Adam Ferguson observed that social structures of all kinds were “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (1782)

Adam Ferguson

Friedrich Hayek was most taken by an observation Adam Ferguson made in this work that social structures of all kinds were “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”. This led him to develop his notion of “spontaneous order”.

Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.

This is another one of those pioneering works of philosophical history (or “sociology” as we would call it today) which emerged in France and Scotland in the late 18th century as part of the Enlightenment project to discover the motors which drove societies to evolve over time. This passage had a profound impact on the thinking of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek in the formulation of his ideas of “spontaneous order”. He found precursors to his way of viewing social and economic change in many of the writers of the Scottish Enlightenment. In this quotation we find the phrase that Hayek himself quoted on a number of occasions in its larger context: that societies were “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.” This phrase, along with Adam Smith’s phrase about the “invisible hand”, are two of the most important and profound insights to emerge out of the Scottish Enlightenment.