Misconceptions of Order


One of the many topics discussed by psychologist, Dr. Jordan Peterson, is the topic of competition and cooperation.

It appears to be generally believed that these form a dichotomy. We are either competing or we are cooperating. We can either work for a common interest, or work in opposition to our separate interests. We can cooperate with some people, and compete with others, but we cannot simultaneously do both with the same person in the same situation. But, as Peterson points out, this is not necessarily the case, pointing to sports as an example.

Sports are both competitive and cooperative. Teams compete against one another, but each team consists of cooperating individuals. And each team is cooperating across a larger set of games by playing by an established set of rules.

This leads to a question: If cooperation and competition work in this manner, what about order and chaos? Is this another dichotomy where both opposites can exist simultaneously?

In part 2 of Misconceptions of Left vs. Right, the political spectrum is briefly outlined through the order vs. chaos framework. Revolutions bring about chaos by tearing down the current order, but then typically establish an order of their own based on different principles. Chaos is only intended to be temporary, as a means of replacing one order with another, as one may tear down a building to make room for a new one.

Of course, there are left-leaning anarchists, like AntiFa, who hold a utopian view of near total chaos. But then, even anarcho-syndicalism has a certain structural order to it (whether that order actually functions is an entirely different matter).

Before going further, it is important to define order. A standard dictionary gives eleven definitions for the noun, but the ones important in this context are as follows:

  • The state of peace, freedom from confused or unruly behavior, and respect for the law or proper authority
  • A proper, orderly, or functioning condition
  • A regular or harmonious arrangement
  • The customary mode of procedure especially in debate

Notice a trend with these definitions. Order does not necessarily refer to rules established by an overarching centralized organization, though it can be. An orderly society is one that is a harmonious arrangement, a state of peace, and respect for proper authority.

Referring back to the example of sports, as long as everyone is playing by the rules, this is order. In social arrangements, as long as everyone is abiding by an agreed set of social rules, this is order.

It is true, the laws by government can enforce order. But at the same time, there are many examples (continuously pointed out by libertarians) that certain laws can disrupt an already existing order, producing chaos. And when law becomes excessive, creating a needlessly bureaucratic mess, this is far more chaotic than a system with fewer, simpler laws.

The line between order and chaos is not as clear as many assume. But where is there an example of order and chaos existing simultaneously?


At first glance, the market economy is incredibly chaotic. Goods and services are constantly exchanging hands, being consumed, produced, transferred (sometimes across entire oceans), distributed, created, destroyed, and so on. Prices are constantly adjusting and changing, sometimes by the second, and vary by geography. People’s subjective value judgements are constantly changing as well. The market constantly tries, but never succeeds in reaching an equilibrium.

But looking further, there is a spontaneous order of the market. As stated earlier, market is reaching towards an equilibrium. This decentralized, chaotic system has a natural orderly function to it. There are “rules” of the market, such as supply and demand, that operate whether people understand them or not.

Just as in nature, we find in the market a seemingly chaotic system with a natural order to it. Order and chaos are not quite the strict dichotomy it is sometimes believed to be.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]