Football and Spontaneous Orders


One of the most profound and difficult insights of the economic way of thinking is that free association can produce complex, rule-governed institutions and social orders that no single person or small group designed. Professional sports illustrates this insight dramatically.

Today professional sports is an important business and a major social phenomenon. It is a staple of casual conversation, a topic that most people have opinions about (even if only that they hate it), and a large part of both television and print media. The Super Bowl is America’s most-watched television program, and the World Cup and Olympic Games attract a truly worldwide audience. There are many kinds of organized competitive sports, with no fewer than seven widely played kinds of football, for example. Most of these have formal governing bodies and elaborate rules both for playing and for settling disputes. There is even a sporting “world court,” the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. Typically sports have a complex technical language, which is often impenetrable to someone not familiar with the game in question–as generations of Englishmen have discovered when trying to explain cricket to baffled Europeans and Americans.

This vast array of practices, institutions, and rules is generally taken for granted: Few ever ask how it came about. The story, however, is fascinating. While there certainly was purposeful action, and many rules and institutions were consciously created, organized sports are not cases of straightforward, “top down” planning.

Take football. In the Middle Ages most parts of Europe had a game that was usually called “football”; it was played on major feast days such as Shrovetide. Typically there were no limits on the number of players on either side or on what could be done with the ball; the aim was to get the ball over an agreed line. The events were often extremely violent and were closer to what we would regard as a melee or riot rather than a sporting event. Sometimes variants had more precise rules, such as Calcio Fiorentino in Florence. Generally speaking each locality or small region had its own variant, and there was no code of rules applied over a wide area.

Then a crucial innovation occurred in England. From the later sixteenth century on, schools began to play a more organized form of the game with specific numbers of people on each side and more elaborate rules. These initially evolved informally, on a case-by-case basis, but eventually were codified and written down. Thus in 1845 the famous Rugby school had three of its pupils codify the rules of the variety of football played there. Typically in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries each school would have its own set of rules. During this time, however, two other things began to happen. First, more and more sporting clubs formed to play varieties of football on a regular basis outside of academic institutions. These were purely free associations. Again, each one would typically have its own agreed set of rules.

Second, when the turnpikes and railroad lowered the cost of transport, games were arranged between different schools and clubs. But each side had its own rules. Games could have been played according to one of the sets of the rules, but this was unsatisfactory for more than occasional games. So quite spontaneously, on a local and ad hoc basis, two solutions appeared. The first was for all teams involved to agree to use the rules of an outside club or school. Thus the rules produced by the Rugby school were widely adopted, leading to the appearance of “Rugby football.”

The second solution was for a number of teams to get together and voluntarily agree to a common set of rules in what we might call a “sporting contract.” This happened in the case of “Association football” (hence “soccer”).

Next came competition among rules (“codes”). The more teams that agreed to adopt a particular set of rules, the more incentive there was for others to do so because it increased the range and number of possible competitors. On the other hand, since the precise content of any set of rules would produce a particular kind of game, some preferred one set over the others. So some school- or club-based rules became widely adopted while others never caught on. At the same time, the variation among different codes led to increased differentiation and eventually the clear emergence of several distinct kinds of football.

The next stage of the evolution was the formation of national or (in the United States) regional leagues in which clubs would agree to play each other in organized competition. This in turn led to the appearance of a permanent organization both to run the competition and to define and enforce the common rules. Subsequently international regulatory bodies were set up, such as FIFA in 1904. All of these were created not by governments but by free association among the sporting clubs or associations that agreed to be governed by the body they had established.

Racket Games, Too

The same kind of story could be told for other sports, including racket games, hockey in both its major forms, and cricket. The development of each shares some noteworthy features: It was spontaneous, unplanned, and bottom-up, with large, complex organizations produced by free association and agreement–and with a secession option. There was competition among different rule systems. In many cases a key role was played by particular entrepreneurial individuals or organizations. Thus the distinctive American form of football came about largely because of the innovations made by the Yale football coach Walter Karp. Innovation in the rules of the games, their organizational structure, and the tactics employed within those rules have remained a constant feature. One of the most striking phenomena is the way that rule changes can have dramatic and unexpected effects. Thus, the introduction of the forward pass in American football in 1906 led to a radical change in the nature of the sport, which was not anticipated or intended when it was introduced.

Sport is a major part of many people’s lives today all over the world and a significant social phenomenon. It is perhaps the biggest simple example of social order based on and produced by free spontaneous processes. Is it any wonder that, generally speaking, modern sport is far better run than the political order?


May 2010

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