Liberty Matters

Evolutionary Arguments and Laissez Faire

As Fabio Rojas and Phil Magness both note in their excellent essays, Sumner grounded his laissez-faire theory of government on an evolutionary theory of society. Our discussion so far has already highlighted the way in which this form of argument gave rise to the misleading charge of "social Darwinism." In this essay, I want to raise a more substantive question about Sumner's argument: to what extent does an evolutionary approach like Sumner's actually support a policy of laissez faire?
The gist of Sumner's argument is nicely illustrated in the gardening metaphor that Phil Magness quotes in his essay. Just as it would be foolish for a gardener to try to impose an abstractly conceived ideal upon a garden without first acquiring a thorough understanding of the nature of the plants, soil, and other elements with which he was working, and the constraints that those natural phenomena impose upon his possibilities, so too it would be foolish for a statesman to impose a rigid set of rules upon society without understanding the ways in which the natural order of social processes constrain his ability to realize his vision. Social order, like natural order, is an evolved phenomenon exhibiting a high degree of interconnectedness and complexity. And attempts to meddle with that order on the assumption that one knows more than one really does about how it works are doomed to fail.
Arguments such as this are familiar within the classical-liberal tradition. The most obvious parallel, of course, is to be found in the work of Friedrich Hayek, whose writings on complexity and spontaneous order[41] develop the line of reasoning in perhaps its most sophisticated form. But arguments of this form were also common in the writings of Herbert Spencer, who often employed them to warn would-be reformers of the likely unintended consequences of their well-meaning meddling. For Spencer, each social phenomenon "is a link in an infinite series -- is the result of myriads of preceding phenomena, and will have a share in producing myriads of succeeding ones." Because phenomena are complexly interrelated, it is always the case that "in disturbing any natural chain of sequences, [legislators] are not only modifying the result next in succession, but all the future results into which this will enter as a part-cause."[42] Social legislation is like trying to straighten out a wrought-iron plate with a hammer – attempts to flatten it here will only cause it to bend somewhere else. "What, then, shall we say about a society? 'Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?' asks Hamlet.[43] Is humanity more readily straightened than an iron plate?"[44]
Indeed, arguments of this form are often found outside of the classical-liberal tradition as well. James C. Scott's wonderful book, Seeing Like a State, opens with an account of the failures of scientific forestry in late 18th-century Prussia and Saxony. In order to achieve maximum yield with minimum oversight, forest managers imposed a rigid, easily legible order on their trees.
The forest trees were drawn up into serried, uniform ranks, as it were, to be measured, counted off, felled, and replaced by a new rank and file of lookalike conscripts. As an army, it was designed hierarchically from above to fulfill a unique purpose and to be at the disposition of a single commander. At the limit, the forest itself would not even have to be seen; it could be "read" accurately from the tables and maps in the forester's office.[45]
But the schematic vision of the foresters was too limited to understand the complexity of the forest ecosystem. Vast forests of monoculture trees died off entirely as they failed to receive adequate nutrients from the soil and fell victim to pests and disease. "An exceptionally complex process involving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relations among fungi, insects, mammals, and flora -- which were, and still are, not entirely understood -- was apparently disrupted, with serious consequences."[46]
Scott's book is much adored by classical liberals, despite the fact the he explicitly denies that it is "a case for unfettered market coordination as urged by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman."[47] But the fact that a relatively progressive liberal like Scott can employ arguments of the same form as those employed by Spencer, Sumner, and Hayek should give us pause. Is Scott simply failing to think through the logical implications of his position? Or do evolutionary arguments simply not do much to make the case for laissez faire?
Hayek himself seems to have been somewhat ambivalent on this point. In The Road to Serfdom, he famously (or infamously, depending on whom you ask) wrote that "nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez-faire capitalism."[48] Elsewhere, however, he seemed to take a kinder attitude toward a certain woodenness, writing that "a successful defense of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency…."[49]
For Sumner, laissez faire seems to have been a kind of rule of thumb, but nothing more. "Laissez-faire," he wrote, "is so far from meaning the unrestrained action of nature without any intelligent interference by man, that it really means the only rational application of human intelligence to the assistance of natural development."[50] The principle is a maxim, a rule of art, that is useful as a corrective against mankind's natural tendency to over-legislate. But as a maxim, it is not absolute. It does not rule out state interference altogether. Rather, it counsels us to be cautious in interfering -- to approach social problems with a sense of humility, rather than hubris.
Arguments of this sort certainly seem to tell against proposals to centrally manage the entire economy, à la state socialism. But how much more weight can contemporary classical liberals really place on them? Do they counsel against state welfare programs? Against clean-air regulations? Socialized medicine?
The proponent of such legal interventions can grant that the economy is a complex system and that prudence is warranted. But the mere fact that there are problems associated with intervention hardly seems sufficient to demonstrate that the expected costs of intervention will always exceed the expected benefits. (This is a problem with consequentialist arguments for laissez fairein general.) We can be cautious; we can experiment on a small scale; and we can learn. Scott's own story proves the point. Eighteenth-century Prussian attempts at scientific forest management may have been a bungle, but we've gotten much, much better. Is there some reason to think that the same sort of process isn't possible in the realm of state intervention in the economy?
[41.] F.A. Hayek, Chapter 2 "The Theory of Complex Phenomena" in Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), pp. 22-42. Online at <>. OLL Topic: Spontaneous Order </collections/104>.
[42.] Herbert Spencer, "Over-Legislation" [First published in The Westminster Review for July 1853.] in Herbert Spencer, Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative. Library Edition, containing Seven Essays not before republished, and various other Additions (London: Williams and Norgate, 1891). Vol. 3. </titles/337#Spencer_0620-03_320>.
[43.] Hamlet says to Guildenstern: "Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me. You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me." "Hamlet", Act III, Sc. II, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (The Oxford Shakespeare), ed. with a glossary by W.J. Craig M.A. (Oxford University Press, 1916). </titles/1639#Shakespeare_0612zf_Hamlet_1973>.
[44.] Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology (London: Henry S. King, 1873). </titles/1335#Spencer_0623_503>.
[45.] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 15.
[46.] Ibid., p. 20.
[47.] Ibid., p. 8.
[48.] Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 71
[49.] Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 1 (New York: Routledge, 1973), p. 61.
[50.] William Graham Sumner, "Laissez-Faire" (1886), in Sumner, On Liberty, Society, and Politics, ed. Robert C. Bannister (1992), p. 228.; also online at <>.