In the video, Lee explores how Chinese food has emerged across the world, from America to Italy to Japan. In each case, Chinese food has been altered according to the local tastes of the given culture.
Watch the video here:
I came across the video from a post by Jeffrey Tucker, who offered his reaction with this simple headline: “The Spontaneous Order of ‘Chinese Food.’”
Tucker is referring to the Hayekian notion of spontaneous order, which proposes that human ingenuity and creativity — when left alone by centralized forces — will lead to a much more efficient and specialized economy than any central planner could imagine.
Although Hayek is not mentioned explicitly in the video, it’s easy to see where Tucker sees the connection.
As Lee says in the video:
We [can] think of McDonald’s as sort of the Microsoft of the culinary dining experience. We can think of Chinese restaurants perhaps as Linux — sort of an open-source thing…where ideas from one person can be copied and propagate across an entire system. Where there can be specialized versions of Chinese food depending on the region.
As an example, Lee compares McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets with General Tso’s Chicken. Where Chicken McNuggets were centrally planned, researched, and rolled out to consumers nationwide, General Tso’s Chicken spread across America spontaneously after originally appearing in an obscure New York City restaurant.
I think Friedrich Hayek would agree that the evolution of Chinese food is indeed spontaneous order.
As Hayek says in The Road to Serfdom:
The fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion, is capable of an infinite variety of applications.
I understand that the innovative efforts made by McDonald’s involve much less coercion than those of the government, but there is something to be said about the achievements and innovations we can make through unorganized and uncoerced efforts. Whether we’re talking about the emergence of American-Chinese food or Facebook, it is clear that order does not necessarily require centralized control.
So what can we take away from this as Christians?
I’ve often thought about the Church in Hayekian terms. We have many denominations that could be seen as centrally planned (e.g. the Catholic Church), and we have many movements that are not bound by denomination or any other systematic authority (e.g. various Evangelical, charismatic sects). Particularly within the last century, there has been an explosion of spontaneous activity within the Church.
I think much of this spontaneous activity is healthy and can lead to new and better forms of order, but I also think it can lead to failures that may have been prevented by having the proper infrastructure or central authority in place. I struggle with understanding where the balance is when it comes to the Church.
On a governance level, Hayek certainly didn’t believe that spontaneous order was the only form that was healthy or acceptable, but he did think that individuals should by and large be left to their own devices.
An international authority [i.e. government] can be very just and contribute enormously to economic prosperity if it merely keeps order and creates conditions in which the people can develop their own life; but it is impossible to be just or to let people live their own life if the central authority doles out raw materials and allocates markets, if every spontaneous effort has to be “approved” and nothing can be done without the sanction of the central authority.
How then can the Church keep order and create conditions for ingenuity and flourishing when it comes to reaching the Lost?
How can we maintain a Church that provides solid and consistent fundamentals (i.e. proper doctrine) without dogmatically suppressing innovations that may be beneficial?
I’m interested in your thoughts.