The Self-Organizing Society: A Grower's Guide

35 Pages Posted: 9 Sep 2015  

John Stewart

Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group, Center Leo Apostel, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Date Written: September 4, 2015


Can a human society be organized in such a way that self-organization will always tend to produce outcomes that advance the goals of the society? Such a society would be self-organizing in the sense that agents which pursue only their own interests would none-the-less act in the interests of the society as a whole, irrespective of any intention to do so. In contrast to current human societies, such a society would have a resilient and universal tendency to self-organize “the good” (however “the good” is defined by the society). The paper sketches an agent-based model that identifies the conditions that must be met if self-organizing societies are to emerge. The model draws heavily on an understanding of how self-organizing societies have emerged repeatedly during the evolution of life on Earth (e.g. evolution has produced societies of molecular processes, of simple cells, of eukaryote cells and of multicellular organisms). The model suggests that the key enabling requirement for a self-organizing society is consequence-capture: all agents that comprise the society must capture sufficient of the benefits (and harms) of the impacts of their actions on the goals of the society (if this condition is not met, agents that invest resources in actions that produce global benefits will be outcompeted by those that do not). This condition can be met where a society is managed by appropriate systems of evolvable constraints that suppress free riders and support pro-social actions. In human societies these management constraints include governance and enculturated pre-dispositions such as norms. Appropriate management can produce a self-organizing society in which the interests of all agents (including individuals, associations, firms, multi-national corporations, political organizations, institutions and governments) are aligned with those of the society as a whole. In such a society, agents that pursue only their immediate self-interest will advance societal goals.

Keywords: self-organization; self-organizing society; consequence-capture; vertical market; invisible hand; alignment of interests; enabling constraints

JEL Classification: P00, P16, P26, H11, H23, H40

Suggested Citation

Stewart, John, The Self-Organizing Society: A Grower's Guide (September 4, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

John Stewart (Contact Author)

Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group, Center Leo Apostel, Vrije Universiteit Brussel ( email )

Krijgskundestraat 33
B-1160 Brussels


Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views