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Hayek and Spontaneous Orders

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This essay first appeared as an editorial in the journal Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought, Winter 1982, vol. 5, No. 4.

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson in humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men's fatal striving to control society—a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals. (Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Pretence of Knowledge,” Nobel Memorial Lecture, December 11, 1974)

It is, of course, supremely easy to ridicule “invisible hand”—which leads man “to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” But it is an error not very different from this anthropomorphism to assume that the existing economic system serves a definite function only in so far as its institutions have been deliberately willed by individuals. This is probably the last remnant of that primitive attitude which made us invest with a human mind everything that moved and changed in a way adapted to perpetuate itself or its kind. In the natural sciences, we have gradually ceased to do so and have learned that the interaction of different tendencies may produce what we call an order, without any mind of our own kind regulating it. But we still refuse to recognise that the spontaneous interplay of the actions of individuals may produce something which is not the deliberate object of their actions but an organism in which every part performs a necessary function for the continuance of the whole, without any human mind having devised it. (Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Trend of Economic Thinking,” Inaugural lecture delivered at the London School of Economics, March 1, 1933).

Is this all so very different
From what Lao-Tzu says
In his fifty-seventh poem?:
If I keep from meddling with people
They take care of themselves,
If I keep from commanding people,
They behave themselves,
If I keep from imposing on people,
They become themselves.

Friedrich A. Hayek. Original epilogue to “The Principles of a Liberal Social Order,” delivered at the Tokyo meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, September, 1966.

Throughout F.A. Hayek's encyclopedic writings, we frequently hear a characteristically ‘Hayekian’ leitmotif sounding in either major or minor key: his belief in spontaneous ordering—through decentralized, free individual action—of social, legal, and economic institutions in contradistinction to the Cartesian and statist “error of constructivism,” the belief that centralized control, planning, and coercion are required to coordinate economic and social activities. This theme animates his early psychological study The Sensory Order (which Hayek first drafted as a student paper in 1919–1920). In a recent interview Hayek commented on this book which examines the way we order and process the welter of information that comes through our senses. This sensory ordering process is a system too complicated to be understood in detail, but in general terms it is “the conception of the spontaneous formation of an order, the formation of extremely complex structures.”

The same notion of spontaneous order appears as a unifying thread in Hayek's economic, political, and legal thought. Looking back at economics in his Nobel Prize speech (1974), from the perspective of 75 years, Hayek discerned the origins of the tragic series of depressions, monetary destabilizations, inflations, and stagflations in the primitive belief of the need for governmental planning, the non-spontaneous dis-ordering of the natural market forces of individual choices. In this speech his first citation is significantly to his 1942 essay “Scientism and the Study of Society,” (which eventually became one chapter of The Counter-Revolution of Science, 1952) in which he excoriated the “scientistic attitude,” which attempted to order and engineer society and economics by erroneously emulating in the social sciences the mechanistic methodology of the physical sciences.

Hayek's unsuccessful attempts to overcome the Keynesian irrationalism in economic policy during the 1930s led him during the early 1940s to add to his economic analysis an integrated political theory that echoed spontaneous order. Such works as The Road to Serfdom (1944), The Constitution of Liberty (1960), the trilogy Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973, 1976, 1979), and the forthcoming The Fatal Conceit (1983) stressed the continuity between economic and political liberty and warned of the “fatal conceit” of scientistic non-spontaneous attitudes in the rise of “constructivism,” the attempt to politically construct a social, economic order. A strong antidote against succumbing to the political and economic variants of non-spontaneous planning or constructivism was a deep knowledge of political and especially economic history (see “History and Politics” in Capitalism and the Historians, 1954). Likewise in legal theory dealing with the ‘rule of law,’ echoing the insights of Bruno Leoni's Freedom and the Law (1961), Hayek would distinguish between irrational constructivism of legislation as opposed to the naturally evolved code of customs embodied in humane values and laws (see The Political Ideal of the Rule of Law, 1955, and the trilogy Law, Legislation and Liberty). Hayek's 1960 monumental Constitution of Liberty would weave together the legal, historical, political, and economic dimensions of the freedoms implied in a spontaneous-order social science methodology.

Last modified April 10, 2014