The Rules of Spontaneous Order

Hayek Cat

When Hayek wrote about spontaneous order, he was clear that the process followed certain rules of conduct. We can analyze the weather and note that when wind, humidity, and warm ocean water react a certain way, a hurricane can form. This hurricane exhibits complex properties that cannot be reduced to its individual elements. Here we have a classic example of emergence in nature. But you can’t just put those elements together under any circumstance and expect a hurricane to form. If we put wind, humidity, and warm ocean on the moon, nothing would happen. Certain conditions and rules have to be in place for a hurricane to form. Without the processes of evaporation and condensation, there would be no evaporation/condensation positive feedback loop that causes the hurricane to build. Without the the Coriolis Effect, the spiral winds necessary to gather energy from the warm ocean water and concentrate it into a central region couldn’t exist, giving the storm no rotation and means to generate maximum winds.

Just like the natural world, the social world also follows certain laws and rules. These rules are very different then what we typically think as rules, i.e. law and other articulated codes of conduct. It would be more appropriate to call them regularities in human behavior. These “rules” are important in the sense that they exist without being explicitly known to those who follow them. Just like an atom doesn’t know that it’s following the laws of physics, a human might follow certain rules or norms without being able to verbally articulate them in any coherent manner:

Man certainly does not know all of the rules which guide his actions int he sense that he is able to state them in words. At least in primitive human society, scarcely less than in animal societies, the structure of social life is determined by rules of conduct which manifest themselves only be being in fact observed. Only when individuals intellects begin to differ to a significant degree will it become necessary to express these rules in a form in which they can be communicated and explicitly taught, deviate behavior corrected, and differences of opinion about appropriate behavior decided. Although man never existed without laws that he obeyed, he did, of course, exist for hundred of thousands of years without laws he ‘knew’ in the sense that he was able to articulate them. (Hayek 1973, pg. 43)

But not all “rules” will result in a social order and some rules might make such an order impossible. If humans followed a rule where any individual should try and kill any person that he/she encountered, that would make the organization of anything we would call “society” unfeasible. So the spontaneous order of society isn’t just dependent on rules per se, but on the selection of rules that will lead individuals to behave a certain way that makes social life possible.

The selection of rules, whether it be through the environment, culture, tradition, etc., determines the character of the order. To illustrate this better, imagine Adam Smith’s invisible hand. We have a modern economy where everyone is trying to “render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can” i.e. earn an income. This rule, so to speak, is sufficient enough to create an order based on exchange. However, this by itself isn’t sufficient to determine the character of the resulting order. More likely than not, on order based solely on the desire to maximize one’s income would probably be not very beneficial. There must be some other rules that give people normative judgement and morals.

A spontaneous order need not be built from spontaneous rules and Hayek is explicit that this might not be the case:

Although undoubtedly an order originally formed itself spontaneously because the individuals followed rules which had not been deliberately made but had arisen spontaneously, people gradually learned to improve those rules; and it is at least conceivable that the formation of a spontaneous order relies entirely on rules that were deliberately made. The spontaneous character of the resulting order must therefore be distinguished from the spontaneous origins of the rules on which it rests, and it is possible that an order which would still have to de described as spontaneous rests on rules which are entirely the result of deliberate design. In the kind of society with
which we are familiar, of course, only some of the rules which people in fact observe, namely some of the rules of law (but never all, even of these) will be the product of deliberate design, while most of the rules of morals and custom will be spontaneous growths. (Hayek 1973, pg. 45-46)

It’s the need to enforce these rules that Hayek makes a positive case for government:

Of the organizations existing within the Great Society one which regularly occupies a very special position will be that which we call government. Although it is conceivable that the spontaneous order which we call society may exist without government, if the
minimum of rules required for the formation of such an order is observed without an organized apparatus for their enforcement, in most circumstances the organization “which we call government becomes indispensable in order to assure that those rules are obeyed. (Hayek 1973, pg. 47) 

So contrary to the claim of some economists, journalists, and political commentators, Hayek was not so naive as to expect a spontaneous order to arise from nothing. He was explicit that certain rules needed to exist in order for a beneficial social order to organize. Now whether or not a limited central government is needed to foster these rules for a beneficial social order is another question, one that I’m not sure Hayek adequately answers. Despite this, Hayek’s idea of spontaneous order and analysis of the rules that underly these orders provide valuable insights into the development of institutions and social arrangements.

Links:

Libertarianism’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea

In defence of spontaneous order

References:

1. Barry, Norman, “The Tradition of Spontaneous Order.” 1982. Library of Economics and Liberty. 2 November 2014. <http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/LtrLbrty/bryTSO2.html&gt;.

2. Boettke, P. J. “The Theory of Spontaneous Order and Cultural Evolution in the Social Theory of F.A. Hayek.” Cultural Dynamics 3.1 (1990): 61-83. Web.

3. Hayek, Friedrich A. Von, and William Warren Bartley. The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1989. Print.

4. Hayek, Friedrich A. Von. Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy. Vol. 1, Rules and Order. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. Print.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “The Rules of Spontaneous Order

  1. Ken

    You may be right about Hayek and this whole line of thinking produces some interesting questions, but the use of the term “rules” here is different from the way I have understood it.

    My understanding of “rules” of the kind that produce spontaneous order is that they are like the rules of grammar. They exist and people use them, often and always initially without being conscious of them, but they are not the kinds of rules that anyone would bother to formalize in laws or the like since nobody would violate them anyway. That is, while you are free to violate the rules of grammar, you wouldn’t do that if you want to be understood. True, there are school teachers and editors who get picky about grammar, but these people are for the most part irrelevant outliers. The average person follows the average rules of grammar anyway, and there’s no need to force them.

    What then is true of grammar is presumably true in other areas of life, like fashion and music. You are free to wear flipflops with a suit or to write a song that violates the rules of harmony, but you probably wouldn’t do either except as a joke or protest. My sense is that sidewalk life–ordinary civility in public–as well as probably economies are chock ful of similar “grammatical” rules, the violators of which are usually considered crazy (and often are) rather than criminal.

    True, there are some criminal or near-criminal manipulations of the rules of sidewalk life. This is what con artists and panhandlers perfect. But it is difficult to the point of impossibility to pass laws against violations of these kinds of basic rules. How do you enforce a law that requires averting one’s gaze when passing a person on the sidewalk, or one that draws a line between friendliness and a con? You can’t.

    So I’m not following how anyone could believe that rules for spontaneous order could be codified into more superficial rules like laws or ordinances. I think these two types of rules are very different.

    A main question that arises in this whole area of thought is the extent to which the basic rules are universal, as opposed to culture-specific. The usual conjecture is that the rules are at base universal, with different cultural manifestations of them being various transformations of the same “deep structure.”

    Of course, if the rules are universal, the question arises not only of different cultural manifestations but also of changes over time in the same culture. The different cultural manifestations are probably handled by the notion of transformations, but the changes over time within the same culture are more difficult to explain. Those changes though are often the essence of talent or creativity, and are always small, more on the order of tweaks rather than radical alteractions.

    I guess I therefore worry about Hayek wanting to make and enforce rules to make sure the already-existing rules function properly. This smacks to me of misunderstanding the nature of the basic rules and even trying to change them. Whereas I don’t believe that the basic rules can be changed, I’m pretty sure that more superficial rules can be implemented to prevent them from operating. It would be easy for an authoritarian regime for example to pass a law with a dress code in public life, and if enforced the law could pretty much kill the fashion industry while suppressing the rules that people already follow for fashion. At the juncture where Hayek wants to make these kinds of rules I suspect him of authoritarianism.

    • You’re analogy between rules and grammar is a bit misleading. Grammar is a tool that can be used. A rule is a constraint, whether it be formal or informal. Many of these constraints, as you rightly point out, don’t need to be formalized into law. But some rules are formalized.

      So I’m not following how anyone could believe that rules for spontaneous order could be codified into more superficial rules like laws or ordinances. I think these two types of rules are very different.

      They are very different. However some of the rules that you are talking (which are basically norms and mores) can be codified into a formal form (e.g. laws). They can be articulated.

      For example, let’s go back 20,000 years. The State doesn’t exist. The highest form of organization are small groups of people that band together. Within these groups are norms that respect private property (or possession), usually predicated on violence. As human civilization developed, these norms could be codified into law by a central authority in the form of laws. These laws are explicit, more efficient, and have a more legitimate means of enforcement (government).

      This is just one example of what Hayek was talking about. It’s also why he supported some form of government.

      is the extent to which the basic rules are universal

      Now you’re going into discussions about human nature, which is waaay beyond the scope of this post and what Hayek was trying to do. It’s an interesting question, even a relevant one, but it won’t be answered anytime soon.

      At the juncture where Hayek wants to make these kinds of rules I suspect him of authoritarianism.

      Hayek doesn’t want to make these kinds of rules (i.e. articulated rules). He doesn’t even necessarily want to make any rules (although he wanted some). He’s just describing how the rules that underly spontaneous order can effect the process.

      • Ken

        Nope, rules of grammar are rules. They are a different and more basic kind of rule than most norms that can be written into laws, but they are rules. And yes, they go to human nature, or perhaps to the human condition. It’s debated whether or not these rules are hard-wired into the brain or picked up from universal social experience, but either way they are simply there. Anyone who talks about sponteneous order is likely basing that argument on these kinds of basic rules, since rules that are mere conventions (and thus could be other than they are) aren’t the kind the would produce a “spontaneous” order. The whole argument for a spontaneous order would seem to depend upon equally spontaneous rules, or those that are somehow universal in human nature.

        Now, there probably is some codification of basic rules in norms and then laws, but how well the codification fits the rules is an open question. We can continue to use grammar as an analogy, or perhaps musical composition, since in these fields experts do try to articulate and sometimes teach and/or enforce more overt rules. However, it’s a game of catch up for the experts, since daily practice is always ahead of them, no doubt because everybody follows the unconscious rules anyway. A better example though may be the incest taboo, which as a cultural universal (that frankly seems to produce a spontaneous order) seems to reflect some basic rules of human life, yet the actual norms governing incest vary considerable from culture to culture. All cultures have one, just like all cultures have a grammar (and probably musical composition) but the cultural articulation varies.

        I don’t know Hayek well at all, but from what I do know about him (his concept of liberty) he’s an inconsistent fellow. In one breadth he argues that liberty is a natural human aspiration, even the highest aspiration, yet in the next he admits that actually liberty is a value subordinate to others, everybody doesn’t aspire to it to the degree he does, and a crusade is required to convince people to prefer liberty. Well, which is it? Either it’s a natural human aspiration, and as such doesn’t need to be defended, or it’s one preference among others, and thus something he wants to promote. It sounds like Hayek is doing the same thing with the rules for spontaneous order. On one hand he wants to argue that they are simply there, but on the other argues that we need to make sure they are there by writing them into laws. Well, which is it?

        BTW, I don’t know whether it’s you or Hayek, but your description of pre-state peoples as having private property predicated on violence strikes me as mistaken. The record varies, of course, but as a rule the simplest and presumably oldest human societies didn’t have much in the way of private property and weren’t very violent. They did have a grammar, an incest taboo, and a social order. Thus they presumably followed some set of rules, both of the basic kind that produces spontaneous order and culturally variable ones that may or may not. The big questions are what these rules are and how they work.

        Also, Hayek is always talking about human nature–you can’t do economics without that–he just talks inconsistently about it, IMO.

      • Grammar analogies aside, all that matters is that there is some rules that will shape the process of spontaneous order. Whether the rule comes from human nature or social experience isn’t important. Whether it’s codified or not doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the process is shaped by the underlying rules. Knowing what those rules are helps, but we don’t need to know where they came from. I’m also having trouble understanding this sentence:

        The whole argument for a spontaneous order would seem to depend upon equally spontaneous rules, or those that are somehow universal in human nature.

        Anyway, Hayek’s concept of liberty is beyond the subject of this post and it’s not something I’m too familiar with. It could very well be inconsistent. But that doesn’t really hurt his theory on spontaneous order.

        It sounds like Hayek is doing the same thing with the rules for spontaneous order. On one hand he wants to argue that they are simply there, but on the other argues that we need to make sure they are there by writing them into laws. Well, which is it?

        No, the rules are there, whether they are codified or not. And Hayek never said they need to be codified. The underlying rules will still effect the process. What he did say was the enforcement of these rules was important. In order to enforce rules, having them articulated and having an entity to enforce them (i.e. the state) is really, really important. According to Hayek without the rule of law, there can’t beneficial social order. Rule of law requires enforcement and credibility.

        BTW, I don’t know whether it’s you or Hayek, but your description of pre-state peoples as having private property predicated on violence strikes me as mistaken.

        It was just an example. Whether it’s empirically important doesn’t matter. Either way, pre-state peoples did not have “private property” per se, but they did have possessions (which I said in the first comment). And there needs to be some rules to determine who has possession over what. And pre-state societies were most definitely violent. Much more violent than post-state societies.

        Hayek is always talking about human nature

        He is? I don’t recall that when I read him. Surely he talks about it at some point (especially in the Fatal Conceit IIrc), but he doesn’t talk about it all the time and his theory of spontaneous order doesn’t really depend on any concrete definition of human nature. And you can most certainly do economics without talking about human nature. Saying that prudence and incentives matter doesn’t need to be framed in any human nature debate. Whether these tendencies were caused by “human nature” or social conditions is really irrelevant.

      • Ken

        Well, if the order is spontaneous, the rules that create it wouldn’t be any less spontaneous, would they? I don’t think you can have a spontaneous order with arbitrary rules.

        Yep, every economic thinker of any weight is talking about human nature. They may not say so explicitly, but they are, mainly because they posit certain motivations and aspirations.

        Nope, depending upon how you define them, pre-state peoples were far less violent. I’m thinking hunters and gatherers. A pre-state feudal system may well have been more violent, at least as measured by daily practice as opposed to killings. Nothing tops the nation-states in the number killed.

        I don’t understand how sponteneous rules require enforcement, and smell a rat. But then again you’re the one reading Hayek and for all I know there’s something there. My superficial sense is that he’s duplicitous and devoted to circular reasoning, thus mainly appeals to those who already subscribe to his conclusions, but there has to be more to the guy than this (I hope).

        Good luck. I’m just not on board.

      • Well, if the order is spontaneous, the rules that create it wouldn’t be any less spontaneous, would they? I don’t think you can have a spontaneous order with arbitrary rules.

        The rules can be spontaneous, but they don’t have to be, and Hayek gave explicit circumstances when articulated rules governed spontaneous order. Also Hayek was very explicit that not all rules can govern a spontaneous order (I talked about that in the post).

        Yep, every economic thinker of any weight is talking about human nature. They may not say so explicitly, but they are, mainly because they posit certain motivations and aspirations.

        Positing certain motivations or aspirations doesn’t mean you’re talking about human nature. Economists haven’t been talking about human nature since the 19th century (classical economics). As I’ve already said, saying that prudence and incentives matter doesn’t need to be framed in any human nature debate, and you haven’t really proven otherwise.

        Nope, depending upon how you define them, pre-state peoples were far less violent. I’m thinking hunters and gatherers. A pre-state feudal system may well have been more violent, at least as measured by daily practice as opposed to killings. Nothing tops the nation-states in the number killed.

        You’re going to have to show some evidence for this. Pinker’s evidence is pretty convincing and you just dismiss it out of hand. Also a feudal system is a state system. So saying a “pre-state feudal system” just isn’t correct.

        I don’t understand how sponteneous rules require enforcement, and smell a rat.

        I would think the enforcement of e.g. property rights would be important, but I’ll let Hayek speak for himself:

        Of the organizations existing within the Great Society one which regularly occupies a very special position will be that which we call government. Although it is conceivable that the spontaneous order which we call society may exist without government, if the minimum of rules required for the formation of such an order is observed without an organized apparatus for their enforcement, in most circumstances the organization “which call government becomes indispensable in order to assure that those rules are obeyed.

        This particular function of government is somewhat like that of a maintenance squad of a factory, its object being not to produce any particular service or products to be consumed by the citizens, but rather to see that the mechanism which regulated production of those goods and services is kept in working order. The purposes for which this machinery is currently being used will be determined by those who operate its parts and in the last resort by those who buy its products.

      • Ken

        Thanks for mentioning Pinker’s work, which I was unaware of and must have missed your references to. I’m far from an expert on it now, having only Googled a few sites, but I instinctively recoiled at his use of per capita deaths as the measure. Pinker’s method leads to the conclusion a society of 300 with one death in warfare a year is as violent as a society of 300 million with a million deaths in warfare a year. While this is an interesting way to look at the matter, and probably useful for some purposes, it strikes me as misleading for the main purpose, which is to determine whether the structure of the society (state or non-state) tends to lead to warlike violence.

        By analogy, there are in the neighborhood of three times more deaths in car crashes in the US annually than there are from guns. Since I happen to veer mildly anti-car but pro-gun, I like to mention this fact. However, even I wouldn’t seriously argue that cars are intrinsically more violent than guns, since I know that the deaths from cars are mainly an unintended byproduct of a transporation mode while the whole purpose of guns is violence.

        Anyway, I think Pinker is in this kind of territory, confusing numerical data with substantive analysis, although I suspect he gets into the substantive analysis and am now curious to learn how he handles this. My caution meter is rising, but at minimum his is surely an interesting way to look at things.

        Also, yes, I too would generally classify feudal societies as state societies, just didn’t know where you were drawing the line. Actually, I’m not sure where I would draw it. My kneejerk is frankly to deny that any society lacks a state, since even the supposedly simplest have institutionalized power relations, but I understand that people can make various distinctions for various purposes, among them probably between state and non-state societies. I would have to see how the distinction is made and for what purpose before I formed an opinion.

        But my opinion that everyone is always talking (or making assumptions) about human nature remains firm. I realize that it is now unpopular to admit this, since once a person does everyone yawns in boredom over the inability ever to prove anything about human nature, but I fail to understand how any assumption in economics isn’t indirectly a posit about human nature. Anyone talking about sponteneous order or the rules that allow for it is surely also talking about the kinds of basic features of humanity that used to be called human nature. That people are now coy about it and don’t call it human nature is to my mind unfortunate.

        I’ll leave Hayek up to you, since I’m really not familiar with what you’re citing and feel I lack context. It seems to me that Hayek is here arguing in some middle range–less basic than universal rules (or even spontaneous order) but more basic than the next slate of policies to be passed by congress. I am suspicious that he seems to want to yank the universal down from the heavens in order to fortify and more proximate point, and seriously doubt that the rules for spontaneous order need government enforcement, but maybe if I understood the context better I would be more forgiving, or hell even agree. A total guess is that he’s dealing with larger societies with formal states, and recognizing that the automatic rules that create order among hunters and gatherers or even in small towns tend to get lost in larger societies and therefore need some state reinforcement or even tweaking. If so, I might agree. But right now I’m only guessing.

        Any way you can ship some Varsity chili dogs and onion rings out of the country for me?

      • Regarding Pinker’s data, I think proportions are important. Assuming there were only 300 humans on earth, one death would be very similar to 1,000,000 deaths on an earth with 300,000,000 humans. And Pinker’s analysis death with people killed during warfare, so I don’t think your car analogy is appropriate.

        which is to determine whether the structure of the society (state or non-state) tends to lead to warlike violence.

        That’s an interesting question, and it’s something that Pinker does not deal with. But I think one of the conclusions based on Pinker’s data was that states reduce violence in terms of deaths per capita compared to non-state societies.

        Actually, I’m not sure where I would draw it.

        I would look at Max Weber’s definition of the state, i.e. is monopoly on violence. I find it a very useful definition.

        but I fail to understand how any assumption in economics isn’t indirectly a posit about human nature.

        I could argue that prudence and incentives are a product of social environment as opposed to human nature. Either way, even if economists making assumptions about human nature, those assumptions aren’t necessary. Whether prudence or incentives exist because of human nature or social circumstance is irrelevant. All that matters is that those characteristics are there and that they affect the system that humans live in. The same for spontaneous order.

        It seems to me that Hayek is here arguing in some middle range–less basic than universal rules (or even spontaneous order) but more basic than the next slate of policies to be passed by congress.

        This is half right. Hayek’s rules don’t have to be universal or the arbitrary whims of some government. They could be either. It ultimately doesn’t matter. All that matters is that these rules exists and they affect the social order. The thing is, when Hayek talks about rules, he’s talking about regularities in human behavior, not “rules” in the normal sense we think about. Humans don’t have to follow these patterns of human behavior. If we are talking about small norms and mores, this might not matter. But when we are talking about things like possessions or property rights (just as one example), then it does matter. If someone breaks the rule about respecting the possessions of others, they need to be punished in some way so that they don’t break that rule again. This is where enforcement (and the state) comes in. It’s not that the rules get “lost” as societies get bigger, but that that people don’t always follow these rules.

        Any way you can ship some Varsity chili dogs and onion rings out of the country for me?

        Varsity is really overrated, so I’ll afraid you’ll be disappointed 😉

  2. Blue Aurora

    Rousseau1214: I thought you knew better than to say: “Adam Smith’s invisible hand”… ;-P

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