An Illusion of Order

  • Amos WitztumEmail author


Synopsis: The idea of natural, self-regulating order is one of the key elements underlying contemporary discourse about economic and social organisation. However, what exactly is meant by this is not altogether clear. Most of the time, when people refer to natural order they imply that if people were left to do that which they naturally are inclined to do, their activities will spontaneously be synchronised in the sense that they will all get that which they have reason to expect out of the system. We call such an order synchronic order as it synchronises the activities of individuals. However, there are two other elements which must be explored for such an order to have any meaning. Firstly, there is the question of whether natural synchronisation works with all sorts of human behaviour or that it only works with a particular type of behaviour. If so, is there a natural process which will equip individuals with the kind of behaviour necessary for such synchronisation to work? Secondly, once activities were synchronised, would individuals be content with the process and the outcomes (that which they have reason to expect) to an extent that they would feel the need neither to change their own behaviour nor to change the system? We call both these elements, which are required to support the synchronising ability of a natural order, ‘diachronic order’. We use this term to tell us whether that which co-ordinates individual behaviour is something which is sustainable over time (broadly conceived). Clearly, if there is a natural process which equips individuals with behaviour that will lead, without any intervention, to a co-ordination of their activities and where agents do not find the system as morally unacceptable, we can clearly declare that there is a natural, self-regulated order. In this chapter, we take a somewhat cursory meta-historic perspective on the evolution of the idea of natural order. We begin our journey in ancient times and find surprising similarities between some Chinese and Christian thinking about the idea of natural order. We argue that in both cases natural order is in the end an ideal and that individuals are required to behave in a manner which may not be natural to them so that natural order can lead to a co-ordinated outcome. As that which dictates how individuals should behave is derived from the ideal (and hence, constitutes a moral decree), such a system can be sustainable only if morality prevails and is unchanging. In such a case, there will be both synchronic and diachronic orders, but we must note that human nature is not part of the natural order itself. The Enlightenment in Europe changed all that as it brought to the fore the search for endogenous explanations such that were produced for the world of physics. In the social sciences, this amounts to an effort to emulate the notion of equilibrium in Newtonian Mechanics in the analysis of social interactions. However, now both human actions and the formation of morality become endogenous, which means that for a natural order to become both synchronic and diachronic, we must find a process that not only co-ordinates actions but also produces moral norms that support it. The difficulties are exposed at the outset when we begin by identifying Mandeville’s famous paradox which juxtaposed the necessary conditions for an order to produce plenty with moral principles which are perceived to be natural too. We claim that classical economics responded to this dilemma by creating a system which closely connects the emergence of ethical ideas with the working of the system of natural liberty. This endogenisation of ethics—which I believe to be a logical imperative embedded in the idea of social natural order—allowed thinkers like Adam Smith to conclude that for all the wrong reasons, the system of natural liberty could work and temporarily appear as morally acceptable. However, in the long run, namely diachronically, such an arrangement is not sustainable as it will offend the foundation of our moral reasoning: our conscience. Modern economics chose a different route altogether. It simply chose to divorce itself from ethics. By claiming the economics is ethically neutral, it suggests that the idea of natural liberty in the sphere of economic activities is compatible with all possible social values or ethical principles. This very appealing idea led to the dominance of the modern economic paradigm which culminated in the spread of globalisation. However, even modern economics recognises that the conditions for the natural order to deliver a synchronised outcome, which is also ethically neutral, are not formed naturally. Therefore, the relentless pursuit of competitive decentralisation within economies and globally is more akin to a desire to implement an ideal rather than a plea to allow nature to take its course.


  1. Acemoglou, D., & Robinson, J. (2012). Why Nations Fail: The Origin of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. London: Profile Books.Google Scholar
  2. Arrow, K. J., & Debreu, G. (1954). Existence of an Equilibrium for a Competitive Economy. Econometrica, 22(3), 265–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bowles, S. (2004). Microeconomics: Behaviour, Institutions, and Evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. A. (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Buchanan, J. M. (1978). The Justice of Natural Liberty. In F. R. Glahe (Ed.), Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations: 1776–1976 Bicentennial Essays (pp. 61–82). Boulder, CO: Colorado Associated University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Deaton, A. (2013). The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Friedman, M. (1978). Adam Smith’s Relevance for 1976. In R. G. Fred (Ed.), Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations: Bicentennial Essays 1776–1976. Boulder, CO: Colorado Associated University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Gourevitch, V. (2004). Rousseau: The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Mandeville, B. (1988 [1732]). The Fable Also Wrote an Enquiry into the Origins of Moral Virtues. Liberty Press.Google Scholar
  10. Meek, R. (1977). Mr. Sraffa’s Rehabilitation of Classical Economics. In Smith, Marx and After (pp. 119–136). London: Chapman & Hall.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Phelps, E. (2013). Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Robbins, L. (1935). Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  14. Rothbard, M. (1990). Concept of the Role of Intellectuals in Social Change Towards Laissez-Faire. Journal of Libertarian Studies, 9(2), 43–67.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social SciencesLondon School of Economics and Political SciencesLondonUK

Personalised recommendations