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Spontaneous order on the field

August 31, 2009

These are probably unoriginal remarks, but watching five and six year-olds play soccer can be hypnotic. They form an interminable melee that rotates and regenerates continuously, like a tornado that has touched down, it roams the field with sudden spurs, then slows down again, until, almost by accident, the ball is walked into one of the goals and play must be restarted. The narrow pursuit of individual determinations (“kick that damn ball”) put together, interacting, balancing each other out amid chaos and luck, are what creates the beautiful dance that unfolds on the field. The movement is the order that emerges. The kicks are the individual actions. None of the kickers are in charge of the ultimate overall movement. No choreographer would be able to design a prettier one. The ultimate flow of the game is the unintended consequence (a positive one) which is the result of the kids actions but not of the kids’ design.

Adam Smith, however, notoriously claimed that Prudence-Only is not enough: people do not simply pursue their narrow self-interest checked only by the fear of failure and retribution. People care about Solidarity too and about Praiseworthiness. Slowly as the kids will become better players, they will come to appreciate a beautiful concerted action. As a result, individual behavior will change to the point where the opponent is allowed a certain amount of slack in mounting its offensive. The idea being that everyone’s purpose now is to see what beautiful action the opposing team will be able to put together, and also what beautiful concerted defensive action will counteract it. The resulting play will still be largely unscripted. But individual players will also care about the overall outcome that will be judged by the impartial spectators sitting on the rafters. That’s why real soccer games do not involve interminable melees. There might even be a rule that a team is not allowed to make a circle and just walk the ball into a goal. If so it would be unnecessary, because it wouldn’t be soccer anymore: it’d be rugby.

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From → Adam Smith, Parenting

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