Spontaneous order

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Spontaneous order is the spontaneous emergence of order out of seeming chaos.


  • Indeed, what he now proposed was nothing less than a dismantling of every known legislature into two novel bodies with different competences and disparate electorates, to correspond to the two ontological kinds of order — the more powerful chamber, guardian of the rule of law as such, striking anyone under the age of forty-five off the voting-roll. This, as even sympathizers could not fail to notice, was a violent attack of the very constructivism his theory had set out to purge. Hayek was unmoved, Such was the price of preserving nomos, or the law of liberty, from the logic of popular sovereignty.
  • The simplest way of expressing the major thesis of the theory of spontaneous order is to say that it is concerned with those regularities in society, or orders of events, which are neither (1) the product of deliberate human contrivance (such as a statutory code of law or a dirigiste economic plan) nor (2) akin to purely natural phenomena (such as the weather, which exists quite independently of human intervention). While the words conventional and natural refer, respectively, to these two regularities, the ‘third realm,’ that of social regularities, consists of those institutions and practices which are the result of human action but not the result of some specific human intention.
    • Norman Barry, "The Tradition of Spontaneous Order", Literature of Liberty. Vol. v, no. 2 (Summer 1982), pp. 7-58.
  • In his discussions of spontaneous orders, sometimes Hayek was simply trying to make the point that they exist; that is, he was trying to counter the claim that any beneficent social order needed to be constructed. This view was widespread when he first was writing; the mania for planning was then ubiquitous, so it was a point worth making. In later writings, Hayek sometimes did say, let’s trust to evolved orders rather than constructed ones, but then allowed that sometimes we needed to make piece-meal changes, and he gave no criteria for deciding.
  • Hayek started from an evolutionary perspective in the natural sciences. He ended his career with an evolutionary account of the development of human civilization, wherein the societies with the most materially productive rules, laws, morals, customs, and traditions will reproduce most in the end. Societal selection operates both within and among societies, and is driven not by the selection of genetically influenced attributes but by the selection of the societal practices most conducive to economic productivity, prosperity, and peace. Hayek saw life as a competition to extend itself most, whether in the biological or the social realm.
    • Alan Ebenstein, Hayek's Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek (2003), Introduction
  • It would be no exaggeration to say that social theory begins with—and has an object only because of—the discovery that there exist orderly structures which are the product of the action of many men but are not the result of human design.
    • Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty. Vol. 1 : Rules and Order (1973), Ch. 2 : Cosmos and Taxis
  • Since such an order has not been created by an outside agency, the order as such also can have no purpose, although its existence may be very serviceable to the individuals which move within such order. But in a different sense it may well be said that the order rests on purposive action of its elements, when ‘purpose’ would, of course, mean nothing more than that their actions tend to secure the preservation or restoration of that order.
    • Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty. Vol. 1 : Rules and Order (1973), Ch. 2 : Cosmos and Taxis
  • If the factual assumption of socialism were correct, it would be a moral duty to aim at the just distribution. But you have to recognize you cannot do it. In fact, you can produce enough to sustain the present population of the world, only because of a spontaneous process or mechanism which enables you to make use of infinitely more information than any central authority possesses.
  • To understand our civilisation, one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection — the comparative increase of population and wealth — of those groups that happened to follow them. The unwitting, reluctant, even painful adoption of these practices kept these groups together, increased their access to valuable information of all sorts, and enabled them to be 'fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it' (Genesis 1:28). This process is perhaps the least appreciated facet of human evolution.
    • Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit (1988), Introduction: Was Socialism a Mistake?
  • The main point of my argument is, then, that the conflict between, on one hand, advocates of the spontaneous extended human order created by a competitive market, and on the other hand those who demand a deliberate arrangement of human interaction by central authority based on collective command over available resources is due to a factual error by the latter about how knowledge of these resources is and can be generated and utilised.
    • Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit (1988), Introduction: Was Socialism a Mistake?
  • Such an order, although far from perfect and often inefficient, can extend farther than any order men could create by deliberately putting countless elements into selected `appropriate' places. Most defects and inefficiencies of such spontaneous orders result from attempting to interfere with or to prevent their mechanisms from operating, or to improve the details of their results. Such attempts to intervene in spontaneous order rarely result in anything closely corresponding to men's wishes, since these orders are determined by more particular facts than any such intervening agency can know.
    • Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit (1988), Ch. 5: The Fatal Conceit
  • From Locke to Smith to Hayek, the lesson seems clear: Leave people alone, and a coherent civil order will spontaneously emerge and perpetuate itself.
    This is utter fiction. A fairy tale. A just-so story that has as much historical veracity as Locke's happy talk about a prepolitical state of nature filled with spontaneously formed families and settled plots of legitimately gotten farmland. […]
    The order we see at work in the United States and in other advanced democracies is anything but spontaneous. […] The libertarian prophets of "spontaneous order" get things exactly backward, sometimes with catastrophic real-world consequences. Which is why it's a particularly bad idea.
  • Regarding social order, Fukuyama writes, "The systematic study of how order, and thus social capital, can emerge in spontaneous and decentralized fashion is one of the most important intellectual developments of the late twentieth century." He correctly attributes the modern origins of this argument to F.A. Hayek, whose pioneering contributions to cognitive science, the study of cultural evolution, and the dynamics of social change put him in the forefront of the most creative scholars of the 20th century. But Hayek's views about the "spontaneity" of social order remain controversial. In their extreme form, they imply that all deliberate efforts to manipulate social order — social engineering — are doomed to failure because the complex nature of our cultural heritage makes a complete understanding of the human condition impossible.
    Hayek was certainly correct that we have, at best, a very imperfect understanding of the human landscape, but "spontaneous" it is not. What distinguishes human evolution from the Darwinian model is the intentionality of the players. The mechanism of variation in evolutionary theory (mutation) is not informed by beliefs about eventual consequences. In contrast, human evolution is guided by the perceptions of the players; their choices (decisions) are made in the light of the theories the actors have, which provide expectations about outcomes.
  • The processes peculiar to economic life in a free society make evident the fundamental superiority of the spontaneous order over the commanded order.
  • But Caesar had his Brutus, Linus Pauling had Vitamin C, and Friedrich Hayek had “spontaneous order.” His experiences in Europe go far, no doubt, to explain his anti-rationalism, and maybe he wrote as he did in an effort to appeal to the moderate left. But whatever his reasons for advancing the arguments he did, they just don’t work as a normative critique of economic or legal planning. It’s true that order can emerge, unplanned, from dynamic processes — but this is practically useless in advising any political leader or any voter or any consumer about any course of action. Worse, it is all too likely to become a rationalization for passively shrugging at injustice.
  • The theory of the spontaneous order is Hayek's finest achievement. It does away with the liberal fiction of the "social contract", by means of which a disorderly "state of nature" is made orderly by the cession of coercive power to a sovereign. It can enrich our understanding of actual historical orders, like the Middle Ages. But it raises worrying problems for libertarians, because Hayek's spontaneous orders turn out, on closer inspection, to be far from self-sustaining, and indeed require to be buttressed by large doses of what he himself calls "constructive rationalism". This is particularly evident in his proposals for constitutional reform in his late book, Law, Legislation and Liberty (1974). The crux of the matter is that not all evolutionary "survivals" are equally useful to the free society. Hayek seems torn between allowing dysfunctional forms of life to die a "natural" death, and intervening to cut them short.
    • Robert Skidelsky, in a review of Hayek: The Iron Cage of Liberty in The Times Literary Supplement (20 September 1996)

See also

Friedrich Hayek
Concepts and career Business cycle theory · Dispersed knowledge · Extended order · Spontaneous order
Books Prices and Production (1931) · The Road to Serfdom (1944) · Individualism and Economic Order (1948) · The Counter-Revolution of Science (1952) · The Sensory Order (1952) · The Constitution of Liberty (1960) · Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (1967) · Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973) · The Denationalization of Money (1975) · New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas (1978) · The Fatal Conceit (1988)
Notable essays "The Use of Knowledge in Society" (1945) · "Why I Am Not a Conservative" (1960) · "The Pretence of Knowledge" (1974)
Commentators Alan O. Ebenstein · Bruce Caldwell
Other topics On evolution · On dictatorship · On John Maynard Keynes
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