The Review of Austrian Economics

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 21–41 | Cite as

The rules of abstraction

  • Douglas Glen Whitman


Friedrich Hayek’s work on spontaneous order suggests that the emergence of a spontaneous order requires the existence of abstract rules of conduct. But how much abstraction is required? Abstraction exists on a gradient, from the highest specificity (pertaining to particular persons and narrowly defined circumstances) to the highest generality (pertaining to all persons in all circumstances). If rules create order by coordinating expectations, either end of the spectrum is undesirable; the most specific and the most abstract rules fail to provide decision makers with useful guidance. This article argues that rules that foster coordination must be characterized by an intermediate degree of abstraction. This conclusion will be explained and applied to law, language, and etiquette in order to draw out the similar character of rules across various contexts. The article concludes by discussing four properties that rules of intermediate abstraction must also possess to foster spontaneous order.


Abstraction Spontaneous order Rules Law Language Etiquette 

JEL codes

B53 K0 Z1 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EconomicsCalifornia State UniversityNorthridgeUSA

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