Is "spontaneous order" such a very bad idea?
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-à-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?