"The Tradition of Spontaneous Order"
By Norman Barry
The theory of spontaneous order has a long tradition in the history of social thought, yet it would be true to say that, until the last decade, it was all but eclipsed in the social science of the twentieth century. For much of this period the idea of spontaneous order—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—was swamped by the various doctrines of (to use Friedrich A. Hayek’s phrase in
Law, Legislation and Liberty) ‘constructivistic rationalism.’ No doubt the attraction of this rival notion of rationalism stems partly from the success of the physical sciences with their familiar methods of control, exact prediction, and experimentation. It is these methods which have an irresistible appeal to that
hubris in man which associates the benefits of civilization not with spontaneous orderings but with conscious direction towards preconceived ends. It is particularly unfortunate that the effect of constructivistic rationalism should have been mainly felt in economics. This is unfortunate not merely because attempts to direct economics have repeatedly failed but also because the discipline of economics has developed most fully the theory of spontaneous order…. [From the text]
First Pub. Date
Literature of Liberty. Vol. v, no. 2, pp. 7-58. Arlington, VA: Institute for Humane Studies
Barry, Norman. (University of Buckingham.)
The text of this edition is copyright ©1982, The Institute for Humane Studies. Republished with permission of original copyright holders.
The theory of spontaneous order has a long tradition in the history of social thought, yet it would be true to say that, until the last decade, it was all but eclipsed in the social science of the twentieth century. For much of this period the idea of spontaneous order—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—was swamped by the various doctrines of (to use Friedrich A. Hayek’s phrase in Law, Legislation and Liberty) ‘constructivistic rationalism.’ No doubt the attraction of this rival notion of rationalism stems partly from the success of the physical sciences with their familiar methods of control, exact prediction, and experimentation. It is these methods which have an irresistible appeal to that hubris in man which associates the benefits of civilization not with spontaneous orderings but with conscious direction towards preconceived ends. It is particularly unfortunate that the effect of constructivistic rationalism should have been mainly felt in economics. This is unfortunate not merely because attempts to direct economics have repeatedly failed but also because the discipline of economics has developed most fully the theory of spontaneous order.
The last ten years have seen a rehabilitation of the economic philosophy of classical liberalism; indeed Hayek, its major contemporary exponent, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 1974. But the necessary accompaniment of that economic theory, the philosophy of law and social institutions, has been largely ignored by the social science establishment. This oversight has occurred despite the fact that, for example, the bulk of Hayek’s own work in the last thirty years has consisted of a theoretical reconstruction of the social philosophy of classical liberalism and despite the fact that he has himself stressed that a knowledge of economic principles of resource allocation alone is quite inadequate for the understanding of the order of a free society. Indeed, the contemporary concern with specialization in the social sciences is itself an important barrier to the acceptance of the doctrine of spontaneous evolution precisely because this theory straddles so many of the artificial boundaries between academic disciplines.
The simplest way of expressing the major thesis of the theory of spontaneous order is to say that it is concerned with those regularities in society, or orders of events, which are neither (1) the product of deliberate human contrivance (such as a statutory code of law or a dirigiste economic plan) nor (2) akin to purely natural phenomena (such as the weather, which exists quite independently of human intervention). While the words conventional and natural refer, respectively, to these two regularities, the ‘third realm,’ that of social regularities, consists of those institutions and practices which are the result of human action but not the result of some specific human intention.
Despite the complexity of the social world, which seems to preclude the existence of regularities which can be established by empirical observation, there is a hypothetical order which can be reconstructed out of the attitudes, actions, and opinions of individuals and which has considerable explanatory power. What is important about the theory of spontaneous order is that the institutions and practices it investigates reveal well-structured social patterns, which appear to be a product of some omniscient designing mind yet which are in reality the spontaneous co-ordinated outcomes of the actions of, possibly, millions of individuals who had no intention of effecting such overall aggregate orders. The explanations of such social patterns have been, from Adam Smith onwards, commonly known as ‘invisible hand’ explanations since they refer to that process by which “man is led to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” It is a major contention of the theory of spontaneous order that the aggregate structures it investigates are the outcomes of the actions of individuals. In this sense spontaneous order is firmly within the tradition of methodological individualism.
The role of ‘reason’ is crucially important here because the theorists of spontaneous order are commonly associated with the anti-rationalist tradition in social thought. However, this does not mean that the doctrine turns upon any kind of irrationalism, or that the persistence and continuity of social systems is a product of divine intervention or some other extraterrestrial force which is invulnerable to rational explanation. Rather, the position is that originally formulated by David Hume. Hume argued that a pure and unaided human reason is incapable of determining a priori those moral and legal norms which are required for the servicing of a social order. In addition, Hume maintained that tradition, experience, and general uniformities in human nature themselves contain the guidelines for appropriate social conduct. In other words, so far from being irrationalist, the Humean argument is that rationality should be used to “whittle down” the exaggerated claims made on behalf of reason by the Enlightenment philosophes. The danger here, however, is that the doctrine of spontaneous evolution may collapse into a certain kind of relativism: the elimination of the role of reason from making universal statements about the appropriate structure of a social order may well tempt the social theorist into accepting a given structure of rules merely because it is the product of traditional processes.
The ‘rationalism’ to which the theory of spontaneous order is in intellectual opposition precedes the Enlightenment and perhaps is most starkly expressed in seventeenth-century natural law doctrines. In Thomas Hobbes’ model of society, for example, a simple ‘natural’ reason is deemed to be capable of constructing those rules which are universally appropriate for order and continuity. It is assumed that this reason can only conceive of a legal order in terms of rules emanating from a determinate sovereign at the head of a hierarchical system. That hidden wisdom immanent in a dispersed and evolutionary system is therefore systematically ignored in the pursuit of a statute or code structure. That other seventeenth-century natural law theorists took a more generous view of human nature, and hence produced rule structures more amenable to liberty and rights, does not alter the fact of their common anti-traditionalist and rationalist epistemology.
The theory of spontaneous order, then, is concerned with those ‘natural processes’ which are not the product of reason or intention. The classic example is the free market economy in which the co-ordination of the aims and purposes of countless actors, who cannot know the aims and purposes of more than a handful of their fellow-citizens, is achieved by the mechanism of prices. A change in the price of a commodity is simply a signal which feeds back information into the system enabling actors to ‘automatically’ produce that spontaneous co-ordination which appears to be the product of an omniscient mind. The repeated crises in dirigiste systems are in essence crises of information since the abolition of the market leaves the central planner bereft of that economic knowledge which is required for harmony. There is no greater example of the hubris of the constructivist than in this failure to envisage order in a natural process (which is not of a directly physical kind). As Hayek says in “Principles of a Liberal Social Order”:
Much of the opposition to a system of freedom under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective co-ordination of human activities without deliberate organization by a commanding intelligence. One of the achievements of economic theory has been to explain how such a mutual adjustment of the spontaneous activities of individuals is brought about by the market, provided that there is a known delimitation of the sphere of control of each individual.
Following on from this account of reason to explain spontaneous orders is a related account of ‘law.’ There are terminological problems here because theorists of spontaneous order do not always use the term ‘natural law’ to describe those general rules that govern a free society precisely because the phrase has, as we have already observed, rationalistic overtones. The ‘natural’ law of spontaneous order theory refers to regularities in the social world brought about by men generating and adapting those rules appropriate to their circumstances. Thus law properly so-called is neither (1) the dictate of pure reason in which the structure of a legal order is designed independently of experience, nor is it (2) the positive law of, say, the Command School in which all law is deliberately created by an act of will. The theory of spontaneous order claims that in both deductivist natural law and positive law, legal structures are likely to be less regularized and more arbitrary and capricious. This capriciousness arises precisely because, to the extent that these legal structures ignore existing legal orders, they depend on a supermind both taking account of all possible human circumstances and devising appropriate rules from first principles. Rules appropriate for a spontaneous order, by contrast, are more likely to be discovered than deliberately created.
There is, of course, implicit in all the writers in this tradition the notion of an ethical payoff: that is, we are likely to enjoy beneficial consequences by cultivating spontaneous, natural mechanisms and by treating the claims of an unaided reason with some skepticism. Well-being, in other words, is the product of a special kind of accident. This is a quasi-utilitarian argument used to counter the more conventional utilitarian thesis that the public good can be rationalistically summed up from the preferences of individuals and directly promoted by centralized positive law. The theory of spontaneous order claims that the very complexities of social affairs mean that such a rationalistic project is almost certain to be self-defeating, even if one could assume the existence of benevolent and well-intentioned legislators. As Adam Smith put it: “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”
One important issue has a bearing on the explanatory power of the doctrine of spontaneous order. This centers on the fact that the theory has two interrelated meanings, which the writers under discussion do not clearly distinguish. In one sense we speak of a spontaneous order to refer to a complex aggregate structure which is formed out of the uncoerced actions of individuals, whereas in another sense we speak of the evolutionary growth of laws and institutions through a kind of Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ process (and the biological analogy is not inappropriate). In both these meanings we are describing social structures that are similar in not being of conscious design and which emerge independently of our wills, but the explanations are significantly different. One version shows how institutions and practices can emerge in a causal-genetic manner while the other shows how they in fact survive.
We can perhaps illustrate this difference in the meanings of spontaneous order by comparing a market order with a legal order. Now the invisible hand explanation of the emergence of a market order is highly plausible because there is a mechanism, the price system, to bring about the requisite co-ordination. However, it is not obviously the case that there is an equivalent mechanism to produce that legal and political order which is required for the co-ordination of individual actions. Thus the legal system that a community has may have survived yet not necessarily be conducive to the hypothetical order of classical liberalism. Evolutionary undesigned processes may very well produce dead-ends, and the escape from these dead-ends would involve more expansive use of reason than that conventionally associated with the doctrine of spontaneous order.
Hayek has always claimed that his explanation of a more or less self-correcting social system continues a long tradition. While acknowledging it is absurd even to speculate on the beginnings of a tradition, Hayek often refers to the original Spanish schoolmen as the founders of the theory of spontaneous order.
At one time the received wisdom concerning scholasticism was that this rationalistic moral philosophy, which stressed virtue and, for example, condemned usury, was incapable of generating a theory which traced systematically the social regularities that emerge from the pursuit of self-interest. But in the last thirty years or so the story has been substantially rewritten so that a more accurate interpretation of the scholastic general doctrine would see it as anticipating later individualistic theories. This is true of its economic theory, for a close analysis of it reveals a commitment to, and a clear understanding of, the theory of subjective value, of economic competition, and the quantity theory of money, among other things. The scholastic economic philosophy reached its apogee in sixteenth-century Spain where the theologian-economists of the ‘School of Salamanca’ developed the first general theory of value, embracing both goods and money, and accommodated traditional Catholic natural law teaching to an economic doctrine more appropriate to the needs of a developing commercial society.
Such is the similarity between scholastic thought and late nineteenth-century economic theory that it would not be inaccurate to say that there is a continuous stream of subjectivist economics that runs from the thirteenth-century to Carl Menger and the Austrian School of economics, and that the obsession with an objectivist labor costs theory of value in ‘classical’ economics was a quite unnecessary and time-consuming detour. In his History of Economic Analysis, Joseph Schumpeter, who was one of the first writers to recapture scholastic economics for the modern world, wrote that all that was missing from the scholastic doctrine was the concept of the margin. It was also Schumpeter who saw that the Catholic natural law philosophy was basically utilitarian and concerned with justifying human institutions, such as property, on public interest grounds, and that the concept of ‘reason’ for the later schoolmen was ‘sociological’ rather than abstract. Reason’s object was to trace out regularities that are revealed when men are left to their natural inclinations.
In addition to Schumpeter, the work of Raymond de Roover and Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson has pioneered in rehabilitating scholastic economics. From their work it is clear that, although there were elements of cost of production theories in scholastic economics, the dominant view (which can be traced from Aristotle to St. Augustine through to St. Thomas Aquinas) interpreted the value of a good not as something that inhered in the thing itself but as a product of ‘common estimation’ or subjective opinion, and of the thing’s perceived scarcity. Thus the ‘just’ price was the competitive price that emerged from the interaction of subjective supply and demand. As Diego de Covarrabias (1512-1572) put it: “The value of an article does not depend on its essential nature but on the estimation of men, even if that estimation be foolish. Thus in the Indies, wheat is dearer than in Spain because men esteem it more highly, though the nature of the wheat is the same in both places.” The ‘ethical’ element in the theory related not to a moralistic idea that price ought to equal labor cost but to the argument that the ‘just’ price would emerge only under conditions of more or less perfect competition (the schoolmen were in fact strident critics of monopoly), and where there is no deceit, fraud, or force. One reason why the schoolmen were reluctant to embrace a cost of production theory rather than a subjectivist theory was that it would actually give merchants an excuse to raise prices above their market-clearing level and would therefore exploit consumers.
The earliest exponents of subjectivism were Buridan (1300-1358), Saravia de la Calle (c. 1540) and Domingo de Soto (1495-1560); but the clearest expositor of the competitive view was the Portuguese Jesuit Luis de Molina (1535-1600). Molina, of the School of Salamanca, also showed an advanced analytical understanding of competition. The achievement of those writers was to mitigate the moralizing element in Catholic social science and to show that the customary practices of trade were not against ‘nature.’
The School of Salamanca was similarly successful in breaking out of moral theology in its theory of money. While Jean Bodin (1530-1596), the French political theorist, is normally credited with the first formulation of the quantity theory, it is now clear that this originated with the Spanish schoolmen. Influenced by the rise in the price level in Spain brought about by the influx of gold and silver from the New World, the Dominican Martin de Azpilcueta (1493-1587), wrote in 1556 that “money is worth more where and when it is scarce that where and when it is abundant.” Once again, however, it was Molina who systematically placed the explanation of the value of money within the general theory of value and developed a theory of foreign exchange that anticipated the purchasing power parity doctrine. An important consequence of this latter point was that profits on exchange dealings between foreign currencies were adjudged to be not usurious and therefore not contrary to natural law. Molina also showed that the value of money was necessarily inconstant and that to “control it would do a great deal of harm to the republic”; therefore its value ought to be left to vary freely.
Of course, to say that important elements of modern value theory were contained in scholastic theory does not make these economists classical liberals. Although the just price was the market price there is ample justification in natural law for the suspension of the market and for the public regulation of prices, especially in famines and emergencies. De Roover concedes that since scholastic doctrine authorizes interference with the market to protect buyers and sellers this could license a wholesale suspension of the competitive system. Certainly, scholastic economic theory was too closely linked with ethics and natural law to produce a systematic theory of the self-regulating market order. In her later work, Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson claims that a theory of the general harmony of the market order was absent from the sixteenth-century Spanish scholastics and does not appear until 1665 with the work of Francisco Centani.
It is important to note, however, that two eminent scholars, Schumpeter and Hayek, both regard Molina’s social theory as a natural law doctrine which looks forward not to seventeenth-century rationalism but to the theory of spontaneous order. Molina’s economics is an investigation of nature, in the sense of there being sequences of events which would occur “if they were allowed to work themselves out without further disturbance.” Here the maxims of natural law appear to be less the dictates of an unaided reason than the implications of a benign nature.
It is with the emergence of the common law in England that the scholastic hints at an anti-rationalistic natural law are transformed into a substantive jurisprudence. The outstanding figure here is Sir Matthew Hale (1609-1676); for in his argument for the common law he specifically claimed that it possessed a greater inner wisdom and rationality than the anti-traditionalist and a priori theories of law precisely because it accommodated facts and circumstances unavailable to the unaided reason. In explicating this argument, he inaugurated a tradition of jurisprudence which we normally associate with Adam Smith and Edmund Burke and, in the present day, Hayek. The major contention of these writers is that genuine law is, in some sense or other, discovered rather than made.
Hale’s important argument against rationalism in the law is in the form of a reply to Hobbes’ Dialogue of the Common Laws and is conveniently reprinted in the fifth volume of Sir William Holdsworth’s History of English Law. Among Hale’s other works is the History of the Common Law, published in 1715, in which he continues the style of argument found in the reply to Hobbes.
Hale’s Reflections on Hobbes’ system are in two parts: one dealing with the role of reason in the law and the other consisting of a critique of the Hobbesian version of sovereignty.
In the first part on reason and the law Hale clearly adumbrates an empirical and historical view of the law. No body of existing law can be constructed by pure abstract reasoning because the immense complexity of a legal process makes it impossible to represent its elements in a few simple maxims. The understanding of law therefore requires an ‘artificial’ reason, not the abstract syllogistic reasoning of the philosophers. Rationalism must fail because law requires the application of general principles to particular cases and this depends largely upon experience. It is because the law must be predictable and certain that there is a presumption in favor of experience and what is known. In anticipating an argument later made famous by Hayek, Hale maintains that because of our ignorance we are thrown back on experience and that it is better to rely on a body of stable and known rules “though the particular reason for the institution appear not.” Furthermore, in a conservative attack on ill-thought out legal reforms, Hale likened a social order to an organic entity which could suffer unanticipated damage to its component parts if pure reason were to be the criterion for innovation. This is so because the mind cannot comprehend the totality of a social order, which is itself the product of many minds. He argues that “it is a reason for me to preferre a Lawe by which a Kingdome hath been happily governed four or five hundred yeares than to adventure the happiness and Peace of a Kingdome upon Some new Theory of my owne…..”
In his reply to Hobbes on sovereignty Hale wished to show that Hobbes’ definition in politically absolutist terms was both inapplicable to English conditions and inexpedient. While he admits that only the king and parliament can make law “properly so-called,” the courts “have great weight and authority in expounding, declaring and publishing what the law of this kingdom is…..” The concession to the sovereignty thesis is more apparent than real for his observation that only the king and parliament may make new laws is immediately qualified by a long argument to show that this power is limited by natural law and expediency. He explicitly ties in the ‘law’ with traditional liberty and property and maintains that the “obligation of Naturall Justice bindes Princes and Governors.” The greatest flaw in the sovereignty model is that it sees law exclusively in terms of enactment.
In fact, it is almost certainly the case that Hale misunderstood Hobbes’ argument about sovereignty. Hale meant by the sovereign the power of the king, and it was easy for him to show, that the king was limited by morality and the existing law. However, Hobbes meant by his sovereignty theory that in any legal system there must be a supreme body, which could logically take any form, which is the author of all law, and which itself cannot be bound or limited by any law. Thus to speak of an unlimited sovereign in this sense as being subject to natural law would be self-contradictory.
Indeed, the concept of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ did develop in this way and this poses problems for anti-constructivist, evolutionary theories of law: for it is the unplanned emergence of an all-powerful parliament which in Britain has done so much to undermine the common law itself. While it would be absurd to censure Hale on this score it is important to note the implications of extreme versions of his traditionalism. For extreme traditionalism may well commit the social theorist to the acceptance of institutions that have survived a particular historical process merely because they have survived, even though ‘reason’ may indicate their inappropriateness for the liberal 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.
The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits was originally published as a poem, The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turned Honest, in 1705. At the time of the poem’s publication a fierce campaign was under way to rid England of vice, luxury, sin, and corruption, and to encourage the selfless pursuit of virtue and the public good. Hence Mandeville’s claim that prosperity depended upon the pursuit of those very vices:
Thus every part was full of vice
Yet the whole mass a paradise
and his argument that the actions of the meanest and vilest contributed something to well-being,
The worst of all the multitude
Did something for the common good
seemed particularly outrageous to an audience that associated the public interest with the virtue of self-sacrifice.
In 1714 the poem was republished as The Fable of the Bees with an additional essay and detailed prose commentaries on its various aspects. Successive editions, with new material, were published throughout the 1720s; the final edition to appear in Mandeville’s lifetime was published in 1732. Whatever particular interpretation is made of his social theory its revolutionary significance lay in Mandeville’s argument that the ‘passions’ of men were not disruptive and harmful and that order did not require the suppression of man’s natural instincts but only the channeling of them in an appropriate framework. The recognition of the value of the passions was an essential step in the development of the social philosophy of capitalism. Although, unlike later writers, Mandeville did not reject the traditional view that virtue involved self-sacrifice and the suppression of the baser instincts, he thought that not only were most men incapable of that virtue but also that its successful pursuit would quickly produce poverty and misery. Since commerce depended on ‘selfishness’ it was incompatible with virtue.
Mandeville started from the assumption of the basic constancy of human nature: men were egoistic and did not naturally follow that morality which others thought necessary for social order. He argued that behind overt acts of altruism, charity, and selfless promotion of the ends of the public, could be found purely selfish motivations. Morality was therefore a contrivance “broached by skillful politicians, to render men useful to each other as well as tractable.”
However, the pursuit of the natural vices paradoxically leads to progress because it increases consumption and encourages the development of the division of labor (“…..what a number of people, how many different trades, and what a variety of skills and tools must be employed to have the most ordinary Yorkshire cloth”). The habit of ‘luxury,’ condemned by many because it led to increased and allegedly ‘unnecessary’ foreign imports was thought by Mandeville to be quite harmless and in his refutation of the ‘bullionists’ he produced an early version of the automatically-equilibrating tendency inherent in free international trade: “Buying is bartering, and no nation can buy goods of others that has none of her own to purchase with…..”
It is not, however, the ethics or the economics which have suggested to twentieth-century social theorists that Mandeville’s work is in the tradition of spontaneous order. Hayek, for example, regards the social theory that Mandeville constructs from the postulate of self-interest as being simply one exemplification of a general theory which explains how a coherent aggregate structure can emerge accidentally from the actions of individuals (be they altruistic or egoistic).
It is true that there are many passages in The Fable of the Bees which suggest both (1) that aggregate structures can emerge in an unintended manner and (2) that enduring laws and institutions are a product of evolution rather than design. Mandeville’s discussion of free trade would be an example of the first point. As regards the second point, Hayek claims that Mandeville explains laws as the product of experience and wisdom rather than unaided reason:
there are very few, that are the work of one man, or of one generation; the greatest part of them are the product, the joint labour of several ages.
There is also evidence that Mandeville saw that the task of social theory was to reconstruct those ‘concatenated events’ which are not visible to the ‘short-sighted vulgar’ who, “in the chain of causes can seldom see further than one link.”
However, the thesis that Mandeville was a precursor of Adam Smith has been seriously challenged. Jacob Viner 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 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.
It is undoubtedly the case that many quotations from The Fable can be produced which seem to indicate that social regularity depends upon the cunning of politicians and it is certainly true that Viner trades heavily on Mandeville’s claim that order is the product of that “dextrous management by which the skillful politician might turn private vices into public benefit.” In addition, frequent assertions by Mandeville of man’s ‘natural unsociability’ imply that order must be constructed by art, and reveal a Hobbesian strain which does not fit at all well with the Hayekian interpretation. However, much may turn on how we interpret Mandeville’s language, and Maurice Goldsmith may be right in his claim that the phrase ‘skillful politician’ is not meant to represent a ‘person’ but rather a system which does operate in a more or less self-regulating manner. But he does agree that the system is not entirely self-regulating and that it could be altered by deliberate human action. Whatever the ‘true’ interpretation of Mandeville is, it is the case that later writers, whose claims to classical liberal orthodoxy are better substantiated, were undoubtedly influenced by his way of thinking, even though not all were prepared to admit this.
Along with Mandeville, Josiah Tucker, the Dean of Gloucester, is often regarded as a precursor of Adam Smith (although he was a close contemporary his major economic writings preceded the publication of The Wealth of Nations). But again the genuineness of his contribution to spontaneous order has been questioned. Many writers have commented on certain mercantilist and statist elements that persist in Tucker’s writings and Viner claims that, despite the fact of the translation of his economic works into French by Turgot, “…the notion that Smith was appreciably influenced by Tucker, via the physiocrats, can be regarded only as a blind stab in the dark.” Nevertheless, his description of the main features of the commercial order and his enthusiastic portrayal of those accidental benefits that accrue from the operation of self-interest outweigh those constructivistic elements which his social thought undoubtedly contains.
Skeptical of the ability of government to produce public well-being, though lacking that instinctive, almost a priori, objection to interventionism that some of the classical liberals had, Tucker trusted in nature. The spontaneous passions of men could be reconciled with their long-term interests under certain conditions. Thus while ‘self-love’ was potentially destructive, the point was neither to extinguish nor enfeeble it “but to give it a direction, that it may promote the public interest by pursuing its own.” Reason, however, had a role in specifying those actions of government which would be required for the operation of an otherwise self-regulating commercial machine.
Self-love, benevolence, and a limited ‘reason’ produced that commercial method which would generate harmony without central direction. The division of labor exemplified the commercial system for Tucker, and he showed no fear that the introduction of machinery might produce unemployment. Increases in population and the creation of artificial needs would widen the market and automatically absorb temporarily unemployed labor.
Tucker’s contributions were in the main polemical applications of the commercial method to some familiar problems in an English society which was beginning to show the first signs of the liberal economic order. He was a fierce opponent of monopoly and those governmental regulations, such as the apprenticeship laws, that privileged certain people in the labor market. In a brilliant argument, matched only by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, Tucker showed how a spontaneous market would clear any over-supply of labor which might emerge from the relaxation of such laws. An early advocate of free trade, he was engaged in a dispute with David Hume over the effects of free trade on the international economy. Against Hume’s claim in the essay Of Money that free trade would tend to equalize poor and rich nations, Tucker argued that certain natural advantages would perpetuate the hegemony of the existing wealthy countries.
Tucker’s thesis was a kind of ‘economic’ imperialism which tried to show how the mercantilist end of the aggrandisement of state power could be achieved by liberal means. In fact, nineteenth-century anti-free trade theorists, such as Frederick List, used just these arguments to justify poorer nations raising tariff barriers. Indeed, Tucker himself was not opposed to such actions and anticipated the ‘infant industries’ justification for limited governmental protection. There are then constructivistic elements in Tucker.
It was because he believed that national prosperity depended on an increase in population that Tucker felt that this should be deliberately encouraged: hence his bizarre scheme for imposing severe penalties on bachelors. He did not in fact think that private interest always coincided with the public interest, and therefore produced a series of recommendations of ad hoc interventionism. This was unsystematic because, although he was an acute expositor of the philosophy of the market, he had little theoretical understanding of the nature of the legal order. Although he wrote on political philosophy he did not succeed in generating a social theory to complement his (generally) liberal economics.
It was the thinkers of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment—Smith, Hume, Ferguson, Dugald Stewart, and Thomas Reid—who were largely successful in integrating all these significant hints at a doctrine of spontaneous order into a general social philosophy. The most striking thing about this remarkable group of thinkers is the breadth of their interests, and Adam Smith, indeed, can be looked upon, not inaccurately, as the ‘Newton of the social sciences’ in his attempt to explain the natural processes of a social order in terms of universal principles. However, one important feature of the thought of the Scottish thinkers is that, although they were the major celebrants of spontaneous processes, two of them, Ferguson and Smith, showed some skepticism about the outcomes of such processes. Thus, as we shall see, they did not regard all the unintended consequences of freedom as being necessarily beneficial. Commercial prosperity, they feared, might be bought at the cost of civic virtue.
Although easily the most distinguished philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, Hume did not write a systematic treatise on social theory even though he wrote widely in this area. His contributions can be found in his two major philosophical works, A Treatise on Human Nature (Book III), first published in 1737, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), and volumes of essays published in 1741, 1782, and 1748. It is not surprising that a philosopher who was so skeptical about the foundations of human knowledge should deny that moral political principles can be determined by reason. But while Hume sometimes spoke dramatically of the impotence of reason in human affairs (“it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of my finger”), and maintained that morality was a matter of passion and feeling, he did not suggest that ethical and political judgments were arbitrary. That there is a uniformity in human nature led Hume to speculate profitably on that structure of general rules which is consonant with those regularities that characterize man and society. Further, Hume was a rigorous critic of any contractual basis for society, depending as it does on a rationalist conception of natural law. In common with his contemporaries, he located the origins of law and government in certain natural propensities in man.
An important consequence flowed from Hume’s belief in the uniformity of human nature. He stressed that any suggestions for the improvement of man must rest not on a utopian ‘reformation of the manners of mankind’ but on observation and experience of those rules that best serve men’s more or less unchanging needs. The ‘facts’ that give rise to essential rules of conduct are scarcity, limited altruism, and an ever-present desire in men to forego long-run advantages in favor of immediate satisfactions. It is because of these unchanging circumstances that humans establish artificial rules of justice by reflecting on the utility that these rules produce in the enforcement of property rights. In Hume’s words, they preserve the “stability of possession, of its transference by consent and the performance of promises.”
It is important to note that these rules, which establish the connection between individual and public interest, emerge spontaneously. Hume is insistent that those things which are for the public benefit are not a product of rationalist calculation. The happiness of a community is not promoted by trying to instill a passion for the public good in people but by animating them with a “spirit of avarice and industry, art and luxury” so that the same result comes about indirectly. The rules of justice themselves are for the public good undoubtedly, but they emerge in an evolutionary manner from the actions of individuals who have only self-interest in mind. He says that “those rules, by which property, right and obligation are determined… have all of them a direct and evident tendency to public good” but that it is “self-love which is their real origin.” Thus a system develops which is in everyone’s interest “though it be not intended for that purpose by the inventors.”
As a contributor to the tradition of spontaneous order, Adam Ferguson is noted mainly for his An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), but he was very much a ‘system-builder’ and the other elements in his social philosophy, covering ethics, jurisprudence, and economics, are contained in his Institutes of Moral Philosophy (1769) and the two-volume Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792). Often quoted with approval by Hayek as an early exponent of the antirationalist explanation of social order, Ferguson’s defense of the liberal order of commercial society is less enthusiastic than others. In addition, his often moralistic celebration of an ethics of ‘virtue’ and public spirit, derived from classical antiquity, provides some contrast with the familiar morality of enlightened self-interest. Indeed, he denied that Mandeville’s postulate of self-interest was sufficient to hold a society together. He feared that the individualist ethics of ambition and enterprise and the social system of the division of labor might so dilute patriotism that despotism would threaten commercial orders. Ferguson maintained this fear while not denying that liberty was associated with the commercial order and prosperity with the division of labor.
Consistent with the Scottish tradition, Ferguson sought to explain the social state by reference to nature and instinct, rather than reason and artifice. There is no state of nature out of which isolated individuals armed only with their reason contrive their way into society via a contract. On the contrary: “Mankind has always wandered or settled, agreed or quarrelled in troops and companies.” Society has always been coterminous with man, and its bonds arise “from the instincts, not the speculations of men.” Again, ethics do not emanate from reason but from the facts of nature: that men naturally seek self-preservation, they desire to improve themselves, and are capable of benevolence. It was Ferguson’s aim to link an evolutionary and quasi-historical explanation of society with a universalistic and naturalistic ethics.
Ferguson’s descriptive sociology was a hypothetical reconstruction of the natural evolution of society from a ‘rude’ to a ‘polished’ state. He distinguished three sorts of social order: ‘savage,’ which is scarcely a society at all, with no property and little inequality; ‘barbaric,’ which is characterized by the natural emergence of property, inequality, and elementary political institutions; and ‘polished,’ which is the order of the commercial society, with specialized social roles, manufacturing industry in addition to agriculture, and the division of labor.
The emergence of the commercial society, then, is spontaneous and undesigned, coming about through man’s natural adjustment to circumstances. Government and law, for example, are needed to protect property, and the forms of political rule depend on experience and instinct rather than reason, since “no constitution is formed by concert, no government is copied from a plan.” And, in a phrase made famous by Hayek, Ferguson declared that:
Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.
Yet there is a curious mixture in Ferguson; his thought includes not only a voluntaristic ethic that stresses activity and benevolence (and which is favorably disposed to conflict as a mainspring of human action) but also a recognition of the fact that men are in general governed by self-interest and that the public interest is better promoted by each person caring for his own welfare. This would reinforce Hayek’s view that the theory of spontaneous order does not necessarily depend on a self-interest axiom of human nature but only on the idea that aggregate and orderly social structures can be traced from the actions of individuals who had no intention of bringing them about. It is important to note, however, that Ferguson was obsessively concerned with the idea that the commercial system was inadequate precisely because it unintentionally attenuated those social values, such as the public spirit and the military ethic, which were evident in earlier and ruder forms of society.
Smith was the most systematic social theorist of the Scottish Enlightenment. His Wealth of Nations (1776) is a type of ‘general equilibrium’ theory of economic society in which a self regulating system of spontaneous order is reconstructed out of the basic impulses in human nature. Although it explores the implications of self-love for the maintenance of an economic system there is no real inconsistency between this and his earlier treatise on ethics, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), in which a much wider range of human motivations is analyzed. It is true that the Wealth of Nations is less sanguine about the beneficial effects of natural liberty, and therefore it sanctions a not inconsiderable number of interventionist actions, but there is little difference in the principles of human nature that underlie it and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
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. 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.
In common with his contemporaries Smith sought an explanation of social order which economized on reason. Smith puts this point graphically with his explanation of the emergence of the division of labor: this is not
originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends the general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility: the propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another.
The anti-intentionalist aspect of Smith’s approach is clear from his emphasis on ‘natural liberty’: allowing this to operate produces benign consequences in contrast to those that come from artifice. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments he argues fiercely against that ‘spirit of system’ of the rationalist philosophers which arrogantly presupposes that the happiness of human beings can be arranged, independently of experience, according to a predetermined plan. He says that rationalists forget that “in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.” In a number of passages in the Wealth of Nations he argues that the centralized legislator will not have the knowledge at his disposal that individuals have of their ‘local situations’ and it is this which is maximized in their pursuit of natural liberty. That ‘invisible hand’ that co-ordinates human action under the system of natural liberty is as much a metaphor to describe how a society responds to the problem of ignorance as it is a metaphor to explain how the public good can be a product of self-regarding action.
By a natural occurrence of events, Smith means what happens when the normal course of events is allowed to proceed without some deliberate human intervention. The behavior of a market is an obvious example of such natural phenomena. The self-regulating properties of the market are not a product of a designing mind but are a natural product of the price mechanism. Now from certain uniformities of human nature, including of course the natural desire to ‘better ourselves,’ it can be deduced what will happen when government action disturbs this self-regulating process. Thus Smith shows how apprenticeship laws, restraints on international trade, the privileges of corporations, etc., all disturb, but cannot entirely suppress, natural economic tendencies. The spontaneous order of the market is brought about by the interdependency of its constituent parts and any intervention with this order is simply self-defeating: “No regulation of commerce can increase the quantity of industry in any part of society beyond what its capital can maintain. It can only divert a part of it into a direction which it might otherwise not have gone.”
Smith’s celebration of the market in no way revealed an admiration for the merchants as a ‘class’: Smith’s criticism of them is well-known. The order emerges despite the intentions of merchants, who are as eager as anyone else to seek advantage through state action which is disruptive of that order.
The system of natural liberty, however, can only work in the context of a form of interventionism; that of the enforcement of the strict rules of justice. Nature, while the source of unintended benefits for mankind, also accommodates those impulses which, if unregulated, turn self-love into an anti-social selfishness. For Smith justice is basically commutative, imposing negative obligations on people to refrain from violating the natural liberty of others and requiring the enforcement of contracts. While a society may subsist without the sentiment of benevolence, it cannot survive without the enforcement of justice: the rules of which are the minimum requirements of the market society.
While Smith certainly does not believe that natural processes alone can be relied on to generate a legal order, or in the rationalist notion of natural law that validates ‘anarcho-capitalism,’ he does have a theory of the spontaneous emergence of those legal rules which are to be enforced by the state. This is contained mainly in his (reported) writings on jurisprudence. His legal theory is based on the idea that law is not the artificial command of a sovereign but the formalized expression of natural justice. The content of this natural justice is that which would be determined by the hypothetical impartial spectator, informed by tradition and experience. The mechanism for producing that desired harmony between positive law and natural justice is the common law: and Smith’s jurisprudence contains a typically anti-rationalist defense of judge-made law against statute. However, while the common law needs to be supplemented by statute (one reason being the need to control the judges), the standard for statute law should be natural reason and not the will of the legislator. Although, it is not clear whether ‘natural reason’ refers to merely conventional standards or represents a more universal naturalistic morality.
Yet in Smith the spontaneity of a social order appears not to be the same as that of an economic system governed by natural liberty. His explanation of the evolution of a social and political order has a historicist, almost deterministic, and fatalist aspect which has been seized on by some contemporary critics as evidence of a disjuncture between his economics and politics. In his tracing of a conjectural history of society’s development through four stages, the initial periods of Hunters and Shepherds, through to Agriculture and culminating in Commerce, he implies not merely that social institutions are to be explained independently of specific intentions but that there is a certain inevitability about the course of events. He actually says that there is a “fatal dissolution that awaits every state and constitution whatever.” This raises the possibility that the explanation of spontaneous order in the non-economic sphere may slip unintentionally into a kind of determinism.
Furthermore, Smith is certainly not happy with certain of the unintended consequences of the market order that he detected, and their presence justified, in his mind, certain constructivistic interventions by government. Attention has recently been focused on those passages in The Wealth of Nations which suggest that the specialization of the division of labor renders large numbers of the population stupid, inactive, and ‘alienated’ from the system of natural liberty; and also progressively incapable of mastering those requisites for the making of moral judgment which are described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is this concern that underlies his belief in a state system of education. It is, in fact quite easy to compile a sizable list of ad hoc interventions which Smith authorizes, and this indicates that he did not think the outcomes of the system of natural liberty were automatically benign.
As with other great systems of ideas it is possible to read almost anything into Smith’s works. What cannot be denied, however, is the fact that they constitute the first detailed statement of the theory that a society is a system of interrelated parts which exhibits a natural tendency to equilibrium if left undisturbed. It is this insight that makes a social science possible and which, in a normative sense, enables the mind to hypothetically construct the likely consequences of arresting or diverting these natural processes. In the light of this discovery the offence of ‘inconsistency’ seems less heinous than some recent critics of Smith have implied.
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.
Although, for example, Hayek’s admiration of Bastiat extends only to his feats as a polemicist, he is worth further study because his novelty lay not in economic theory but in general social philosophy; in the theory of law and government. One reason why Hayek pays no attention to this is that, although Bastiat comes up with a theory of limited government and an explanation of the ultimate harmony that automatically results from the free play of economic forces, the foundation for this conclusion is rather different from others in the tradition that Hayek admires.
In a word Bastiat was a rationalist; he deduced his theory of limited government and economic harmony directly from an abstract theory of natural law and natural rights. While he was indefatigable in his demonstrations of the beneficial consequences that inevitably flow from freedom and exposure of the dis-coordinating actions of government, his ultimate justification for liberty lay in an essentialist concept of man abstracted from time and place. In his work on jurisprudence, The Law, Bastiat espouses an individualist view of law and justice that derives not from those natural propensities and passions, as in Hume and Smith, but from reason, and ultimately God: “Each person has a natural right—from God—to defend his person, his liberty and his property.” It is just this that the anti-rationalists reject on the ground that ‘nature’ does not furnish us with a permanent and universal standard of conduct independently of experience. This means that whereas Bastiat deduced the relationship between the individual and government axiomatically from the first principle of liberty—that each man has the right to protect his life, liberty and property—the evolutionary approach suggests that the ideal working of a social system is too complex to be captured in a simple formula, that no abstract system of rules can be rationally devised which can accommodate all future unknown cases.
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.
It is curious why Hayek should pay so little attention to Spencer’s social science and philosophy. What is even more remarkable is that the influence of evolution had a corrosive effect on both their systems. For if the criterion of social value is survival in an evolutionary process, what can be said against those institutions which, although they may embody anti-liberal values, have survived? Spencer was faced with this problem during his lifetime because of the rise and political success of socialist evolution. As we shall see below, Hayek is faced with the problem that undesigned institutions may develop in a number of different ways, including anti-liberal ways.