The Spontaneous Order of the Dance Floor

The Spontaneous Order of the Dance Floor
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On a recent Saturday evening, some friends and I were at a loss at how to spend the night after a concert we planned on attending was booked up. In search around the venue, we discovered what appeared to be an unassuming club. Upon entering we discovered an empty dance floor with little activity around the bar. In not intending to be rude, it was decided we have one drink before vacating.

Unbeknownst to us, that night in the club was unique. As we were beginning to leave, the disc jockey began playing an old funk song from the late 1970s. People were finally starting to rush in and flood the floor for what was dubbed soul/funk night. As an enthusiast of the thoughtless art of drinking and dancing, I insisted that we stay. The only other option was finding another waterhole to congregate at. So we stayed and the hours of dancing that followed were extremely enjoyable.

It was intriguing to observe how such a seemingly unruly crowd of young adults behaves in an open environment. From the perspective of statist busybody, a dance club necessitates violently imposed order. The people are deemed unworthy of establishing their own rules of conduct based on respect for one another’s person. It is the same theory that emboldens the political class to wield power over every other aspect of life.

Mayhem was not the case with this club however. The dance floor was an example of how, left to their own devices, people can get along with mutually adhered guidelines that are not explicitly stated. It was a demonstration of Friedrich Hayek’s concept of “extended” or spontaneous order where impromptu social norms dictated how club goers moved about on the crowded floor.

As Hayek wrote, much of what is regarded as civilization was not formed “from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices.” From the grocery store checkout line to the dance floor, the time-honored tradition of respect for personal space works itself into most aspects of life with little notice.

If someone were to find the urge to reach a restroom in the middle of the dance floor, the endeavor might have seemed hopeless. But as gyrating bodies parted ways in order to make room for anyone attempting to pass through, it was clear that there existed a common decency shared by all patrons. The club was really a slice of society innocent of the overreaching hand of the state. Certainly most, if not everything, in the room was regulated to some extent by a nameless bureaucrat. However, this influence was negligible in comparison to the dominant social norms inside. The front door of the club was where state pervasiveness ended.

Albert Jay Nock once remarked that a truly civilized society is governed by the “sanctions of taste and manners” just as much as the law, religion, and morality. This was the dance floor on that unwitting Saturday evening. The people packed into a room no larger than a university lecture hall. What looked like an ensemble of bodies was really just an aggregation of individuals each seeking the artless pleasure of flailing their bodies around to rhythm-heavy music.

Humanity is far from perfect and because of its inner defects, there is never a guarantee of a perfectly smooth social order. But in some miniscule instances, there does reach a point where etiquette trumps otherwise troublesome behavior. Rules are enforced through the simplistic doctrine of treating others the way you want to be treated. The state and its minions look upon this type of situation with contempt. Spontaneous order is a demonstration of just how unnecessary monopoly government is in ensuring social harmony. There was no need for armed goons in state costumes supervising the dance floor since all conflict that arose was handled by a court of social ostracizing.

It’s curious as to how something as unthinking as consuming alcohol and moving your body in a manner that would be embarrassing in any other setting can serve as a form of entertainment. Humans have danced in rhythm for centuries and across different cultures. Perhaps the answer lies in an indescribable feeling of satisfaction that comes from letting one’s body loose of ordinary social demeanor. In the context of a group setting, it can become even more amusing as the experience is able to be shared amongst other individuals. This joy comes from individually acting within a group surrounded by others performing similar actions. Because much of our behavior in the public sphere is dictated by what others see as proper, senseless dancing is much easier when everyone around you is doing the same. Any feelings of discomfort seem to melt away.

In demonstrating his entrepreneurial expertise, the DJ of the night played Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” as a tribute to the holiday season. It was a sight and sound to behold as close to one hundred individuals sang the words in unison to this Christmas classic. The song was yet another demonstration of the kind of bond that forms between complete strangers all seeking the same end. People from all over the city and surrounding suburbs came to the club from different circumstances but no one was looking for conflict. The affair was mutually beneficial for all participants including the owners, bartenders, and disc jockeys. If only every other situation in life could work so seamlessly, the state would finally appear as a gang of brutes and exploiters that is not at all needed to ensure domestic tranquility.

Some may see a night out at the club as a form of escape from the rigors of the working life. But this isn’t so. The dance floor is teeming with energy and existence. It is simply another aspect of human behavior not experienced so often.

  • Jen

    Looks awesome, what fun!

  • J. K. Levinson

    i just read the same chapter in the "law, legislation and liberty" this morning , what a coincidence.. great article , thanks !!

  • Michael McConkey

    This is a nice piece, with some good insight. Certainly more could have been said on the topic, but it gets to the core of the matter. It seems to me that a real blind spot in the Austrio-libertarian tradition is the dearth of popular culture studies approaches. The apparent fact that there was no "cultural studies" or "popular culture" tag for RW to put on this article speaks for itself. The assumption that all of culture under the state is explained by a tiresomely simplistic ideology critique does the libertarian cause more harm than good. James' insights here offer some direction into a more sophisticated approach to popular culture. Anyone interested in further efforts might have a look at a recent blog post of mine:

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James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of Mises Canada and a regular contributor to the Mitrailleuse . Send him mail

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