Front Page Titles (by Subject) James Buchanan on Hayek - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4
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James Buchanan on Hayek - 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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James Buchanan on Hayek
One of the clearest and deepest statements of some of the difficulties in Hayek's use of spontaneous order arguments may be found in James M. Buchanan's writings. In an important paper,95 Buchanan observes that, in Hayek's later writings we find:
the extension of the principle of spontaneous order, in its normative function, to the emergence of institutional structure itself. As applied to the market economy, that which emerges is defined by its very emergence to be that which is efficient. And this result implies, in its turn, a policy of nonintervention, properly so. There is no need, indeed there is no possibility, of evaluating the efficiency of observed outcomes independently of the process; there exists no external criterion that allows efficiency to be defined in objectively measurable dimensions. If this logic is extended to the structure of institutions (including law) that have emerged in some historical evolutionary process, the implication seems clear that that set which we observe necessarily embodies institutional or structural ‘efficiency.’ From this it follows, as before, that a policy of nonintervention in the process of emergence is dictated. There is no room left for the political economist, or for anyone else, who seeks to reform social structures, to change laws and rules, with an aim of security instead of efficiency in the large...Any ‘constructively rational’ interferences with the ‘rational’ processes of history are, therefore, to be avoided.
Buchanan's criticism, then, is that Hayek's apparent extension of spontaneous order or evolutionary arguments from the market processes to institutional structures is bound to disable the tasks of criticism and reform. We are left with no leverage in Hayek's account which might be used against the outcomes of the historical process. Instead, it seems, we are bound to entrust ourselves to all the vagaries of mankind's random walk in historical space.
In an earlier critique,96 Buchanan noted perceptively the phenomenon of “spontaneous disorder” —the emergence of patterns of activity that thwart the purposes and damage the interests of all who participate in them. Such “spontaneous disorder” is, after all, the core of the idea of the Prisoner's Dilemma, which has been explored imaginatively in Buchanan's writing in its political and constitutional applications. The neglect in Hayek's political work in English of any treatment of the problem this Dilemma poses for his system invites the attempt to accomodate these fundamental objections.
It is clear, however, that as it stands Hayek's conception of spontaneous order needs revision or at least refinement. Buchanan's identification of certain states of affairs as manifesting spontaneous disorder suggests the question whether the idea of spontaneous order in Hayek is a value-free explanatory notion or else a moral notion of some sort. If the former—as Hayek's examples of spontaneous order in nature suggest—then spontaneous order really functions as a cipher for invisible hand explanations of the sort brilliantly discussed by Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia.97
We might then be compelled to regard the growth of interventionism and of the welfare state, and even certain aspects of the functioning of totalitarian regimes, as exemplifying spontaneous order inasmuch as we might be able to explain these social phenomena as the unintended outcomes of human action. If, on the other hand, spontaneous orders are taken as embodying positive moral values—if, that is to say, the idea of a maleficient or destructive spontaneous order is repudiated as incoherent—then it seems clear that Hayek requires a far bolder moral theory than any he has advanced thus far. In particular, such a moral theory would need to bridge the gap between evaluative and descriptive language which is a feature of modern moral philosophy, and in this and other respects it would need to come much closer to natural law ethics than Hayek has ever himself done.
Buchanan's critique is decisive, then, in compelling Hayek to clarify the idea of spontaneous order as being either a moral notion, which might plausibly be embedded only in some variant of natural law ethics, or else as a value-free explanatory concept whose political uses must then be made more explicit than Hayek has heretofore done.
Buchanan's critique is important, again, in disclosing that Hayek's attitude to rationalism is ambivalent and unstable. If we adopt the latter view of spontaneous order as a value-free explanatory idea, its uses in political argument depend upon two kinds of considerations. First, they must invoke a political ethics, which arguably is given by Hayek's synthesis of Hume with Kant. More problematically, however, the use of an explanatory idea of spontaneous order in political argument presupposes that we have a genuine theoretical or synoptic knowledge of social life of just the sort that Hayek occasionally suggests is impossible. This is to say that, if we are to make use of the idea of spontaneous social order in framing or reforming social institutions so as to make best use of society's spontaneous forces, we need to invoke a theoretical model of social structure and social process which gives some assurance as to the outcome of our reforms. To this extent, contrary to some of Hayek's recommendations but in line with a part of his recent practice, we cannot avoid adopting a critical rationalist stance toward our inherited institutions and the historical process. This is true, whether we accept Hayek's own effort at a political ethics, or Buchanan's neo-Hobbesian contractarian constitutionalism.
[95.] See James M. Buchanan, “Cultural Evolution and Institutional Reform” (unpubl.) I am most grateful to Professor Buchanan for allowing me to read this paper.
[96.] James M. Buchanan, Freedom in Constitutional Contract, College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1977, pp. 25-30.
[97.] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York: Basic Books, 1974, pp. 18-22. For a most penetrating discussion of some related aspects of social explanation, see Nozick's “On Austrian Methodology,” Synthese 36 (1977): 353-392. See also Edna Ullmann-Margalit's “Invisible Hand Explanations,” Synthese 30 (1978): 263-291. I am indebted to Professor Lester Hunt both for directing me to Ms. Ullmann-Margalit's article and for showing me his unpublished paper, “Toward a Natural History of Morality,” in which some of Ullmann-Margalit's work is pushed further. See also Norman P. Barry, “The Tradition of Spontaneous Order,” Literature of Liberty 5 (Summer 1982): 7-58, as well as Richard Vernon, “Unintended Consequences,” Political Theory 7 (1979): 57-74.