What Do Skating Rinks, Ultimate Frisbee, and the World Have in Common? (Ep. 145)

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Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “What Do Skating Rinks, Ultimate Frisbee, and the World Have in Common?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

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When the first roller rink opened, how did amateur skaters — with no training or prior instruction — manage to navigate it without bumping into one another? In his essay “Rinkonomics,” Professor Dan Klein of George Mason University points to the concept of “spontaneous order” — or rather, the idea that people can naturally organize and police themselves, without the aid of an authority figure.

“Spontaneous order” exists outside of the realm of roller rinks, too. Take Ultimate Frisbee for example, a sport famously known for its lack of referees. Stephen Dubner’s friend Jody Avirgan, a producer at the Brian Lehrer Show, is an Ultimate lifer. He played in college, then on high-level club teams, and has coached the U.S. under-19 national Ultimate team to a gold medal at the world championships — twice. Avirgan took Dubner out to watch an Ultimate practice, which you’ll hear about in the podcast. (Thanks to all around good-sports Chris Mazur and Mike Hennessy for letting us stick microphones on them during practice. Thanks also to Freakonomics Radio listener Andrew Francis for asking us about Ultimate in the first place.)

Also in the episode: soccer legend Alexi Lalas talks about how his sport might look with no referees, and we also ask Bill Bradley, the former U.S. Senator and N.B.A. Hall of Famer, how basketball might work without the ref:

BRADLEY: I think it’s a naïve thought, because fundamental to every game is the authority figure, is the referee. To hypothesize a sport that’s had referees from the very beginning not having referees is a different sport. I think it’s interesting that Ultimate Frisbee has developed the way it has. Maybe it’s a function of the times as much as it is a function of spontaneous order.

Bradley also helps us shift the conversation to politics and the larger world. He expresses his annoyance at those who call for a diminished government:

BRADLEY: These people, these Tea Party people that say we do not need government, well, let’s go down the list. There’s water, there’s transportation, there’s the Federal Drug Administration. Do we want pharmaceutical companies deciding? You talk to a Libertarian, they say, well yeah, if they produce a drug that kills people they’ll stop producing it. I think we can do better than that, right?

Also: you’ll find out if Steve Levitt had a poster of Friedrich Hayek on his wall growing up. And Matt Ridley, a Libertarian-leaning zoologist, writer, and new member of the U.K. House of Lords, talks about what Adam Smith and Charles Darwin have in common, and helps us try to define the boundary between spontaneous order and smart regulation.

Steve O

I keep seeing these pseudo-reductio ad absurdum arguments against Libertarianism... If someone doesn't believe in having any government at all, they're an anarchist, not a Libertarian. "The government is way too big"--to take that statement and assume someone is saying we don't need the FDA or don't need the police is an almost comical intellectual shortcut, and it shouldn't have a place in a serious discussion.

Good Libertarians are like economists; they look for difficult answers, considering externalities and marginal tradeoffs.


Yes. We arguably need the FDA, or at least some of its functions, but do we really need the DEA? Likewise, we might need police to investigate muggings of Congresscritters (if in fact they really do investigate such things), but do we really need undercover agents selling them cocaine?


Precisely, Steve O. Those functions that Bradley points out are things for which we need national government. It's intellectually dishonest to use those as examples to argue against Libertarianism.


Well....I would think the obvious example would be golf, where the player is expected to keep his own score honorably and call penalties on himself if no one else witnesses them.


This article is interesting but it forgets completely personal motivation and why people play Ultimate. People are not playing it for any other reason then to have fun. Breaking the rules ruins this for everyone. In the other sports they talked about people are payed and rewarded for other things then just having fun.


I had a thought when the soccer player stated that most playing of the game is done without referees and for fun. Therein is the catch. When playing a game for amusement, it's usually done to mutually benefit the participants who are often friends or close associates and the game is being undertaken for amusement rather than competition.

When competition and victory over an opponent are now the goal rather than recreation, advanced oversight is needed through referees but also coaches whose goals coincide with the competition and victory.

Vasco Manquinho

Your reference to what Adam Smith means by "Invisible Hand" is disputed. It seems that Adam Smith was not referring to markets. That is an (abusive) interpretation popularized by Samuelson, disputed by some scholars.
Please visit http://adamsmithslostlegacy.blogspot.com/ for several references on the subject.


The honor system of ultimate rules would, in all likelihood, break down completely if the winning team got money and the losing team got nothing. That's where the comparison between self-regulation in a fun sporting event and self-regulation in the larger society as a whole breaks down.

In society there's a strong incentive for people to win by cheating the system, which is where we get insider trading, the housing crisis, etc. etc.


I've been playing Ultimate for 11 years and have never heard the term "Ultimate Honor," it's called "Spirit of the Game."

Eric Booth

Dubner (that's what your friends call you, I assume), I just listened to your podcast on self regulating systems and the balance to be struck with regulation. I wish I could have written this earlier to introduce the expertise of teaching artists to you. We are masters at "enabling constraints"--which can be thought of as regulations that free people to be creative and successful. Teaching artists can go into any setting, from a first grade classroom to a corporate boardroom, and create a conducive creative environment quickly, and offer activities that limit choices in a generative way. It is a remarkable expertise, and the world doesn't really notice it. For example, I could say to a class of 8 year olds "draw a self-portrait" and they will draw a goofy stick like figure that is satisfying to no one, including me. But if I say, "draw three lines that capture something about how you feel today," they begin to invest themselves successfully, and take a first positive step toward meaningful (to them and others) self-portraiture. Teaching artists are exemplary regulators of other people's experience. Let us loose on the U.S. Congress.


Steve Nations

Tennis is another example where players make their own calls. And it's a little different because usually your opponent is far away from the call, on the other side of the net, so it's a little easier to cheat. And arguments and complaints are very common in competitive tennis, even at the lowest rungs of the sport. I'd have to say that ego beats honor for too many tennis players. But players adjust, complain, argue, and eventually come to an agreement, or at least a stalemate.

I haven't heard the podcast yet, but I think the point is as noted above -- self-policing. There has to be a way to keep everybody in line, and in roller skating and tennis it all seems to work out in the end even without somebody in charge.

Steve Nations

By the way, there is a referee in the Ultimate video clip.


That's from Major League Ultimate, which is the only ultimate league I know of to use refs. They changed the standard rules around significantly in order to make the sport more fun as a spectator sport, such as having the games run on 4 timed quarters rather than 2 point-based halves, lowering the stall count from 10 seconds to 7, adding yardage penalties for infractions, and, yes, referees. MLU is a huge outlier in the world of ultimate. It still does have a "spirit of the game" rule that allows players to override referees if by doing so they hurt their own team. So basically for calls that the player might have gotten away with due to the refs not noticing. I think I've seen it invoked only once, though.


I think that it is interesting that we say that Ultimate Frisbee has no refs but in the video attached there clearly are some at that level. The same could be said about basketball. INFORMAL games are played in many, if not all sports, without a ref while professional sports do have a regulatory body. In the informal games, while competitive, fun and thrill are the motivation but bring money into the pot and you need some referees. The more at stake, the higher the need for a neutral third party making the close shots. Of course, refs can be bought off to lose their third party status if the stakes are raised high enough.


Interesting, and I enjoy this line of research. All about social norms (morality and trust?) serving as institutions to prod us to a cooperative equilibrium. Per the folk theorem, we predict more cooperation in long-term repeated games ... like in a local Ultimate Frisbee league. Shame, potentially being kicked off the team, and losing friends is used to take away the short-term gains from cheating. However, if you add a referee as the enforcement mechanism you change the social norms ... the rules. With this change, cheating is only a problem if you get caught. Like how pro soccer players fake injury all the time as a normal part of the game. It is ridiculously easy to destroy a culture based on trust, honor and cooperation by introducing a 3rd party like a referee, regulator or the police as a control mechanism. Another surefire way to kill a trust culture is to monetize the relationship (payoffs). In both cases we remove much of the moral dis-utility of cheating. Pick-up basketball and soccer games don't need referees, but the professional leagues sure do.


Chris Land

I was listening about people playing "Ultimate" and the lack of referees. I would point out that Curling is also played without referees. It is true that there are judges used at the highest levels of the sport, but you can be playing in the final of the world championship without enlisting the decision of a judge at all. Most games of curling are played without any judges present at all. Just to say that Ultimate isn't unique in that it doesn't have referrers.


I came here to point this out. Curling is self-refereed even at the highest levels, even playing a game where tens of thousands of dollars are on the line.

As you pointed at, at high-level games, there are judges, but they don't call fouls and get involved on their own initiative. Generally, they largely act as technical assistants in measuring things and clarifying how the rules apply.

I'd say that curling relies even more on good sportsmanship than Ultimate, because in curling it is not the other team that calls a foul on someone. It is the responsibility of people to call fouls on themselves. Then the opposing team can decide where the stone would have gone if not for the foul, which I've never seen done unfairly, even with money on the line.

This was a great episode of the podcast, but it was slightly frustrating to hear hypothetical discussion about whether a self-refereed sport could work at the highest levels, referring to Ultimate and soccer, without even mentioning the fact that this can and does work in curling.


Dr. JD Smith

The question of have or don't have referees is a dichotomy that is not relevant to subject of spontaneous order. The concept and creation of referees is an example of emergence of order. The players themselves are or have decided to introduce referees and abide by their decisions. They can and do make the game more playable.


Baseball and hockey both have unwritten rules that are self policed. Between bean balls and fighting both sports manage to keep certain unwritten rules enforced. All of this is done with the approval of the referee, so it seems even in a refereed sport there is room for spontaneous order.


The idea or self regulation made me think of the company W. L. Gore and Associates. It's an international company based in the US that actually works this way. It very successful when it's part of the corporate culture to be self policing.