The Playfulness of the Market: Reading Hayek in the Light of Huizinga

In an appendix to The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, F.A. Hayek says, “The practices that led to the formation of the spontaneous order have much in common with rules observed in playing a game. To attempt to trace the origin of competition in play would lead us too far astray, but we can learn much from the masterly and revealing analysis of the role of play in the evolution of culture by the historian Johan Huizinga, whose work has been insufficiently appreciated by students of human order.”

In Homo Ludens: A Study of The Play Element of Culture, Huizinga argues that “civilization is rooted in noble play and that, if it is to unfold in full dignity and style, it cannot afford to neglect the play-element.” He discusses the play-element in human activities including: art, language, poetry, sport, law, and war. And he helpfully provides a thorough criteria for what constitutes real play. Play is “voluntary activity,” “disinterested activity,” “creates order, is order,” “has rules,” and so on.

I consider the extent to which Huizinga’s concept of play can illuminate Hayek’s ideas about the spontaneous, unintended orders of markets. What are the limits of Huizinga’s concept of play in describing the order of the market? Is it a contradiction that, for Huizinga, play is necessarily disinterested and for Hayek, economic activity is self-interested? Or, is a person’s self-interest with some particular action in the market easily compatible with this same person’s disinterestedness with the entirety of the market order?

With the help of Huizinga, I consider playfulness not in the sense of a callous game, but as a humanizing activity. This is because, in a truthful account of the free market, anarcho-capitalism is revealed as the oxymoron it is. A free economy, while an unintended order, is playful insofar as there are, in fact, rules of the game. The rules serve to indicate meaning and the free economy, when played according to the rules, can be a humanizing process of discovery with ultimate purposes transcending the purely economic realm– or play sphere.

I delivered this paper at the Philanthropic Enterprise Institute conference on “Philanthropy and the Economic Way of Thinking” in November 2014. To listen to it, click here:


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