a hurry pass on the left. In Japan and Australia, people stand on the left and pass on the right. Even though they all drive on the left. Some other countries still… and I think I can safely say the majority I’ve visited including my native South Africa, there is no rule like this. My theory is that it’s probably because there is no need since there isn’t such a desire or requirement to optimise space as a means to optimise time.


  9. 9 9. Michael Blowhard

    One of many minor things that drives me nuts about life in NYC is that the usual "pass on the right" understanding is less respected (on the sidewalk, if not on subway stairs) than it is elsewhere in the country. People dart this way and that; each encounter seems to write a new set of rules. Coming from a well-behaved small town, I may be oversensitive to this. But I’ve always guessed that the reason for it is that everyone in NYC feels special, and like an exception to the usual rule. Ie., the hell with the usual rules, I write my own rules. I’m a big walker, and observer of other walkers, and I find that the "I write my own rules" approach leads to much more annoyance and congestion than need be. But perhaps New Yorkers actually like sidewalk combat and pumping up their blood pressure. Or perhaps what I take to be "annoyance and congestion" is some kind of meta-spontaneous order that I’m incapable of perceiving.

    Did Hayek ever discuss the "rules don’t apply to me" personality type?


  10. 10 10. Paul Fraker

    In Japan, they do walk on the left in subway stations. However, when I lived in Tokyo I was told that this convention dates from the Samurai era and was orginally a means to avoid getting one’s sword (slung diagonally across the body and protruding on one’s left side) accidentally crossed up with a passing stranger’s.


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