In last week’s podcast, Stephen Dubner talked with Clay Shirky about how the Internet works without a lot of oversight or regulation. This week, we talk about how the whole world works in that same way. The episode is called “What Do Skating Rinks, Ultimate Frisbee, and the World Have in Common?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)
So what do all these things have in common? Self-policing. We start at the roller rink. There aren’t many rules, no referees, and yet things work. Just think about it: people careening around in circles, on a slick surface, with wheels on their feet — this should be total chaos. And yet for the most part it’s quite orderly. “Rinkonomics” is what Dan Klein calls it. He says the skating rink is “a window on spontaneous order.” Klein is a professor of economics at George Mason University; he has a long-standing interest in proto-economist Adam Smith, who famously described the invisible hand that guides so much human behavior.
The sport of Ultimate Frisbee offers another interesting lens on how people self-police. In most cases, the game has no referee, instead relying on players to make all the calls. Even the official rules refer to players being “morally” bound to uphold “Spirit of the Game” when they play.
Jody Avirgan, a producer on The Brian Lehrer Show at WNYC, walks Dubner through the particulars, and talks about how the sport might be different if it did have refs. Avirgan is a self-professed Ultimate fanatic. He’s played at high levels for years, and he twice coached the U.S. under-19 national Ultimate team to a world championship. He now plays for a pro team called the New York Rumble; one of his most amazing plays, seen here, made it onto ESPN’s SportsCenter:
Avirgan took Dubner out to watch an Ultimate practice, which you’ll hear about in the podcast. (Thanks to all around good-sports Chris Mazur and Mike Hennessy for letting us stick microphones on them during practice. Thanks also to Freakonomics Radio listener Andrew Francis for asking us about Ultimate in the first place.)
Also in the episode: soccer legend Alexi Lalas talks about how his sport might look with no referees, and we also ask Bill Bradley, the former U.S. Senator and N.B.A. Hall of Famer, how basketball might work without the ref:
BRADLEY: I think it’s a naïve thought, because fundamental to every game is the authority figure, is the referee. To hypothesize a sport that’s had referees from the very beginning not having referees is a different sport. I think it’s interesting that Ultimate Frisbee has developed the way it has. Maybe it’s a function of the times as much as it is a function of spontaneous order.
Bradley also helps us shift the conversation to politics and the larger world. He expresses his annoyance at those who call for a diminished government:
BRADLEY: These people, these Tea Party people that say we do not need government, well, let’s go down the list. There’s water, there’s transportation, there’s the Federal Drug Administration. Do we want pharmaceutical companies deciding? You talk to a Libertarian, they say, well yeah, if they produce a drug that kills people they’ll stop producing it. I think we can do better than that, right?
Also: you’ll find out if Steve Levitt had a poster of Friedrich Hayek on his wall growing up. And Matt Ridley, a Libertarian-leaning zoologist, writer, and new member of the U.K. House of Lords, talks about what Adam Smith and Charles Darwin have in common, and helps us try to define the boundary between spontaneous order and smart regulation.