The idea of a “spontaneous order,” which emerges as result of the voluntary activities of individuals and not one which is created by a government, is a key concept in the classical liberal and free market tradition. This idea is closely associated with Scottish Enlightenment writers: Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith.
Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations is famous for encapsulating the idea of spontaneous order in the phrase “the invisible hand” which suggests an ordering principle that lies behind the activities of many individuals buying and selling in a market place.
Adam Ferguson, in the Essay on the History of Civil Society used the phrase (later taken up by Hayek) “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”
Men, in general, are sufficiently disposed to occupy themselves in forming projects and schemes: But he who would scheme and project for others, will find an opponent in every person who is disposed to scheme for himself. Like the winds that come we know not whence, and blow whithersoever they list, the forms of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin; they arise, long before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not from the speculations of men. The crowd of mankind, are directed in their establishments and measures, by the circumstances in which they are placed; and seldom are turned from their way, to follow the plan of any single projector. Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.
In the 19th century the idea was pursued by Frederic Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari in France, and Herbert Spencer in England. Later in the 19th and the early 20th century the Austrian school economists Karl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek made the idea central to their reformulation of economic theory.
Fast forward to the present day to find out that our political elites have summarily dismissed over three hundred years of wisdom. We all have become used to the neoclassical Keynesian economic dogma that purports to know how to maximise social welfare without relying on market signals, but extending this thinking to cupcakes takes the biscuit, if you pardon the pun. Human action is being replaced by human design.
A friend of mine alerted me to a recent Wall Street Journal article that must be the craziest piece of social engineering legislation that I have ever seen. Bake sales have always been a major fundraising activity by schools. Enterprising teachers, parents, and students get together to raise funds for school trips and other projects. I remember taking part in a number of cake sales to raise funds for my kids’ school refurbishment projects in London. But thanks to the initiative spearheaded by the First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign has resulted in an absurd federal overreach in the US. A federal law that aims to curb childhood obesity means that, in dozens of states, bake sales must adhere to nutrition requirements that could replace cupcakes and brownies with fruit cups and granola bars. As Jeff Ellsworth, principal of the kindergarten through eighth-grade school in Chapman, Nebraska put it: “The chocolate bars are a big seller,” so he’s not quite sure how to break the news to the kids. Well, I am not sure how to put to the kids, but I can tell what the consequence of this silliness is: fewer bake sales, less money raised.