Thoughts on market democracy, part 2a: Society as a spontaneous order

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This is part 2a of a (hopefully) four-part series; see also part 1, part 3, and part 4. This part grew so long I’m spreading it across two posts, with the second post to follow when I finish writing it.

This post continues my thoughts on the concept of “market democracy” as described in John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness. In this post and the next I explore the second core idea of market democracy, that of society as a “spontaneous order”:1

... complex productive systems [such as those that produce pencils and other goods] typically were not planned; they evolved. They are products of human action but not of human design. Friedrich Hayek argues that a free society is best thought of as a spontaneous order in which people should be allowed to pursue their own goals on the basis of information available only to themselves. (p. xii)

At the simplest level the idea of society as a spontaneous order is opposed to the idea that most or even all aspects of society can be (or should be) centrally planned on a rational basis. Central planning was discredited in theory by the arguments of Ludwig von Mises, Hayek, and others that the problem of calculating prices and allocating resources in a planned economy was intractable, and was discredited in practice by the demise of the Soviet Union and command socialism in general. So spontaneous order won the battle, QED, end of story.

Except that the story really doesn’t end there, and if one agrees with Tomasi (as I do) that society is a spontaneous order, there are still interesting questions worth exploring. First up is the issue that Tomasi addresses in the preface:

Sometimes spontaneous order is used in what I shall call an ontological sense. A society either **is** a spontaneous order or it **is not** one. ... if a society **is** a spontaneous order, then it is sometimes claimed that whatever rules, norms, and distributions result from spontaneous processes are justified by that very fact. ... Other times, however, the idea of spontaneous order is used to denote, not a state of affairs, but a strategy of social construction. In pursuit of desired ends we have the choice of employing spontaneous orders or other types of order—typically, orders that are more direct and planned. (p. xv)

Tomasi comes down on the second side of this question: “Market democracy rejects the ontological use of spontaneous order theory. It affirms spontaneous order as a strategy of social construction.” But that immediately raises further questions: Suppose we consciously decide that society should be organized as a spontaneous order “in pursuit of desired ends”. Can we do that in any positive way, as opposed to simply taking a laissez-faire attitude to events as they unfold? If so, is it possible to “design for spontaneous order”, in the sense of creating social institutions that will maximize the beneficial possibilities inherent in the spontaneous order that leverages such institutions? Is this a one-time task, after which we can safely lean back and watch society evolve? Or are there potential pathologies to which spontaneous orders are vulnerable, and which might require ongoing revisions to societal institutions, including revisions which might restrict the economic freedoms Tomasi views as basic?

Unfortunately I think Tomasi’s discussion of spontaneous orders suffers from his use of “admittedly homey” but (in my opinion) too simplistic analogies. In particular he contrasts putting together a Lego model according to a detailed list of instructions with the crystallization of sugar in solution under the influence of general physical laws, using the former as an analogue of Hayek’s taxis or made order and the latter as an analogue of Hayek’s cosmos or spontaneous order: “Unlike the principles governing the construction of the Lego model, the principles governing the construction of the crystals are endogenous and intrinsic. … The model is made, the crystal grows.” (p. 144)

This paints a picture of the entities within the spontaneous order being swept along under the influence of physical laws, without agency or intention, with the outcome being ordained by nature. Tomasi does acknowledge the potential role of intentional design in creating the spontaneous order that is human society:

... some one or some group had to decide to create the conditions in which the candy crystals could spontaneously form. ... The makers of rock candy are in this way very like the designers of a constitution to govern a liberal society. Even without being able (or seeking) to control the details of the order that will emerge, both sets of orders require a maker, and that maker’s intentionality pervades the order that results. (p. 153)

He also believes that in constructing of the foundations of a social order we can and should be guided by our knowledge of the ways in which spontaneous orders develop, and that we can and should evaluate different foundations according to criteria important to us—a way to introduce considerations of social justice into a vision that would (at least as initially conceived) seem to exclude it:

According to Hayek, the rules of just individual conduct that most effectively govern a liberal social order are rules we discover, rather than rules we attempt to create. But this ... does not eliminate the role of intentionality in the formation of social orders. ... It is knowledge of molecular rules that makes human intentionality effective, given some norm that allows us to distinguish good candy making from bad. ... With sugar crystal orders, so too with human social orders: once basic laws are discovered we employ intentionality to tweak the system to our purposes. In the domain of political institutions, these purposes are ultimately defined by a theory of justice. (p. 153-154)

But if our task is to discover the rules promoting the creation and growth of spontaneous orders that promote justice in human society, the analogy of the sugar crystals in solution paints an overly simplistic and misleading picture. Just moving from a physical to a biological analogy would be more realistic: An ecosystem of organisms evolving through time via the mechanism of natural selection would count as a spontaneous order, and would yield more insights into the characteristics of spontaneous orders. For example, organisms evolve to fill certain ecological niches, analogous to divisions of labor within an economy, and the complexity of both organisms and ecosystems increases over time, with no need for an intelligent designer.

The spontaneous order that is the global ecosystem also has its downsides as well. One major one is the existence of parasites: organisms that live off of others and have evolved quite ingenious ways to do so, for example getting first crack at its host’s food by replacing the host’s tongue, or manipulating the host’s nervous system to redirect the host’s behavior to its own ends. It’s hypothesized that much of evolutionary change, up to and including the “invention” of sex, has been in the service of reducing the impact of parasites. Another downside is the possibility of evolutionary “stagnation” or “maladaption”: Natural selection operates on a local scale, being based on the differential reproductive success of individual organisms, and does not take account more global or long-term considerations, leaving species vulnerable to extinction as environments change.

Modeling a spontaneous order simply as a physical system (even as just a metaphor) fails even more severely when applied to a society of relatively autonomous individuals who can both act and think for themselves, not to mention join with others in collective action—in Tomasi’s terms it’s like making rock candy when the sugar molecules can think for themselves and interfere with the recipe.

To better see what “society as a spontaneous order” entails, what we need for a model is something that’s complicated enough to be realistic but simpler than looking at society itself in all its rich history and complexity. We actually have such a model, and you’re using it to read this post; more on that in a follow-up post, in which I complete my discussion of society as a spontaneous order by focusing on the design, history, and pathologies of the Internet.

  1. The term “spontaneous order” is itself of relative recent vintage; the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows no occurrences of the term before the early 1800s, a blip of activity in the 1870s (only some of which are in reference to human society), another larger blip in the late 1940s and early 1950s (no doubt associated with the initial publication of Friedrich Hayek’s works), and then a fairly steady rise from the 1970s on as libertarian ideas received more popular and scholarly attention. However the general ideas behind the term “spontaneous order” date back several centuries; see for example Norman Barry’s essay “The Tradition of Spontaneous Order”.