The Libertarian Economic Theory That Might Be Secretly Driving Pokémon Go

This is not about catching them all.

Finding Pokémon at the observation point of Zion National Park, Utah. (Photo: Tydence Davis/CC BY 2.0)

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. 

There's something wild about watching people play this game that everyone won't shut up about.

And I think it has a lot to do with the way that it shifts social order in an unexpected way.

Here's why: If you see a group of people standing in an otherwise empty park, all from different walks of life, brought together by this game, it looks spontaneous from a distance—totally unplanned, as if they all stumbled there independently. (There, of course, is a rhyme and reason to it—and it's that a dumb app told them to go there.)

But it got me thinking a bit about the nature of spontaneity, the cosmic way that we do things on the fly, and the way those things connect together.

As it turns out, I'm not the only one who sees Pokémon Go as a spontaneous teaching moment. Just ask the libertarians.


The past year has been a wild roller coaster of emotion in the political sphere, with the very high levels of dislike for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton turning the whole election cycle into a wild card.

That also means that Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, has won a lot of sudden attention from the public—he's earning nearly 10 percent in many polls.

But what might be a bigger surprise is the fact that the biggest non-politics story at the moment—the phenomenal rise of Pokémon Gois seen by some libertarians as a validation of a philosophy that's key to their economic ideals: spontaneous order, the idea that in a world of chaos, order eventually organizes itself.

Pokémon Go players spotted in Central Park, New York. (Photo: oinonio/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The philosophy is closely associated with Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, and borrows some ideas from the "invisible hand" theory espoused by fellow economist Adam Smith.

The theory basically follows as such: If you do nothing to set order or regulate flow, order will eventually show itself. By forcing order onto a structure, however, you limit possibilities and outcomes, and the weight of the system eventually falls over on itself. Here's how Hayek puts it in his landmark 1974 Nobel Prize speech, "The Pretense of Knowledge," which argues against heavy social engineering of economic structures:

In the physical sciences there may be little objection to trying to do the impossible; one might even feel that one ought not to discourage the over-confident because their experiments may after all produce some new insights. But in the social field the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority. Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims. 

(It's worth noting that libertarians don't have a monopoly on theories involving spontaneity. In fact, another well-known theory on spontaneous actions is generally more closely associated with communism or Marxism. Revolutionary spontaneity, as it's called, is the idea that groups of people from lower levels of society will rise up without the help of a political party or an outside force. That theory is associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as the Arab Spring.)"


So, where does Pokémon Go fit into this?

To put it simply, the design of the game is very hands-off, and its growth is basically pushed forward by the use of spontaneous social systems.

People come together with the game, but not through force—they find each other, go outside, and the spark of human interaction just shows itself. It adds something without creating limits.

Pokémon Go. (Photo: Eduardo Woo/CC BY-SA 2.0)

"It was absolutely beautiful to watch. With an element of fantasy and the assistance of marvelous technology, we experienced the common humanity of our neighbors and strangers in our community," argues the Foundation for Economic Education's Jeffrey A. Tucker. "This kind of experience is key for building a social consensus in favor of universal human rights."

Compare this to, say, a mixer during a business event. The approach is heavily designed, meant to bring people together in a somewhat contrived, forced way. If there's alcohol there, a giant room, and some name tags, clearly you'll talk to someone, right? As any wallflower will tell you, it often doesn't work out that way.

But with a design like Pokémon Go, there are no wallflowers, because everyone is brought together by a shared experience, one that appears on its own without any additional contrived strategies on the part of the creators of the game.

Players in Bern, Switzerland. (Photo: Fred Schaerli/CC BY-SA 4.0)

"The game provides the opportunity for building social institutions, but it’s the actions of the individuals in the game that build it, forming a beautiful spontaneous order 'of human action, not human design,'" argues Tyler Groenendal of the Acton Institute.

Young Americans for Liberty, a Ron Paul-affiliated nonprofit that brings together millennials who get excited about laissez-faire economic theory, has recommended the game as a perfect activity for its loose network of chapters.

"You can find classical liberal ideas playing out in the real world every which way you look, even in your games," the group's Derek Spicer writes. "Pokémon Go is just one in the litany of examples of how spontaneous order affects how we play video games."

The question is, of course, whether the broader public will make that connection. Or even Pokémon Go players specifically, who already know plenty about chaos

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.