November 1, 2022

Bringing Spontaneous Order to a World of Chaos, a Lesson from Trader Joe’s

By: Brittany Hunter

God help the poor soul who goes to Trader Joe’s on a busy Sunday afternoon. 

The second you walk through the door, you’re plunged into a sea of red carts, each being operated by busy shoppers navigating their way through the store’s signature thin aisles. 

Last Sunday, this poor soul was me. But in the midst of this ordeal, I discovered a fun lesson about spontaneous order. 

For those who don’t spend their free time reading F.A. Hayek and Adam Smith, they may be wary of spontaneous order, the idea that a world can exist in which people self-organize without government. This “crazy” concept may even be dismissed as dangerous “anarchy,” which threatens to rip apart the very fabric of society. 

Crazy as it may sound, examples of spontaneous order are all around us—even in a crowded Trader Joe’s

As I stood in the entrance observing the mayhem from a distance, I took a gulp, crossed myself, and headed into the eye of the storm. 

A funny thing happened once I started down the aisles. What seemed like pure chaos from afar was surprisingly more ordered than I could have imagined. Carts bobbed and weaved as shoppers navigated their carts around each other without incident and it didn’t require any verbal communication at all. 

Shoppers moved the carts an inch here and an inch there, making room for another to pass by or to grab an item from the shelf. 

Within 20 minutes, my shopping was done—far sooner than I had expected given the congestion of the store and without colliding with anyone else’s cart. Walking out, I couldn’t help but marvel at the spectacle. Everyone was able to survive grocery shopping in that chaotic store without any central authority directing the carts, all because they were each looking out for … themselves. 

Adam Smith believed that there is an invisible force that guides the market without central control. Part of these “unseen” market forces are incentives.

An entrepreneur wants to make money and he does so by selling a product that meets consumer satisfaction. Making a shoddy product doesn’t help him because the consumers would be displeased and he would lose money. So he is incentivized to look out for his own self-interest and in doing so, helps others along the way.

Unless you’re a nihilist, it is in every individual’s best interest to secure their own safety and well being. We want to come out of our daily activities unscathed. Shoppers want to do their shopping and get home as quickly and seamlessly as possible. If they run into me with their cart, that affects their experience just as much as it does mine. 

It’s not much different than traffic. 

Roundabouts terrified me when I first began driving. How on earth could all these drivers figure out whose turn it was to go without a light or other government signal telling us? As it turns out, it’s pretty easy. 

The cars are all incentivized to avoid a collision. There is an agreed upon understanding about who yields to who and when in doubt the drivers signal to each other if need be in order to avoid an accident. 

As the great FA Hayek wrote of spontaneous order:

“Since such an order has not been created by an outside agency, the order as such also can have no purpose, although its existence may be very serviceable to the individuals which move within such order. But in a different sense it may well be said that the order rests on purposive action of its elements, when ‘purpose’ would, of course, mean nothing more than that their actions tend to secure the preservation or restoration of that order.”

This is as true with humans as it is in the wild. 

Honing in on this phenomenon a bit more, Steven Strogatz, author of Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life, explained how spontaneous order occurs in the animal kingdom’s as well. 

“There are just three simple rules. First, all the individuals are only aware of their nearest neighbors. Second, all the individuals have a tendency to line up. And third, they’re all attracted to each other, but they try to keep a small distance apart. And when you build those three rules in, automatically you start to see swarms that look very much like fish schools or bird flocks.”

There is a common misconception that people need the government to maintain order. If left to our own devices, however, humans are capable of self-organization that is far more effective than any sort of government interference. 

Just look at the marketplace.

When the government inserts itself into market interactions, we get regulations and a labyrinth of red tape that prevents entrepreneurs from making money and consumers from getting products and services they need. 

The best thing the government can do is leave us alone to create this order on our own. 

But if you ever start to doubt individuals’ ability to self-regulate, take a trip to Trader Joe’s and watch the invisible hand in action.