Nov 212013

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.
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.


Dan KLEIN: Hi, I’m Dan Klein. I’m a professor of economics at George Mason University. I got into economics very much from a policy, or if you like, political point of view. I got interested in free market economics in high school…

Stephen J. DUBNER: Which made you very popular as a kid, or no?

KLEIN: Didn’t make me popular with girls. It made me popular with some friends that I still have and cherish.

DUBNER: Now, Dan the reason that we are talking today really is because of an essay that you wrote called “Rinkonomics” that I would like you, since we’re not going to sit here and read it to listeners, I’d like you to describe.

KLEIN: Okay, if you try to imagine never having seen skating, never having been to a roller rink, maybe back in time before it was invented and you heard someone propose the idea, like a friend came up and proposed the idea, I have a great idea of a business I’m going to build this huge arena with a hard wooden floor, and around the perimeter a naked iron handrail, and invite people of all ages and all abilities to come down and strap wheels on their feet and skate around and try to enjoy themselves. We’re not going to like make sure they qualify in their abilities, we’re not going to put helmets on them or shoulder pads. And we’re not going to give them really any instruction.

DUBNER: Now, you might think that’d be pure chaos, wouldn’t you? Sure, that’s what you might think…


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