Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Application of Spontaneous Order in Economic Life: The Catallaxy - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
The Application of Spontaneous Order in Economic Life: The Catallaxy - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Application of Spontaneous Order in Economic Life: The Catallaxy
The central claim of Hayek's philosophy, as we have expounded it so far, is that knowledge is, at its base, at once practical and abstract. It is abstract inasmuch as even sensory perception gives us a model of our environment which is highly selective and picks out only certain classes of events, and it is practical inasmuch as most knowledge is irretrievably stored or embodied in rules of action and perception. These rules, in turn, are in Hayek's conception the subject of continuing natural selection in cultural competition. The mechanism of this selection, best described in Hayek's fascinating “Notes on the Evolution of Systems of Rules of Conduct,”41 is in the emulation by others of rules which secure successful behavior. It is by a mimetic contagion that rules conferring success—where success means, in the last resort, the growth of human numbers42 —come to supplant those rules which are maladapted to the environment. Finally, the convergence of many rule-following creatures on a single system of rules creates those social objects—language, money, markets, the law—which are the paradigms of spontaneous social order.
It is a general implication of this conception that, since social order is not a purposive construction, it will not in general serve any specific purpose. Social order facilitates the achievement of human purposes: taken in itself, it must be seen as having no purpose. Just as human actions acquire their meaning by occurring in a framework that can itself have no meaning,43 so social order will allow for the achievement of human purposes only to the extent that it is itself purposeless. Nowhere has this general implication of Hayek's conception been so neglected as in economic life. In the history and theory of science, to be sure, where the idea of spontaneous order was (as Hayek acknowledges) put to work by Michael Polanyi, false conceptions were spawned by the erroneous notion that scientific progress could be planned, whereas, on the contrary, any limitation of scientific inquiry to the contents of explicit or theoretical knowledge would inevitably stifle further progress.44 In economics, however, the canard that order is the result of conscious control had more fateful consequences. It supported the illusion that the whole realm of human exchange was to be understood after the fashion of a household or an hierarchical organization, with limited and commensurable purposes ranked in order of agreed importance.
This confusion of a genuine hierarchical ‘economy’—such as that of an army, a school or a business corporation—with the whole realm of social exchange, the catallaxy, informs many aspects of welfare economics and motivates its interventionist projects via the fiction of a total social product. This confusion between ‘catallaxy’ and ‘economy’ is, at bottom, the result of an inability to acknowledge that the order which is the product of conscious direction—the order of a management hierarchy in a business corporation, for example—itself always depends upon a larger spontaneous order. The demand that the domain of human exchange taken as a whole should be subject to purposive planning is, therefore, the demand that social life be reconstructed in the character of a factory, an army, or a business corporation—in the character, in other words, of an authoritarian organization. Apart from the fateful consequences for individual liberty that implementing such a demand inexorably entails, it springs in great measure from an inability or unwillingness to grasp how in the market process itself there is a constant tendency to self-regulation by spontaneous order. When it is unhampered, the process of exchange between competitive firms itself yields a coordination of men's activities more intricate and balanced than any that could be enforced (or even conceived) by a central planner.
[41.] Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies, Chap. 4.
[42.] Personal communication from Professor Hayek to the author.
[43.] See Hayek, µB-13Õ, Studies, p. 61: “...if ‘to have meaning’ is to have a place in an order which we share with other people, this order itself cannot have meaning because it cannot have a place in itself.”
[44.] See Hayek, µB-12Õ, The Constitution of Liberty, p. 160.