"Readers' Forum, Comments on 'The Tradition of Spontaneous Order' by Norman Barry"
By James M. Buchanan and David Gordon and Israel Kirzner
Norman Barry states, at one point in his essay, that the patterns of spontaneous order “appear to be a product of some omniscient designing mind” (p. 8). Almost everyone who has tried to explain the central principle of elementary economics has, at one time or another, made some similar statement. In making such statements, however, even the proponents-advocates of spontaneous order may have, inadvertently, “given the game away,” and, at the same time, made their didactic task more difficult…. [From the text, James M. Buchanan, “Order Defined in the Process of its Emergence”]
First Pub. Date
Literature of Liberty. vol. v, no. 4, pp. 5-18. Arlington, VA: Institute for Humane Studies
Collected commentary, various authors. Collected commentary, various authors.
The text of this edition is copyright ©1982, The Institute for Humane Studies. Republished with permission of original copyright holders.
3. Israel M. Kirzner, “Spontaneous Order—A Complex Idea”
Norman Barry’s richly erudite essay on the “tradition of spontaneous order” could, I believe, have provided even more valuable historical insight with the help of a simple yet highly significant distinction (somehow not articulated in the essay). Barry sees the idea of spontaneous order as consisting in the view “that most of those things of general benefit in a social system are the product of spontaneous forces that are beyond the direct control of man.” What is not made clear in Barry’s paper, however, is the circumstance that this idea is itself made up of two quite distinct and separate ideas—each of which is, in a way, entitled to its own (admittedly not entirely separate) history.
Consider the position of critics of the idea of spontaneous order. Such critics may deny the validity of the idea on either (or both) of two quite distinct sets of grounds. (So that the affirmation of the idea of spontaneous order presumes the refutation of both grounds.) First, critics may argue that, in the absence of the “direct control of man,” social phenomena emerge in entirely haphazard, unsystematic fashion. For example, it may be held that the results produced by a free market exhibit no orderliness whatsoever, benign or otherwise. Second, it may be argued that, although analysis of decentralized, non-controlled, freely interacting systems may indeed demonstrate the spontaneous emergence of regularities, these regularities must, nonetheless, be judged as carrying implications for society that are the opposite of benign. Conversely, therefore, to uphold the idea of spontaneous order means to uphold two ideas: (1) the idea that permitting spontaneous social forces to work themselves out results in systematic, rather than in random or chaotic results; (2) the idea that the normative character of these systematic results can hardly be judged as other than socially beneficial. Clearly this second idea could have little scope without acknowledgement of the first. But, on the other hand, acceptance of the first idea carries with it, of itself, no commitment to the second.
Ludwig von Mises, in fact, saw the great contribution of the classical economists in a manner not depending on the second idea at all. This contribution consisted, Mises wrote, in the demonstration that “there prevails” in the course of social events, “a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions if he wishes to succeed.” (Human Action, 1949, p. 2.) What separated the great classical economists from their predecessors was that the latter (because they “were fully convinced that there was in the course of social events no such regularity and invariance of phenomena as had already been found in the operation of human reasoning and in the sequence of natural phenomena”) believed “that man could organize society as he wished.” This discovery of the inherent regularities that emerge spontaneously from free society interaction represented the major scientific breakthrough in the history of social understanding. To be sure many of the exponents of this discovery recognized, in addition, the benign character of these regularities. But many (one thinks perhaps of Marx, Pigou, Keynes) have questioned the social desirability of at least some aspects of these accepted regularities. Thus the ranks of those skeptical of the idea of spontaneous economic order have been swelled, in the past, not only by historicist or institutionalist critics of the possibility of economic theory as such, but also by economic theorists who have claimed, correctly or otherwise, to perceive theory as showing the systematic emergence of social immoralities or social inefficiencies.
In tracing the history of the idea of spontaneous order, therefore, it would appear of value to trace through the development of each of these two separable components of the complex idea of spontaneous order. Precisely because the separate components have often appeared together in integrated form, it would be useful to trace the separable traditions from which they have emerged over the centuries.
It will be noticed that Barry does take pains (pp. 11-12) to distinguish two distinct senses of “spontaneous order.” One refers to “a complex aggregate structure which is formed out of the uncoerced action of individuals.” The second refers to “the evolutionary growth of laws and customs through a…’survival of the fittest’ process” (with this second kind of undesigned process quite possibly producing dead-ends the escape from which might be held to call for massive centralized control). Barry’s distinction certainly presupposes the possibility, at least, of articulating the distinction offered in this note. Our argument here, however, is that Barry’s superb historical survey could have offered an even richer yield if it were presented with explicit attention to the historical antecedents of this latter distinction itself.
Israel M. Kirzner
New York University
Notes by Roland Vaubel
Notes by Jeremy Shearmur