Alberto Mingardi  

Is "spontaneous order" such a very bad idea?

PRINT
Rojas on Marijuana Legalizatio... Daniel Hamermesh: Let's Make ...

A few days ago, Damon Linker at The Week published an article deeming "spontaneous order" "the silliest and most harmful of all" libertarian ideas. Will Wilkinson (here) and Nick Gillespie (here) have written well pondered responses.

Linker's article is as bad as it is confused. His genealogy of "libertarian" thought (Locke to Smith to Hayek) is acrobatic at best. His arguments for dismissing "spontaneous order" do not seem to work particularly well. He maintains that the

United States has, in effect, run two experiments -- one in Iraq, the other in Libya -- to test whether the theory of spontaneous order works out as the libertarian tradition would predict.

Gillespie nailed it:
An archetypal effort in what Hayek would call "constructivism," neocon hawks would call "nation building," and what virtually all libertarians (well, me anyways) called a "non sequitur" in the war on terror that was doomed to failure from the moment of conception is proof positive that libertarianism is, in Linker's eyes, "a particularly bad idea" whose "pernicious consequences" are plain to see.

However, among many astonishing statements, I was particularly taken by the following. In writing that "spontaneous order" would be a "fairy tale," Linker links it to Locke's state of nature and considers it:
A just-so story that has as much historical veracity as Locke's happy talk about a prepolitical state of nature filled with spontaneously formed families and settled plots of legitimately gotten farmland.

Well, of course the Lockean state of nature is a mental experiment - but so, as a matter of fact, is the Hobbesian state of nature. Linker seems to imply that, since one has no historical veracity, the other then has it. Thus anything "spontaneous" is doomed to degenerate into chaos and violence.

If you pursue this line of reasoning far enough, you arrive at the point where you basically deny the possibility of human cooperation unless top down government intervention makes it work. By the way, do we have overwhelming evidence that top-down government intervention typically makes co-operation work better?

Linker mentions the famous Obama reference to "you didn't build that". I can't really see how that Obama's line can be used as a weapon against spontaneous order. One great teaching of those "nuts," i.e. Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek, that Linker so despises, is precisely that almost any of our effort is embedded in networks of cooperation far wider than our understanding. One of the reasons why Hayek warns against intervention is precisely our short-sightedness, vis-Ă -vis a world we cannot fully master, even if we are very smart and very powerful.

A libertarian knows that even extremely successful and creative innovators do not do much alone - and that they owe much to those that paved the way for them. Libertarians will have problems in equating those that prepared the way for innovators with government and government only. But I'd argue that's just plain common sense. Take the Obama's example of a teacher inspiring the future innovator. Does the latter owe something to the government that paid a salary, or to the human being that taught him with passion and competence?

Linker makes a rather commonly heard argument: that is, government intervention is so pervasive that everything we do is possible just because the government takes care of policing our streets, educating our children, or funding breath-taking research. But is there a specific reason government should monopolise these fields? And, even more important, are we really content with the way government is doing all that? Why are we so eager to defend in theory something we are not very happy with in practice?


Comments and Sharing






COMMENTS (7 to date)

Interestingly, Linker miss uses that Obama quote in a way that makes Obama look better.

In Linker's version, it's "wealthy business owners 'didn't build that' all by themselves"

What Obama actually said was, "If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Big difference.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

No serious scholar has premised that the efforts at "planning," which are efforts to use particular knowledge (or, more often information which must be connected with other information to form knowledge) as having no effects on the nature of "spontaneous" order.

Those efforts are part of the many factors in the formation of social order.

Pajser writes:

Really, Linker uses arguments against anarcho-capitalism as arguments against "spontaneous order", it is the straw man.

    Mingardi: "And, even more important, are we really content with the way government is doing all that? Why are we so eager to defend in theory something we are not very happy with in practice?"

Proclaimed motive for government's decisions is common good. It is morally better than "spontaneous order" where those who make decisions are motivated by their self-interest. So, it is moral argument for me.

One can object that government employees are also motivated by self-interest, and that completely or partially planned economy is not efficient. I think both of these are real, but not unsolvable problems.

Hazel Meade writes:

The underlying implication of Linker's thinking can only be that there are some people who are better at organizing society, and those people ought to be in charge of it. The rulers deserve to rule, and others should submit to their superior wisdom.

I mean if you think spontaneous order is a bad idea, what is the alternative? Obviously, you must support some non-spontaneous order, that order must come from somewhere, and it can't come from random and free evolution by human interactions because that would be spontaneous order. It has to, by definition, be an order imposed upon the majority of society by some small group of people who must for some reason be more fit to make such decisions.

Thomas Sewell writes:

How will people eat if the government doesn't create and run restaurants and grocery stores to feed them?

Eating is an essential human need, which no one should morally be denied, so the government must run the food provider industry as a monopoly.

Oh wait, sorry, that was a version of Linker's argument for the years after the government takes food providing over. Obviously there are certain critical things only the government is able to provide, once they've managed to either outlaw competitors or substitute a "free" version paid for only indirectly by taxes and debt.

Hazel Meade writes:

Linker makes a rather commonly heard argument: that is, government intervention is so pervasive that everything we do is possible just because the government takes care of policing our streets, educating our children, or funding breath-taking research.

There's kind of contradiction in progressive thought in the way they like to equate government to the people and also elevate government to the status of omnipotent benefactor. Linker wants us to believe that spontaneous order is impossible, but also wants to say that the that "government is us". But if the government is us, then how could it not arise spontaneously? If it did not arise spontaneously, then is it really "us"? How can order be non-spontaneous and imposed and at the same time be a reflection of the people?
We're supposed to obey the government and defer to the superior wisdom of the government, and at the same time believe that the government is a direct representative of ourselves. (Talk about false consciousness!!) But it can't be both. Either the government is a ruler to be obeyed or an organ to work one's will.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

The "order" in any society is constantly changing (usually as the relationships within it change).

It is the nature of the changes, reflecting human interactions with one another and with their surroundings (circumstances), that constitutes the spontaneity of the resulting order - which is generally transient over indeterminate periods.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top