Spontaneous Order, Classical Liberalism, and Conservatism

Posted on September 26, 2010 by


The fateful alliance between classical liberals and conservatives was aided in part by their mutual attraction to arguments beginning in the Scottish Enlightenment and continuing through Edmund Burke, and later in economics, that reason alone could not plan a just society.  As more egalitarian and managerially oriented liberals gravitated towards a more activist government as a solution to social ills, classical liberals turned towards the conservative respect for traditional practices, a position reinforced by their knowledge of the market as a spontaneous order in Hayek’s terminology, and the intricate customs that empowered civil society as an order of the same kind.  External political intervention was seen as doomed to failure from overweening hubris, and all too likely to eventuate in despotism.

Understandable as this move was, I think it was an error, and that much of our current political crisis results from it.

Adam Smith’s first work on how order arises spontaneously in society was his study of the evolution of language, not the market.  Even earlier  Hume had emphasized its role in custom, as had Adam Ferguson.  Economics was simply one (very important) case of a larger phenomena first identified in the Scottish Enlightenment. A comment Smith made about businessmen and the market was glossed over by most subsequent classical liberals: that businessmen rarely get together except to game the market at the consumer’s expense.  The reply, of course, is that competitiveness in the market ultimately destroys such efforts.  But this reply underestimates the problem Smith identified.

There is a central tension in all social spontaneous orders: that between the processes that generate the order and the immediate interests of those who are successful within it.  In simple terms, it is a conflict between spontaneous order and instrumental organization.  Any business that succeeds within the market also runs the risk of eventually being put out of business through the arrival of new competitors or changed conditions.

Let us grant for the moment that the unrestricted market prevents the development of serious distortions by businesses.  (I no longer believe this, but whether or not this is true is not vital to the argument.)  Successful businesses will then seek extra market means for stabilizing their environment and ensuring their longevity.  Businesses have a long history of seeking to use government to provide them a safer and more profitable environment.  This is as true of downtown merchants seeking ordinances and zoning to deter competition as it is of large corporations seeking enforced national standardization and privileges such as no-bid contracts.  What is true for businesses in the market is equally true for all organizations in any social emergent order.  Different orders face this problem to different degrees largely from the ease or difficulty their organizations face in stabilizing their environment.

Here we get to the tension, I think the fatal tension, between the broad Lockean liberal outlook and the Burkean conservative outlook.

Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order in its pure form required that all participants be subject to the same rules, hold equal legal status, and be equally free in a formal sense to enter into cooperative arrangements with others subject to those rules.  This ideal is never perfectly realized, but in the modern spontaneous orders of the market, science, and democracy it comes remarkably close.

Pre-liberal evolutionary processes, like custom, saw similar processes operating within a framework where marked differences in status were constitutive parts of the framework that needed to adapt.  Custom always reflected evolutionary processes, but it often included power relations between groups who had been able to use government to insulate themselves from much change, and powerless groups who had not.  Think of the privileged positions favored state churches held in different European countries or the very different statuses of men and women as examples.  Over a thousand years of enforced monotheism powerfully influenced ‘spontaneous’ customary developments.  So did an even longer establishment of unequal relations between the genders.

Conservatives admired the specific qualities of a given custom regime, to cpin a term.  Liberals admired the ways in which that regime adjusted to and incorporated changes through a constant process of adjustment.  Conservatives used this logic to defend customs they admired from attempts to change them deliberately, but they admired the customs and not the process of change and adjustment.  And one of the things they admired was a certain kind of hierarchical arrangement between people that they believed to be just.

While both the custom that conservatives such as Burke admired, and the market that Smith admired, were emergent orders, only the market reflected anything close to equal procedural rules for all.  Here was the core inner tension between the classical liberal support for legal equality of status and the conservative support for the customary status quo.  Liberlas, including classical liberals, admired the process of peaceful evolution whereas conservatives, like businessmen in the market, liked the particular status quo that had come to dominate at a particular point in time.

This tension did not come to a serious head until the conservative/classical liberal alliance incorporated the basically anti-liberal culture of the American South.  IAs a result this alliance has now reached a point of political and philosophical incoherence.

If we look at many of the changes that egalitarian liberals have  sought to accomplish in our society, such as ending “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” to allowing for gay marriage, as well as their battle against attempts to get government to promote a particular religious outlook, they are on the side of America’s founding principles.  The “culture warriors” and the like are on the side of strengthening traditional politically enforced hierarchies of status.

This importance of this incoherence is pretty clearly caught in a crucial shift in political terminology within this political alliance.  There was a time when the terminology focused on the necessity for “limited government.”  Now the terminology is for “small government.”  A limited government is limited in its power vis-a-vis citizens.  A small government does not seek to influence many matters, supposedly, but can be quite unlimited within the sphere in which it acts.  This is why the conservative part of the alliance made not a word of protest when the Bush administration attacked habeus corpus as it had traditionally been used, used “signing statements,” and adopted a doctrine of being able to attack anyone who might in the future become a threat.  Nor did very many classical liberals object as this sea change in political terminology took place.  Under Obama health care has been attacked in the name of “small government” but his continuing many Bush initiatives in executive power has gone largely unmentioned.

With that plus the incorporation of the culture warriors, I fear classical liberalism has committed political seppeku.  I think where the classical liberal tradition can find new life and insight is in a more serious understanding of emergent social phenomena in all their complexity.