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.
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>.
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.