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Thursday, April 11, 2019

How Four Square Reveals the Beauty of Spontaneous Order

Oftentimes, all it takes to recognize this beautiful anarchy is a short trip back to high school.

Image Credit: Flickr-Valtech Sweden | CC BY 2.0 (

At my high school, four square has always been our lunchtime recreational game of choice. Every day, dozens of students gather on the blacktop to participate in a game with no clear winner, no referees, no official teams, and no written rules or regulations whatsoever. It is—or at least it would appear to be—a recipe for absolute chaos.

Notwithstanding these chaotic circumstances, the games tend to flow smoothly; people treat each other with respect, teams are formed, spoken as well as unspoken rules evolve, and everyone involved has a good time. Many observant bystanders are left perplexed by the fact that fun is able to be had in an orderly manner by a bunch of teenagers even in the absence of paternal institutions and coercive authorities. It’s a perfect example of the spontaneous order that emerges under conditions of peaceful, voluntary exchange and rational self-interest.Any thinking person should be able to predict what Hobbes would call the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” outcome of this romantic (in the literary sense) lunchtime endeavor. Competing high school personalities and self-interests should be the death of unsupervised lunchtime games. And yet, they are not.

Voluntary Rule-Following 

Pick-up four square is a perfect example of the spontaneous order that emerges under conditions of peaceful, voluntary exchange and rational self-interest. The four square court is a simple yet eloquent image of the equality of opportunity we should strive for in a free society. Everybody operates under the unspoken idea that the best way to have fun is to abide by the current rules. If someone happens to not agree with the rules, they are free to either leave the game and spend their lunch doing something else or start a new game of four square with different rules. If this new rule does not lead to a net increase in the overall level of fun, nobody will play, and the new rule will fail to be adopted by the majority.

For example, there used to be a huge problem with balls being hit too high and landing on the roof, thus delaying the game and wasting people’s lunch. Slowly, a rule evolved where if someone hit the ball on the roof, the hitter would be out and would have to get back in line regardless of where in the square the ball was hit. It would also be the hitter’s duty to go retrieve the ball. This evolutionary process is obviously not unique to pick-up four square. It happens every single day in every single field, often without verbal discussion. Trey Goff correctly observes that

The emergence and universal respect for this rule set is reminiscent of the bottom-up development of private law through common law systems that has occurred for millennia in the Anglophone world.

Each participant has a very strong incentive to cooperate with the agreed upon set of rules. This is because a refusal to comply will always result in a loss of respect and having one’s reputation permanently marred. If someone is well-known for refusing to abide by these unspoken rules or is generally a bad sport who does not play fairly, people will team up against them to get them out as quickly as possible. For example, the barely touched low ball hit is usually accepted as legal, however, respect is always lost, and the perpetrator is always targeted for the rest of the day. Thus, the offender will never set foot on the court as a direct result of his poor sportsmanship.

In this manner, the informal institutions of pick-up four square encourage fair play in ways that no formal institution can. People whose actions subtract from the overall level of fun are excluded and punished without the use of coercive force or physical violence. While there lays a gun beneath all government regulation, private, peaceful, and voluntary cooperation eliminates any need for physical violence in the emergent regime of pick-up four square.

Four square rules are complex yet completely self-enforcing—another demonstration of spontaneous order without a central planner.

Close calls are usually decided through the honor system; however, sometimes there are disagreements. After the call is made, it is either accepted by both players involved—in which case the game simply continues on—or it is fought against by one of the players. If there is serious controversy as to whether a ball was in or out, other players waiting in line will begin to weigh in on the discussion and share their generally unbiased opinions. This process of adjudication eventually settles the dispute between both players involved in the close call almost 100 percent of the time. The rules of four square are complex yet completely self-enforcing and without forceful compulsion—another humble demonstration of spontaneous order in the absence of a central planner.

Systems and Spontaneity 

The emergent coordination of interests that is seen in the game of four square is only a glimpse of what markets are truly capable of achieving. Four square is a game for around four to 12 players, however, Adam Smith says this type of near perfect coordination and spontaneous division of labor is “only limited by the extent of the market.”

In his 1988 masterpiece, The Fatal Conceit, F.A. Hayek famously reminds us that

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they know about what they imagine they can design.

The most shocking part about the wonders of spontaneous order is that certain presumptuous individuals still continue to believe that they alone possess the knowledge necessary to coordinate people’s interests and values in a more successful manner—through central planning—than the age-old price system does through the invisible hand. Adam Smith often spoke of

the man of system [who] seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.

These presumptuous individuals are “men of system.” They treat human preference and decision-making as a science that can be calculated, mastered, predicted, and controlled. This is the “fatal conceit” about which Hayek is warning us. When allowed to work, the invisible hand does a far better job than any government, central planner, or social engineer could at delivering goods and services to the people and places that need them most. Political freedom makes economic freedom possible, while economic freedom makes political freedom meaningful.

The wonders of spontaneous order are constantly transpiring all around us, present in every single human interaction. Oftentimes all it takes to recognize this beautiful anarchy is a short trip back to high school.

  • Jake Yonally is an Economics major at the University of Chicago. He plays chess and enjoys reading and learning about life in a free society.