The idea of spontaneous order straddles the disputed divide between the natural and the social sciences. It encompasses phenomena as diverse as the evolution of species, the architecture of a termite nest, the organization of the market economy, and the development of the Internet.1 The insight captured in the idea of spontaneous order is that complex organization can emerge from the interaction of more basic entities following relatively simple rules of action or behavior. The phrase “spontaneous order” implies that such complex organization is not the result of deliberate design or the unfolding of some predetermined plan but the unintended consequence of actions that do not directly aim at its production. The idea of spontaneous order applies to those phenomena that exhibit the appearance of deliberate design without being the product of any designing intelligence.
- Human Mind
- Central Planning
- Neoclassical Economic
- Invisible Hand
- Economic Calculation
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There are good overviews of the various claims made on behalf of spontaneous order explanations in Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (New York: Scribner, 2001)
and Steven Strogatz, Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order (New York: Hyperion Books, 2003).
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 3.
The term “spontaneous order” seems to have been coined by Michael Polanyi in his essay, “The Growth of Thought in Society,” Economica 8 (November 1941): 428–456. Cf. Straun Jacobs, “Michael Polanyi’s Theory of Spontaneous Orders,” Review of Austrian Economics 11, nos. 1–2 (1999): 111–127.
An English translation of this article is available in Friedrich A. Hayek, ed., Collectivist Economic Planning: Critical Studies on the Possibilities of Socialism (London: Routledge, 1935), pp. 87–103.
Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1981).
The phrase “natural economy” comes from a book by Otto Neurath, Durch die Kriegswirtschaft zur Naturalwirtschaft (From the War Economy to the Natural Economy). Neurath would later become a prominent member of the “Vienna Circle” of logical positivists. On Neurath’s role in this debate, see Bruce Caldwell, Hayek’s Challenge: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 113–119 and 428–429.
See Oskar Lange, “On the Economic Theory of Socialism,” in On the Economic Theory of Socialism, ed. Benjamin Lippincott (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), pp. 55–143.
Hayek’s main essays in this controversy have been reprinted in Friedrich A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 119–208.
The most comprehensive account of this debate is in Don Lavoie, Rivalry and Central Planning: The Socialist Calculation Debate Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
There are good overviews of the issues in this debate in Peter Boettke, “Economic Calculation: The Austrian Contribution to Political Economy,” in Calculation and Coordination (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 29–46;
and Bruce Caldwell, “Hayek and Socialism,” Journal of Economic Literature 35 (December 1997): 1856–1890.
Cf. Don Lavoie, “Computation, Incentives, and Discovery: The Cognitive Function of Markets in Market Socialism,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 507 (1990): 72–79.
Cf. Ronald Coase, The Firm, the Market, and the Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 35.
Coase takes the phrase “islands of conscious power” from D. H. Robertson, The Control of Industry (London: Nisbet, 1928), p. 85.
Karl Marx, Capital, volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), pp. 476–477.
Cf. Joseph Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 986–990.
The new information-theoretic approach to economics, pioneered by Stiglitz and Grossman, is an attempt to incorporate Hayek’s emphasis on imperfect information into the framework of neoclassical economics. For a good survey of this approach relevant to the themes of this paper, see Joseph E. Stiglitz, Whither Socialism? (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).
For an Austrian assessment of this approach, which argues that it does not do justice to the radical character of Hayek’s critique, see Esteban F. Thomsen, Prices and Knowledge: A Market-Process Perspective (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 29–62.
Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr. and Mario J. Rizzo, The Economics of Time and Ignorance (London and New York: Routledge, 1996) engage in a sustained critique of the static assumptions of neoclassical economics from an Austrian perspective.
This is the main point of Hayek’s famous essay, originally published in 1945, “The Use of Knowledge in Society” reprinted in Friedrich A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 77–91. Stiglitz, Whither Socialism? pp. 1–82, provides an effective critique from an information-theoretic perspective of the assumptions common to both neoclassical economics and market socialism.
Ibid., p. 87. Cf. Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 25: “[O]ur attitude, when we discover how little we know of what makes us co-operate, is, on the whole, one of resentment rather than of wonder or curiosity. Much of our occasional impetuous desire to smash the whole entangling machinery of civilization is due to this inability of man to understand what he is doing.”
Rousseau, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. and trans. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 135.
Friedrich A. Hayek, The Sensory Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).
Barry Smith, “The Connectionist Mind: A Study in Hayekian Psychology,” in Hayek: Economist and Social Philosopher: A Critical Retrospective, ed. S. F. Frowen, (London: Macmillan, 1976), pp. 9–29.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), p. 76.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Continuum, 1993), pp. 270–277.
For a comparison between Burke and Gadamer on this point, see Louis Hunt, “Principle and Prejudice: Burke, Kant and Habermas on the Conditions of Practical Reason,” History of Political Thought 23, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 130–132.
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 284.
For an interesting argument that constitutional reform and spontaneous order are compatible, based on a comparison between Hayek and James Buchanan’s “constitutional political economy,” see Karen I. Vaughn, “Can Democratic Society Reform Itself? The Limits of Constructive Change,” in The Market Process: Essays in Contemporary Austrian Economics, ed. Peter Boettke and David Prychitko (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 1994), pp. 229–243.
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© 2007 Louis Hunt and Peter McNamara
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Hunt, L. (2007). The Origin and Scope of Hayek’s Idea of Spontaneous Order. In: Hunt, L., McNamara, P. (eds) Liberalism, Conservatism, and Hayek’s Idea of Spontaneous Order. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230609228_3
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