All Commentary
Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Beautiful Anarchy of Pickup Basketball

There are no written rules or regulations whatsoever. It is complete and total anarchy.

On public basketball courts across the nation, dozens and maybe even hundreds of players gather on a daily basis to play a pickup game of 5-on-5 basketball. There are no set teams, no referees, no scoreboard, no sporting officials; there are no written rules or regulations whatsoever. It is complete and total anarchy.

Despite this, the games flow smoothly; fouls are called, scores kept, teams formed, and courts filled. The curious observer is left scratching her head as she attempts to decipher how any of this takes place in the total absence of any power structures, coercive institutions, or formalized rules. By all accounts, games should never take place as Hobbesian anarchy stymies any attempts to organize play. Collective action problems should stop these games before they can ever take place. And yet, they do.

Voluntary, Emergent Order

Everyone has a strong incentive to cooperate because refusal to comply means being ostracized and having one’s reputation permanently marred.

Pickup basketball is a beautiful example of the spontaneous, emergent order that arises from voluntary interaction predicated on classical liberal principles of dignity, respect for the individual, and voluntary cooperation. Every individual who has ever played pickup basketball can enumerate the rules for forming a team, playing, and interacting regardless of location, age or ethnicity- African Americans in the poorest sections of Harlem play by the same pickup rules as do those on the playgrounds of the whitest, richest suburbs in America.

The process begins when 10 or more players gather on any given public court, as basketball is a 5-on-5 sport. Ordinarily, someone will suggest that a full court game takes place, at which point everyone attempts to make a three-pointer in order to become a team captain. The first two individuals to make a three-pointer will be the team captains, and will then take turns picking their players.

This amazing spontaneous order can often occur even without any verbal discussion of these team-forming rules-an amazing testament to the almost magic-like quality of emergent order. These rules have been established over time and respected over generations as the most efficient and fair way to form teams amongst complete and total strangers. 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.

Everyone has a strong incentive to cooperate with this rule set because refusal to comply means being ostracized and having one’s reputation permanently marred. If it is well known that you do not play by these unspoken rules, or are a generally recalcitrant and boorish character who does not play fairly, you will never be selected for a team and thus never set foot on the court. In this way, bad actors are excluded and punished without the use of coercive force or a coercive institution to enforce such violence on bad actors. No, voluntary cooperation alleviates any need for violence in the spontaneous regime of pickup basketball.

Back to the court. After teams are selected, team captains negotiate for a scoring mechanism as well as the winning point total. A vast majority of the time, games are played by 1’s and 2’s (with anything inside the 3-point line being a 1 and outside the arc being a 2) to either 12 or 15. However, this leaves many questions for the astute observer: how are fouls called and enforced without referees (a mirror of formal legal institutions in the political world)? What happens in the event of a tie? How is score kept?

Fair Play

Here again, solutions to all of these problems emerge wonderfully from voluntary cooperation and negotiation. Fouls are called purely on an honor system, with the person being fouled usually calling the foul verbally as it occurs. However, some players (myself included) like to call the fouls we commit as we commit them, thus displaying honesty so that I will be selected to play again in the future. In this way, the informal institutions of pickup basketball encourage fair play in ways that no formal institution can.

After the foul is called, it is either accepted by the player who is doing the fouling, in which case the offensive player’s team gets possession of the ball again, or fought against by the fouler. If there is disagreement as to whether or not a foul occurred, other players on the court will weigh in on the discussion with observational input. This negotiation process settles the dispute between the two players caught in the transgression of the rules with shocking and amazing regularity—another testament to the power of emergent order and beautiful anarchy.

Score is easily and consistently kept without any formal officiation or scorekeeping of any kind.

If disagreement about the call were to continue even after this negotiation process without a resolution, then the player who called the foul will “shoot for it.” The idea behind this is that “the ball never lies,” and his making or missing the shot will determine whether or not the call stands or falls. In this way, when all else fails, there is a recourse to disagreements over foul calling.

This is one of the most amazing and wonderful aspects of peaceful anarchy: the emergent order of voluntary cooperation can solve even the most intractable of disputes without the use of coercion, violence, or force of any kind.

Score is kept by calling out the score after every point. This ensures that everyone agrees on the score, and that score is properly kept, without any formal officiation of any kind. If there is any dispute over the score, play will temporarily stop as the team captains negotiate the score. Often, they will have everyone call out the number of points each has scored, total them up, and use that total as the score. However, this rarely happens, as everyone has a vested interest in keeping score themselves in order to ensure any other player can’t cheat by claiming a higher score than they have actually achieved. In this way, score is easily and consistently kept without any formal officiation or scorekeeping of any kind.

In the event of a tie, the game continues until one team or another gets up by 2 or more points; “win by 2” is the unspoken rule of pickup basketball. This rule is yet another astounding example of how informal rulemaking results in ingenious solutions to seemingly insurmountable collective action problems. After all, all players who participate in the game must agree on these tiebreaking rules in order for the rules to be effective, yet everyone agrees with them nearly 100% of the time.

Healthy Competition

The team that wins the game will remain on the court, taking on the next set of players who will challenge their skill. This lends itself to healthy competition amongst team formation as each group attempts to form the best possible team in order to remain on the court as long as possible. In this way, the competition and level of play tends to improve over time.

This is beautiful anarchy in its purest form.

Even more astounding is the lack of any prejudice on the court. Regardless of one’s skin color, race, ethnicity, or gender, if you can play, then you’ll play. If you’re able to prove yourself on the court and win games, then you’ll be accepted and even desired by future teams. As such, the emergent and informal institutions of pickup basketball have managed to obliterate racism, sexism, and misogyny in a way formal, governmental institutions have been unable to do for over a century.

Back to the court.

While the previous game was taking place, the next group of 5 players will call “downs” on the next game. They verbalize this claim to the court for the next game to everyone else waiting to play so that it is known who may take the court next. In this way, gameplay continues in a smooth and uninterrupted fashion throughout the day, until there are no more players left. As new players approach the arena of play, the first thing they attempt to do is inquire who has “downs” for the next game, and make it known that they are available to be picked up on a team for a future game.

Much debate and negotiation occurs on the sideline in order to coordinate team-making activities, yet, by some miracle, teams of total strangers will always peacefully form before the conclusion of the game in progress. Sometimes, groups of 5 will have “downs” for 3, 4, or even 5 games into the future. Yet, so long as these claims are verbalized, they will be universally respected.

Order Without Force

This beautiful and emergent order is self-enforcing, yet is completely bereft of the use of coercive force in any way. The threat of simply ostracizing those who do not comply with this spontaneous ruleset is more than enough to ensure that anyone wishing to play will always comply with all of these rules.

Imagine if I told you that, with no central planning whatsoever, a complex and self-enforcing set of rules governing interaction will emerge spontaneously and be complied with across the country, all without ever having been formalized or written down. It sounds absurd, and yet that is in all reality what has occurred on pickup basketball courts across America. This is beautiful anarchy in its purest form.

It is this voluntary, peaceful, and constructive anarchy that embodies the true beauty of liberty. The cooperative anarchy of pickup basketball is a shining example of the kind of ingenious solutions to collective action problems that human creativity and cooperation, left unfettered and unmolested by coercive force, can effect upon the world.

Reprinted from

  • Trey Goff is a double major in political science and economics at Mississippi State University.