Bike Racing and Spontaneous Orders

A libertarian friend once complained to me that central libertarian concepts like spontaneous order are so hard to explain. Most of the ordered things we encounter in ordinary life are designed for a particular purpose and have a designer. And we usually think the best way to realize some desired outcome is directly–to act with the intention of realizing that outcome. But the idea of a spontaneous order is an order that does not reflect the intentions of any actor within the order, or an external designer. They indirectly rather than directly cause outcomes because they do not require that any actor within the order acts with the intention to bring about that outcome.

All these features make spontaneous orders blend into the background of social life very nicely. So to help people see what’s right in front of them, classical liberals/libertarians should be looking for examples of spontaneous orders everywhere they can. And while out on a bike ride today, I realized that one has been right under my nose for all these years–bike racing!

Let me explain: the fundamental source of all strategy in cycling is the draft advantage. This is why competitive is so much more interesting than running or swimming, in my opinion. A rider in another’s slipstream can save up to 30% of her energy.

What this means is that riders interested in their own success are each better off riding together than individually. Each rider benefits from the draft of the other riders and reciprocates by letting other riders draft him. Even though each rider is interested only in his own (or his team’s) success, an order of draft-sharing emerges that benefits the interests of all riders. In a small group, the order is just called a “paceline,” while for a larger race, we borrow the French word “peloton.”

What is also interesting is that only particular circumstances of racing give rise to a spontaneous order like a peloton. For example, on steep sustained climbs the peloton tends to disintegrate as riders separate according to their climbing abilities. That’s because power-to-weight, a highly variable performance indicator more in those circumstances than raw power. Furthermore, the benefits from drafting are smaller because of slower speeds when climbing. But, on flat or rolling roads, there’s much more equality among the riders, so there are generally more benefits from cooperation than going it alone.

We see a similar circumstantial point in other discussions of spontaneous orders, such as justice. Hume thought that the rules of justice emerged from several distinct features about human nature and human possessions–in particular, natural human vulnerability, our rough equality, the qualities of exchangeability and scarcity in our possessions, and our general self-interestedness and limited benevolence. Only these particular circumstances make the practice of exchange of property useful by making the practice in each person’s interest. If these circumstances of justice were to change, Hume argues, our rules of justice would change with them.

Finally, cycling isn’t a spontaneous order all the way down, nor could it be. The subject of the spontaneous order isn’t the sport itself but the behavior of participants within the sport. And a sport is a rule-governed activity that is by necessity planned to some extent. To steal an example from a 20th century philosopher, a group of 9 players moving around on a baseball field is not a game of baseball until their actions are defined by a set of rules. And definition of what those rules are rules requires us to take the perspective of someone contemplating and judging the game as a whole–a planner. This brings us to a more general point–spontaneous orders are best thought of as a particular kind of indirect planning rather than an alternative to planning itself.

Road cycling is exciting and beautiful in no small measure because of the unpredictable yet ordered nature of races. Classical liberals should take a look at cycling, and cyclists should take a look at classical liberalism.