Sandefur’s Critique of Spontaneous Order

Posted on October 9, 2009 by


I have just received and read Timothy Sandefur’s “Some Problems With Spontaneous Order,” and it is indeed a far more finished work than the writings I discussed earlier. I will write a lengthy analysis later, but that won’t happen until after our December conference on Emergent Order. I’m just too snowed.

But I want to make a few promissory points now. First, his article is really more a critique of Hayek’s normative arguments than of his concept of spontaneous order, which Sandefur regards as descriptively valuable. Even so, he uses some of the same examples I criticized, such as the laying out of sidewalks, but with more subtlety. I think my earlier criticisms are still largely valid, but to do him justice would need some refining to address his more finished critique.

But the core problem I found in his earlier writing still exists, even if less bluntly.

Like so many others, I think Sandefur fails to appreciate just how radically different Hayek’s class of “organizations” are from his “spontaneous orders.” Perhaps developing this point is one suited for a simple blog post.

A spontaneous order exists as a framework within which many purposes can be legitimately pursued even when they conflict with one another. The order as such serves no goal that can serve to assist an individual to better achieve his or her purposes within it. This is not true in an organization. (I am setting common law aside for this discussion – these comments apply unambiguously to markets, science, and democracy.)

A Hayekian organization is teleological. It has interests, purposes and goals. Because in an organization a person’s tasks are defined by how he or she is to serve it’s goals, as a member of an organization, a person is fundamentally a resource whose value is determined by service to the organization and costs of replacment. In a large complex organization the person also stands in a hierarchical relation with other members.

In a spontaneous order the rules are procedural only, and people are free to not get involved with the activities they shape. If they do get involved they can pursue projects of their own choosing, even projects directly contradictory to others being pursued. In addition, these mutually contradictory projects might all succeed both in terms of those pursuing them and in terms of the feedback generated by the spontaneous order.

For example, A publishes a book praising Pagan religion, B publishes a book attacking Pagan religion as Satanic, and C publishes a book criticizing both Paganism and Christianity from an atheistic perspective. All sell lots of books, make money, and get speaking engagements. They may even debate one another. All three might sincerely wish the others had not written their books, and believe their efforts were successful.

The organizational equivalent would be a corporation with independent research teams exploring different and even contradictory approaches to some project. The teams are evaluated by the leadership as to how well they are serving the organization’s goals. That is the only definition of success that matters insofar as the teams’ continued existence is concerned. The teams are internal to the organization, and so many people are subject to the decision power of a few. This is not so with our authors.

The rules generating a spontaneous order have a value bias inherent in them, but these rules only “load the deck” as to what kinds of purposes are most likely to be pursued. The rules of science are biased towards finding reliable knowledge and eliminating error. They do not give even a hint as to what knowledge is most reliable or what will be discovered as error. The same point holds in other such orders.

But all social spontaneous orders have a common value that underlies them. As such, a social spontaneous order is a certain kind of moral order. It arises out of relations between people of equal status vis-à-vis the rules that generate it, so that no person is simply a resource of another. How this equal status manifests can vary from spontaneous order to spontaneous order, but this kind of basic equality is always at its core.

I think this last point is relevant to Sandefur’s normative analysis, but it takes me too far afield at the moment, so I will only say that when and insofar as liberal principles are institutionalized in a society, spontaneous orders will arise. In a looser sense they exist in all societies, as with the evolution of custom, but the ones that have shifted us from traditional agricultural societies to modern ones are liberal. I define liberalism as the position that all normal individuals at any given time are of equal status legally.

Beyond the issues I raise here, a full discussion of Timothy Sandefur’s interesting paper (by me anyway) will have to wait.  On the other hand, perhaps some readers will want to contribute to this discussion.  I hope so.

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