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"The Tradition of Spontaneous Order"; Barry, Norman
7 paragraphs found.
The Tradition of Spontaneous Order

Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) is often regarded as a major precursor of the ideas in law, economics, and social philosophy of what came to be known as the 'Scottish Enlightenment.' However, he presented his social theories in the guise of an outrageous demonstration of the social benefits that accrue from vicious and self-interested motivations. He argued that prosperity was inconsistent with the traditional moral virtues and that all human action, despite displays of altruistic affectations, was purely self-regarding. From psychological assumptions not unlike those of Hobbes, he produced a social theory which included elements of laissez-faire economics, an early outline of the division of labor and, according to Hayek, early versions of the invisible hand explanation of an equilibrating economic system and the theory of the spontaneous evolution of rules and institutions. While writers such as Hume and Smith were eager to refute his ethical doctrines they were more influenced than they were prepared to admit by his general social theory.


However, the thesis that Mandeville was a precursor of Adam Smith has been seriously challenged. Jacob Viner[24] has argued that his social theory is not one that celebrates spontaneous order but, on the contrary, stresses artifice and contrivance in the explanation of social regularity. Furthermore, Viner claims, the reliance on individualism and economic self-interest as the decisive forces in the generation of wealth were as characteristic of mercantilist thought as they were of Adam Smith's, and Mandeville was in principle a mercantilist because of his belief that it is by political methods that the baser instincts of men are channeled to the advantage of the public. This view is reinforced in Thomas Horne's recent study[25] in which he claims that there is no genuine theory of spontaneity in Mandeville, that there are no theoretical limits on the extent of government activity, and that the doctrine of laissez faire was meant to apply only to the property-owning classes.


Smith had promised a general treatise on law and government but did not live to complete this; however, two reports of his Lectures on Jurisprudence were discovered after his death, and these contain elements of a general theory of law. Although many of Smith's ideas were not original to him, he constructed a novel theory of how a social order might be maintained through the operation of natural forces, with little in the way of artificial direction and control. There is, however, a minor revolution presently going on in Smithian scholarship, largely concerned with downgrading the elements of spontaneity and automatic adjustment hitherto thought to be characteristics of his social theory and 'recapturing' his work for the eighteenth century. The criticism is that previous commentators have tended to look at Smith's work through nineteenth-century laissez-faire spectacles rather than see him in the context of eighteenth-century politics.[36] While perhaps a slightly more statist Smith has emerged from this analysis it does not affect the judgment that his work forms a land-mark in the history of the theory of spontaneous order.


It is commonly thought that after Smith the theory of spontaneous order went into a decline until the rise of Austrian economics and social science in the last decades of the nineteenth century: that the cautious consequentialism of Hume and Smith was replaced by the activist utilitarianism of Bentham and the two Mills, which authorized government to directly promote social well-being by coercive law (that law itself was a product of command and will rather than evolution). However, this interpretation would be misleading since there were other writers during this period who continued the individualist tradition. The most important were the writers in the French laissez-faire school and Herbert Spencer.


The leading figures in France were Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) and Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912). One reason why they have not been taken as seriously as they deserve as theorists of spontaneous order is that they contributed little in the way of original theory to economics. Bastiat is largely known as a brilliant economic journalist and tireless exposer of statist and protectionist fallacies, and de Molinari as a relentless advocate of the logic of laissez-faire towards a version of free market (and lawful) anarchy.


In the writings of Herbert Spencer there are obvious indications of an evolutionary approach. For although in his early work Social Statics (1851) he appears to have deduced the system of laissez faire from a doctrine of natural rights, couched in the form of the Law of Equal Freedom, the idea of the spontaneous evolution of rules and institutions came to dominate his social thought. In his Social Statics, The Man versus the State (1881), and his sociological writings there are numerous examples of his commitment to a form of reasoning we associate with spontaneous order. He stresses that societies develop (from militant to industrial) without design and according to laws which operate independently of man's will; that a market allocation, specialization, and the division of labor spontaneously develop to man's advantage; that reformers mistakenly treat a society as a 'manufacture' which can be manipulated by rationalist planners when it is in fact a 'growth'; and that proper social science requires an exploration of the long-term and unintended consequences of human action. Furthermore his normative ethics were of a complex consequentialist kind. The Law of Equal Freedom was justified because it was consistent with the long-run happiness of men: what he objected to was that constructivistic rationalist utilitarianism which tried to measure the immediate effects of rules and policies. It was a fundamental tenet of Spencer that the complexity of a social order precludes this kind of calculation.

The Tradition of Spontaneous Order

It is in the epilogue to volume III of Law, Legislation and Liberty, "Three Sources of Human Values," that Hayek's anti-rationalism seems to collapse into an uncritical traditionalism. In merging legal and moral rules into simply those rules that have developed culturally, he says: "Tradition is not something constant but the product of a process guided not by reason but by success."[76] Also, the limitations of the human mind dictate that 'all progress must be based on tradition '[77] (italics in original). Furthermore, not only are ethical rules relative to particular traditions, but we are incapacitated from recommending alteration, apart from minor tinkering, of such rules because, since the future is unknowable, we cannot predict the consequences of such alteration. This extreme anti-rationalism follows directly from Hayek's claim that mind itself is explicable only in terms of cultural transmission: "all enduring structures up to the brain and society are a product of selective evolution."[78] This clearly differentiates him from the rationalistic classical liberalism of, for example, Ludwig von Mises, who based a theory of laissez-faire economics and politics on the universal properties of the human mind.