"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.
4. Karen I. Vaughn, “On ‘The Tradition of Spontaneous Order’ ”
Norman Barry (Literature of Liberty 5, Summer 1982) has hinted at a crucial problem in Hayek’s evolutionary theory of spontaneous orders. Hayek claims that “all progress must be based on tradition,” but, Barry points out, this would seem to lead to a conclusion uncomfortable for libertarian ideology:
The difficulty with Hayek’s analysis is that social evolution does not necessarily culminate in the classical liberalism that he so clearly favors: there are many non-liberal institutions which have indeed survived…. Yet if we are intellectually tied to tradition, and if our ‘reason’ is too fragile an instrument to recommend satisfactory alternatives, how are we to evaluate critically that statist and anti-individualist order of society which seems to have as much claim to be a product of evolution as any other structure? (p. 46)
The difficulty with the way Barry puts the question is that it seems to misconstrue the purpose of theories of social evolution. Even if we agree with Hayek that cultures evolve as the unintended and largely unconscious consequences of human action, that carries with it no necessary implication about how one should morally evaluate a society or a social practice. A scientific theory about how societies do in fact evolve cannot be taken as a basis for ethical judgment without some very carefully thought-out intervening steps. Furthermore, to say that “all progress must be based on tradition” is not also to say that we cannot imagine or work toward whatever idea of progress we adopt. Indeed, it may only be possible to effect social change by starting from a firm basis in tradition, but that says nothing about the moral worth of tradition from which we start.
The hidden premise in Hayek’s work, and the source of Barry’s criticism, is the idea that evolution somehow must progress toward “the good.” Yet if evolution is a process in which the fittest survive, what are we to make of the fact that some very unpleasant societies have survived? Hayek’s way out of that trap is to implicitly limit evolution toward “the good” to that which evolves spontaneously as humans search to discover rules of just behavior rather than to design them, while bad change is the product of “constructivist rationalism.” Thus Hayek gives us a way of judging different societies, but he does not give us a scientific explanation of why spontaneous orders often seem to lose out in the evolutionary struggle to more constructed societies. To reply, as some of my colleagues do, that constructivist change can only win via use of force really begs the question. Force is as much a means to achieve ends at the disposal of human beings as is persuasion and exchange. A theory of cultural evolution must be able to explain the change that has in fact occurred apart from any judgments about good or bad change. Hence the question remains: why do some cultures thrive and prosper while others wither and die? Even more to the point, is there a natural selection process at work for human culture analogous to the natural selection process hypothesized for the biological world?
Hayek does want to incorporate a theory of natural selection into his evolutionary theory. For Hayek, cultures are successful because they evolve in a way that economizes on the amount of articulated knowledge necessary for an individual to function in that society. Those cultures survive which incorporate in their customs and rules of behavior practices which unbeknownst to individuals in that culture are important to their survival. While that seems a useful starting place for a theory of natural selection among cultures, we still have no theory about how cultural practices arise, and what kinds are “naturally selected.” Answers to both questions are crucial to the development of a full theory of cultural evolution. They are also crucial if we want to have any chance of changing the less than satisfactory society in which we live today.
This is not the place to attempt to develop a theory of natural selection in cultural evolution. Instead I would like to raise some questions that such a theory would have to address to be complete.
First of all, how do cultural practices and institutions originate? While we can agree with Hayek that spontaneous orders arise from the unintended consequences of human action, one imagines that the originating actions must have been intentional in some sense. Humans act because they believe their actions have consequences. What is the relationship between intended outcomes and unintended consequences? To what extent are the expected results of various actions realized, and what differentiates intentional acts that fulfill expectations from those that do not? Are there no institutions that are the product of conscious design? In other words, what is the role of human intentions in the establishment of rules, customs, institutions, and political organizations?
Second, and equally important, if there is a natural selection process in cultural evolution, what is it that gets selected? In biological evolution, success is defined as survival of a trait in the gene pool or survival of a particular species. By what criterion are successful cultures selected? Some might argue that success of a culture is demonstrated by numbers of individuals surviving in a society—a population count. But then, what demographic characteristics describe a “larger” population? Would a population with a large number of births and high infant mortality be considered more successful than one with fewer births and more children surviving to adulthood? Both kinds of societies exist today. Which is more successful? Or would a large, relatively young population with a short life span for any one individual be considered more successful than a smaller population where individuals live longer productive lives?
Consider another possible criterion for describing a successful society: the ability of a society to command resources. This seems to be the implicit criterion used by economists when they speak of successful societies. If this is truly what “nature” selects for among cultures, then small wealthy cultures should always be observed to win out over potentially larger but poorer cultures. But then why do poor cultures coexist with wealthy ones, and why do poorer cultures sometimes survive (and even defeat) very wealthy ones? Success at commanding material resources might be a viable criterion to use as a basis for a theory of natural selection, but if so, the full implications of the theory have yet to be worked out.
Part of the problem with both these suggested criteria of natural selection is that the level of analysis is wrong. We fall into the habit of thinking of societies and political units rising and falling, winning and losing, when it would be a great deal more fruitful to think of specific ideas or specific practices as the substance of cultures and cultural change. In other words, a good theory, I believe, would disaggregate the societies into the various ideas and practices of which they are composed and view the ideas and practices as the units that “nature” selects. This is not inconsistent with Hayek’s work; he refers to human imitation as the transmission mechanism for cultural evolution in the same sense that genes are the transmission mechanism for biological evolution. What humans imitate are ideas and actions, and in so far as specific actions can be explained as ideas put into practice, it is ideas that arise, get imitated, and either survive in the ‘idea pool’ or get discarded.
If we are willing to think of ideas as the units of cultural evolution, a whole host of interesting possibilities present themselves.
For instance, how do new ideas and combinations of ideas arise, and why do some ideas appeal to individuals enough to be “imitated” or believed while others do not? Are there different criteria that individuals apply for selecting among ideas? If we start from the premise that individuals choose (in some sense) the ideas they believe, one can then take the next step of assuming they choose ideas to fulfill purposes. But what criteria do individuals apply to choose among competing ideas? The criteria may vary depending on the nature of the idea. For example, technical ideas that explain how to do something to achieve a specific end are “selected” if they actually work. They are subject to a reality test that allows people to weed out useless ideas rather quickly, and hence one would expect to observe progress in technical knowledge. Moral ideas have a less obvious purpose and a very nebulous reality test; there is no easy way to discover whether they “work” or not. Hence, progress in moral knowledge might be as difficult to define as it is to observe. In either case, however, the “natural selection” process is a process of human selection among humanly inspired ideas. And the survival of the fittest becomes a survival of ideas that human beings believe are the fittest for their purposes.
On a more aggregated level, groups of individuals or societies have as a unifying force a common set of ideas, an ideology, that is a composite of many smaller sets of ideas that may or may not be consistent with each other. Survival of the group may depend on adherence to some of those ideas but not others, but since they are all accepted by the group as a bundle, there may be no way that individuals can determine which are crucial; the valuable traditions are bundled with the irrelevant. This is consistent with Hayek’s view of the value of tradition. By developing a theory of cultural evolution based on the idea as the cultural analogue of the gene in biology, however, we might be able to develop a theory to help us “unbundle” the ideas inherent in a tradition in a way that will make progress toward the libertarian ideal possible.
A theory of spontaneous order is a first step, but only a first step, to understanding the process of cultural change.
Karen I. Vaughn
George Mason University
Notes by Roland Vaubel
Notes by Jeremy Shearmur