Aerobics and the Invisible Hand

Like thousands of other Americans, I belong to a senior aerobics class, one that meets in a church gymnasium. At least once a week, the class utilizes chairs as part of its workout, and it has always been the case that as students arrive for the class, they remove chairs from a metal rack along the wall and place the chairs wherever they like in the large, open room. The result is a sort of comfortable but highly efficient muddle.

Last weekend, I arrived and found that the chairs had already been set up by an instructor new to the class. This instructor, I'm sure, was just trying to be helpful, but the result was unfortunate. Many of the chairs had been placed too close together, and some had been placed at the front of the room, where no sexagenarian wished to be seen cavorting for all to observe. Some had been placed too close to the wall, some directly beneath a hyperactive heating duct. The perfectly rectangular alignment also made it difficult to see around the person in front. So there were many practical reasons why the orderly placement of chairs did not work.

There were other, less obvious reasons as well, many of them related to the intangible benefits of allowing individuals to order their lives as they wish. One of the pleasures of class had always been those minutes before exercise began in which participants greeted one another and shared news of their week. Deciding where to place one's chair and getting one's weights and mat set up was part of this social ritual since these activities encouraged mixing and interaction. Another part of the ritual was helping anyone who had difficulty lifting a metal folding chair out of the rack and carrying it across the room. For men in the class (all of them believing themselves to be exceptional specimens of physical fitness), there was pleasure in this small act of chivalry, as well as sport in seeing who could handle two or even four chairs at a time and set them up at the direction of the ladies.

This might seem like just another usurpation of rights -- trading the instructor's authority for that of a few headstrong males -- but it was not. It was cooperation on a natural, easygoing, personal level. There was, in other words, a human factor directing the work.

But there was something else. I was not the only one, I believe, who disliked being told where to stand. It is true that as long as I wasn't the last to arrive, I could choose one chair or another, but now all of the chairs had been prearranged by someone else. Without appearing out of order, I could not simply haul my chair off to the side. I was expected to set my gear up in one of the neat little rows that had been arranged beforehand.

For a minute or so, I stood there uncomfortably, wondering how I could deal with the situation. It may seem like a small point, but I did not like being ordered about, even in this insignificant fashion. I liked being free to set up wherever I liked, next to or not next to whomever I liked. As it was, I was feeling more and more uncomfortable about the new regime.

But I was about to be saved, because what happened next was a sort of spontaneous aerobic tea party. Even before class began, a few students had begun edging their chairs out of line. Before we were five minutes into the class, practically all the chairs had been rearranged. Chairs were dragged out of alignment, hauled to the back, and spaced farther apart. The tyranny of central planning was quietly but firmly reversed by the actions of individuals. By consensus the class reverted to its more enlightened and efficient method of doing what human nature has always done: allowing individuals to do as they like, even if the result was a bit messy.

Once the chairs had been returned to their proper disorder, the class relaxed and got down to business. An hour of cardio and stretching does a lot of good for just about anyone. By the end of class, we were happy and content, our circulation humming again and endorphins firing off. And, as if by magic, all of the chairs were returned to their proper racks with no prompting or instruction.

Adam Smith was right about human behavior. An invisible hand extends throughout human affairs, even to the placement of chairs in an aerobics class. This hand reaches into all social and economic affairs because all those affairs involve self-interest. When the invisible hand is stayed by the intrusion of authority, the result is less than satisfactory. Smith's insight into human nature was remarkably shrewd and wise, and it applies to nearly every aspect of human affairs. Free individuals prefer to decide for themselves where they place their chairs, just as they prefer to live where they like, work where they like, and spend their money as they like. There is something remarkably sane and true about allowing individuals to make decisions for themselves.

Now it's time to hit the showers.

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published many books and articles on American culture and politics.
Like thousands of other Americans, I belong to a senior aerobics class, one that meets in a church gymnasium. At least once a week, the class utilizes chairs as part of its workout, and it has always been the case that as students arrive for the class, they remove chairs from a metal rack along the wall and place the chairs wherever they like in the large, open room. The result is a sort of comfortable but highly efficient muddle.

Last weekend, I arrived and found that the chairs had already been set up by an instructor new to the class. This instructor, I'm sure, was just trying to be helpful, but the result was unfortunate. Many of the chairs had been placed too close together, and some had been placed at the front of the room, where no sexagenarian wished to be seen cavorting for all to observe. Some had been placed too close to the wall, some directly beneath a hyperactive heating duct. The perfectly rectangular alignment also made it difficult to see around the person in front. So there were many practical reasons why the orderly placement of chairs did not work.

There were other, less obvious reasons as well, many of them related to the intangible benefits of allowing individuals to order their lives as they wish. One of the pleasures of class had always been those minutes before exercise began in which participants greeted one another and shared news of their week. Deciding where to place one's chair and getting one's weights and mat set up was part of this social ritual since these activities encouraged mixing and interaction. Another part of the ritual was helping anyone who had difficulty lifting a metal folding chair out of the rack and carrying it across the room. For men in the class (all of them believing themselves to be exceptional specimens of physical fitness), there was pleasure in this small act of chivalry, as well as sport in seeing who could handle two or even four chairs at a time and set them up at the direction of the ladies.

This might seem like just another usurpation of rights -- trading the instructor's authority for that of a few headstrong males -- but it was not. It was cooperation on a natural, easygoing, personal level. There was, in other words, a human factor directing the work.

But there was something else. I was not the only one, I believe, who disliked being told where to stand. It is true that as long as I wasn't the last to arrive, I could choose one chair or another, but now all of the chairs had been prearranged by someone else. Without appearing out of order, I could not simply haul my chair off to the side. I was expected to set my gear up in one of the neat little rows that had been arranged beforehand.

For a minute or so, I stood there uncomfortably, wondering how I could deal with the situation. It may seem like a small point, but I did not like being ordered about, even in this insignificant fashion. I liked being free to set up wherever I liked, next to or not next to whomever I liked. As it was, I was feeling more and more uncomfortable about the new regime.

But I was about to be saved, because what happened next was a sort of spontaneous aerobic tea party. Even before class began, a few students had begun edging their chairs out of line. Before we were five minutes into the class, practically all the chairs had been rearranged. Chairs were dragged out of alignment, hauled to the back, and spaced farther apart. The tyranny of central planning was quietly but firmly reversed by the actions of individuals. By consensus the class reverted to its more enlightened and efficient method of doing what human nature has always done: allowing individuals to do as they like, even if the result was a bit messy.

Once the chairs had been returned to their proper disorder, the class relaxed and got down to business. An hour of cardio and stretching does a lot of good for just about anyone. By the end of class, we were happy and content, our circulation humming again and endorphins firing off. And, as if by magic, all of the chairs were returned to their proper racks with no prompting or instruction.

Adam Smith was right about human behavior. An invisible hand extends throughout human affairs, even to the placement of chairs in an aerobics class. This hand reaches into all social and economic affairs because all those affairs involve self-interest. When the invisible hand is stayed by the intrusion of authority, the result is less than satisfactory. Smith's insight into human nature was remarkably shrewd and wise, and it applies to nearly every aspect of human affairs. Free individuals prefer to decide for themselves where they place their chairs, just as they prefer to live where they like, work where they like, and spend their money as they like. There is something remarkably sane and true about allowing individuals to make decisions for themselves.

Now it's time to hit the showers.

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published many books and articles on American culture and politics.