Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Idea of a Spontaneous Social Order - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
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The Idea of a Spontaneous Social Order - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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The Idea of a Spontaneous Social Order
If the order we discover in society is in no important respect the product of a directing intelligence, and if the human mind itself is a product of cultural evolution, then it follows that social order cannot be the product of anything resembling conscious control or rational design. As Hayek puts it:
The errors of constructivist rationalism are closely connected with Cartesian dualism, that is, with the conception of an independently existing mind substance which stands outside the cosmos of nature and which enabled man, endowed with such a mind from the beginning, to design the institutions of society and culture among which he lives...The conception of an already fully developed mind designing the institutions which made life possible is contrary to all we know about the evolution of man.30
The master error of Cartesian rationalism31 lies in its anthropomorphic transposition of mentalist categories to social processes. But a Cartesian rationalist view of mind cannot explain even the order of mind itself. Hayek himself makes this point when he remarks on “the difference between an order which is brought about by the direction of a central organ such as the brain, and the formation of an order determined by the regularity of the actions towards each other of the elements of a structure.” He goes on:
Michael Polanyi has usefully described this distinction as that between a monocentric and a polycentric order. The first point which it is in this connection important to note is that the brain of an organism which acts as the directing centre for the organism is in turn a polycentric order, that is, that its actions are determined by the relation and mutual adjustment to each other of the elements of which it consists.32
Hayek states his conception of social theory, and of the central importance in it of undesigned or spontaneous orders, programmatically and with unsurpassable lucidity:
It is evident that this interplay of the rules of conduct of the individuals with the actions of other individuals and the external circumstances in producing an overall order may be a highly complex affair. The whole task of social theory consists in little else but an effort to reconstruct the overall orders which are thus formed...It will also be clear that such a distinct theory of social structures can provide only an explanation of certain general and highly abstract features of the different types of structures...Of theories of this type economic theory, the theory of the market order of free human societies, is so far the only one which has been developed over a long period...33
Because it is undesigned and not the product of conscious reflection, the spontaneous order that emerges of itself in social life can cope with the radical ignorance we all share of the countless facts on knowledge of which society depends. This is to say, to begin with, that a spontaneous social order can utilize fragmented knowledge, knowledge dispersed among millions of people, in a way a holistically planned order (if such there could be) cannot. “This structure of human activities” as Hayek puts it “consistently adapts itself, and functions through adapting itself, to millions of facts which in their entirety are not known to everybody. The significance of this process is most obvious and was at first stressed in the economic field.”34 It is to say, also, that a spontaneous social order can use the practical knowledge preserved in men's habits and dispositions and that society always depends on such practical knowledge and cannot do without it.
Examples abound in Hayek's writings of spontaneous orders apart from the market order. The thesis of spontaneous order is stated at its broadest when Hayek says of Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) that “for the first time [he] developed all the classical paradigmata of the spontaneous growth of orderly social structures: of law and morals, of language, the market and money, and also the growth of technological knowledge.”35 Note that whereas Hayek acknowledges that spontaneous order emerges in natural processes—it may be observed, he tells us, not only in the population biology of animal species, but in the formation of crystals and even galaxies36 —it is the role of spontaneous order in human society that Hayek is most concerned to stress. For applying what Hayek illuminatingly terms “the twin ideas of evolution and of the spontaneous formation of an order”37 to the study of human society enables us to transcend the view, inherited from Greek, and, above all, from Sophist philosophy, that all social phenomena can be comprehended within the crude dichotomy of the natural (physis) and the conventional (nomos). Hayek wishes to focus attention on the third domain of social phenomena and objects, neither instinctual in origin nor yet the result of conscious contrivance or purposive construction, the domain of evolved and self-regulating social structures. It is the emergence of such self-regulating structures in society via the natural selection of rules of action and perception that is systematically neglected in much current sociology (though not, it may be noted, in the writings of Herbert Spencer,38 one of sociology's founding fathers). It is because he thinks that the sociobiologists view social order as being a mixture of instinctive behavior and conscious control, and so neglect the cultural selection of systems of rules, that Hayek has subjected this recent strain of speculation to a sharp criticism.39 It may be noted, finally, that Hayek's repudiation of the Sophistic natureconvention dichotomy sets him in opposition to Popper and his talk of the critical dualism of facts and decisions and brings him close to the Wittgensteinian philosopher, Peter Winch, for whom the distinction is essentially misconceived.40
[30.] Hayek, µB-15Õ, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. I, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973, p. 17.
[31.] Descartes may not always have committed the errors Hayek finds in him or his disciples. See on this Stuart Hampshire, “On Having a Reason,” Chapter 5 of G. A. Vesey, ed., Human Values, Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, vol. II, 1976–1977, Harvester Press, 1976, where on p. 88 Hampshire speaks in Hayekian fashion of “a Cartesian error, which was not consistently Descartes', and which consists of assuming a necessary connection between thought on the one side and consciouness and explicitness on the other...”
[32.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies, p. 73. On Hayek's view of spontaneous order, see Barry (1982) in Bibliography.
[33.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies, pp. 71-72.
[34.] Hayek, µB-15Õ, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. I, p. 13.
[35.] Hayek, µB-17Õ, New Studies, p. 253.
[36.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, p. 76. “The problems of how galaxies or solar systems are formed and what is their resulting structure is much more like the problems which the social sciences have to face than the problems of mechanics...” See also µB-16Õ, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. II, pp. 39-40.
[37.] Hayek, µB-17Õ, New Studies, p. 250.
[38.] On Spencer, see J. D. Y. Peel, Herbert Spencer: the Evolution of a Sociologist, London: Heinemann, 1971.
[39.] See Hayek, µB-18Õ, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Vol. III, pp. 153-155.
[40.] See Peter Winch, “Nature and Convention,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 60 (1959-1960): 231-252, reprinted as Chapter 3 of Winch's Ethics and Action, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976. In some of his writings published after The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper comes closer to a Hayekian position. In his “Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition,” in particular, perhaps in response to Oakeshott's writings, he effectively abandons the Sophistic dichotomy of nature and convention entailed in his earlier writings. See Popper's Conjectures and Refutations, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963, for this study.