Image credit. Fish derive many benefits from shoaling behaviour including defence against predators (through better predator detection and by diluting the chance of individual capture), enhanced foraging success, and higher success in finding a mate. It is also likely that fish benefit from shoal membership through increased hydrodynamic efficiency. More.
I am working on a presentation about "The Paradox of Freedom - Hayek and the Crisis of (Classical) Liberalism."
Spontaneous Order - The Core Concept of Classical Liberalism
In designing the introductory slides, I wish to convince my audience that spontaneous order is THE PIVOTAL CONCEPT that gives cohesion to classical liberalism over a period of 300 years from John Locke to perhaps the last of the Mohicans, F.A. Hayek (1899 - 1992).
To be sure, the term spontaneous order comes into play at a late stage - I understand it was Michael Polanyi (1891 - 1976) who coined the term perhaps sometime during the first half of the 20th century. The new expression was eagerly taken up by F.A. Hayek, whose work is nowadays generally associated with the concept.
Spontaneous order means order that comes about by the observance of evolutionarily selected rules.
Well, that is not entirely correct as (some of) the rules - whose abidance engenders spontaneous order - may be consciously chosen - as an act of imitation or insight into the working of a certain spontaneous order - for instance, the Prussian ruling elite copied British capitalism, and Ludwig Ehrhard set the course for West German post-war success in using his understanding of the capitalist spontaneous order. Here we are touching upon the complicated relationship between spontaneous order and conscious design, which has been unsatisfactorily accounted for by Hayek, and tends to be the weak point in classical liberalism, as we shall show in the sequel to this post.
The hallmark of a spontaneous order, however, is that it cannot be achieved in its essential entirety by conscious design. In other words, it is not possible to consciously choose all of the rules that govern it, in contrast to a mechanism that is fully determined by human design.
To be more precise, what I mean by "its entirety" is: spontaneous order evolves without a designer responsible for its essential features, and by playing according to its rules we keep initiating the constantly evolving stages of a spontaneous order. It may be possible to copy the rules of a well-tried spontaneous order (as Ludwig Ehrhard did) or even kick-off a spontaneous order (as a gardener does), but the overall working and outcome of this order is not under the full control of the initiator.
Ehrhard could not possibly predict the future detailed performance of post-war capitalism in Germany, and the gardener is surprised by the way "his" garden develops, and how it reacts idiosyncratically to foreseen and unforeseen events, not to mention the fact that the growth of the plants is itself an emergent phenomenon rather than a form of conscious construction by a human author.
A spontaneous order consists of the orderly interaction of its elements which may be animate or inanimate and therefore do not have to be aware of their complying with the order's rules. For instance, the genesis of the universe may be described as a spontaneous order.
A School of Fish
A school of fish is an example of spontaneous order.
The school's orderly behaviour is not the result of an orchestrating mind. There is no such thing as a boss-fish who anticipates a strategy and directs the rest of the school to follow suite.
The order is entirely due to all members of the school honouring certain rules - which ability evidently is part of their instinctual make up. They react to certain stimuli in ways that can be described in terms of rules. It is this rule-following that makes them bring about order as a school.
The crucial point is that human interaction can also be of the type of spontaneous order - and that is a good thing, because spontaneous order can achieve far higher levels of complexity (as in the interactions of a modern economy) than man-made order, and thus accomplish feats that humans depending on their talents for design are incapable of.
Why? Because the number, kind and range of experiments taking place in the universe, part of which we are, is unlimited or at least considerably larger than any creative attempts attainable by human imagination and experimentation/corroboration. To the extent that our knowledge is imperfect and limited, we are always unaware of countless options that only continued evolution will bring to the fore.
Locke - Hume - Smith - Hayek - The Arc of Unity
I contend that all great classical liberals believed in spontaneous order, certainly David Hume, the co-inventor of the evolutionary paradigm (together with other classically liberal proto-social-scientists and other "Darwinians before Darwin"). There are good grounds to think that Darwin was inspired by writers like Hume and Smith, coming up 150 years later with the application of evolutionary concepts pioneered in the study of human social phenomena like language, law, morality, money etc by classically liberal thinkers.
In Adam Smith, the idea of spontaneous order is epitomised by his famous notion of the invisible hand. We pursue our self-interest (following the laws of our nature) respecting certain commonly applicable rules and thereby create a beneficial order, of which none of us is the author. An order that allows us to serve the needs of (largely anonymous) others by observing our own needs.
And even John Locke, the originator of classical liberalism, though hardly acquainted with modern evolutionary thought, did surely think in terms of spontaneous order, as implied in the scholastic natural law tradition to which he adhered: the compliance with natural laws makes for a good order, in fact, an order pleasing to God, as these laws express the will of God. There is a human nature that conforms with the will of God, and he who lives according to laws that agree with human nature thus produces and partakes in a spontaneous order. An order attained by conforming to the right set of rules.
Rule-Based Order versus Command-Based Order - Breakthrough for Liberty
The discovery of spontaneous order in human society by liberal thinkers may be the single most consequential intellectual attainment helping to further the cause of liberty. Liberal spontaneous order in human affairs establishes:
- There is an order better than one derived from determinations of the authorities.
- There is a standard against which the performance and limits of government can be rationally judged and asserted.
Instead of relying on the wisdom and benignity of a ruler, a human spontaneous order under liberal auspices is a far more effective way to build and maintain the "good society".
- Common rules to be adhered to by all members of society produce a superior outcome compared to the best judgement of a ruling genius or elite.
- The rule of law is born, eclipsing the rule of (mighty) man (over powerless man).
- The individual appreciates in value tremendously and becomes emancipated at the same time.
- The citizen is born.
What is needed to uncouple society's, i.e. almost everybody's prospects from the stiflingly parochial intelligence of a ruling clique is the participation of all citizens in a game of common rules.
Thus, confidence in the existence of spontaneous order in human affairs is the most fundamental presumption employed by the classical liberal mentors of modern concepts of freedom. The break-through idea remains essential for understanding the nature and value of freedom to this day.
At the same time, it is the improper application of this concept that is at the core of the decline and contemporary political ineffectiveness of classical liberalism. To be continued at The Paradox of Freedom - Limits of Spontaneous Order (3/5).