Spontaneous Order and Liberalism's Complex Relation to Democracy
diZerega, Gus, Independent Review
In this article, I argue that spontaneous orders are natural outgrowths of liberal principles and that a better understanding of them sheds light on a fateful split between nineteenth-century American and European liberal traditions that remains relevant today.
What Is Liberalism?
Liberalism's core insight is that the individual is the fundamental moral and social unit and that in this regard all persons are equal. As Rabbi Hillel said in a different context, "Everything else is commentary."
Liberalism arose in seventeenth-century England, beginning primarily with the work of John Locke (1632-1704), but spreading rapidly among the intellectual elite of the future United States and western Europe. Two other origins are sometimes identified: classical civilization and the work of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Because the reasons why these sources ultimately did not serve as successful foundations of liberalism play an important role in my analysis, I begin by briefly discussing them.
The Greek ideal closest to liberalism was exemplified most memorably in Thucydides's (2007) account of Pericles's funeral oration. Aristotle's defense of free government similarly rested on our powers of speech and capacity for uncoerced rational persuasion (diZerega 2000, 13-56). However, in both cases the focus is on the individual in community, not on the individual as a distinct unit. Thus, their emphasis differs from liberalism's.
Classical societies were rooted in slavery, which depended on the denial that individuals are equal moral units. Most classical conceptions of human equality refer to our common relationship to the cosmos and take slavery largely for granted. We know that Greek critiques of slavery existed because Aristotle refers to them, but no such writings have come down to us (Cambiano 2003).
Thomas Hobbes is also sometimes identified as liberalism's principle founder, especially by its detractors (Strauss 1999; MacPherson 2011). Hobbes was an individualist and modern in his outlook, but he was no liberal. His argument for natural right refers simply to our power to act. The stronger can act with impunity on the weaker. The weak can band together, making even the position of the strongest vulnerable. Therefore, all benefit from the creation of a "Leviathan" able to subdue anyone. The resulting peace enables most to benefit more than they would in its absence. Hobbes never makes the case that individuals have moral standing or that they deserve legal respect.
Today Hobbes's approach provides a powerful alternative to liberalism, substituting self-interest for moral principles and providing only a weak defense against aggression and exploitation. This perspective is in keeping with the Athenian statement to the Melians during the Peloponnesian War: "The right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" (Thucydides n.d.).
John Locke was the first major liberal thinker. His argument for equal rights and government by the consent of the governed ignited a vision that would transform the world, coming first to major fruition in 1776. The opening arguments of the Declaration of Independence read as if Locke might have written them, which is not surprising because by that time Lockean liberalism had penetrated elite American culture. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) explained years later that the document's Lockeanism "was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion" (1944, 719).
To get a sense of how unusual the liberal insight about individual equality was, we may contrast Locke's vision with that of Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who also was closely associated with the rise of the modern world. Bacon (2009) envisioned an elite of scientific experts ruling over everyone else. He had difficulty even conceiving relationships among equals as desirable: "There is little friendship in the world and least between equals" (Bacon qtd. by Edith Howe as cited in Hardwick 2008, 127). Hobbes served as Bacon's secretary and apparently shared many of his views.
Since Locke's time, liberalism has grown and diversified, with liberals frequently disagreeing among themselves on important issues. But liberals have always retained the fundamental insight that individuals have equal ethical standing and are society's fundamental ethical unit. From the most fervent flee-market libertarian to the most committed "big-government" member of the American Civil Liberties Union, this commitment continues to be the case.
Liberalism and Science
Science set the stage for liberalism. Michael Polanyi observes that "in the free cooperation of independent scientists we ... find a highly simplified model of a free society" (1967, 49). Although geniuses have always been among us, science took off only when relatively easy communication among equals arose, with all persons' theories subject to common criteria of judgment. Beginning during the Renaissance, most notably after the printing press came to Europe, networks of correspondence arose. Within these networks, individuals could communicate largely as equals obliged to explain and defend their scientific explanations and discoveries, thereby propelling the rise of modern science. The success of science added credibility to early liberals' efforts to expand liberal principles to broader areas of social life.
It is no more accidental that Locke knew Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) than that Hobbes was associated with Bacon. All of these men were deeply involved in the intellectual debates and explorations that fueling the rise of science. In Bacon's time, however, most of science's early achievements were in the future, whereas Locke wrote when science was bearing increasingly powerful fruits. Bacon had an eye to the hierarchical worldview of medieval Europe, but Locke did not.
In principle, all scientists are subject to the same rules, with voluntary persuasion of other scientists being the ultimate standard of success. Over time, scientists became increasingly specialized, with overlaps between them creating a field of scientific knowledge able to expand well beyond what any one of them could hope to attain (Ziman 1968, 37-38). The community's collective judgment became what scientists relied on when accepting or rejecting others' claims about matters they themselves had neither time nor expertise to evaluate.
Science's success underscored two important points. First, a person's social or political status was ideally less significant than the persuasive power of his (and occasionally her) work. Second, the scientific standards that arose--such as measurement, experiment, and prediction--emerged out of doing science itself, not because some philosophical authority demanded them. To predict something unexpected was especially convincing. So was a successful, repeatable experiment. Although we might disagree with one another religiously or philosophically, it was more difficult to disagree with a precise measurement. Science rose through people's seeking convincing arguments about the physical world.
To put this process more abstractly, a community of equals pursuing a broad common interest whose details are unknown developed gradually a culture of procedural rules ideally applying equally to all, thereby facilitating the efforts of each to discover those details. These rules were shaped by the projects they were devised to facilitate, but, whatever their other traits, they included strong ethical injunctions in favor of honesty, equal standing, and the importance of voluntary agreement because the entire enterprise rested on persuasion. The result was something new in human experience.
Centuries later Michael Polanyi and F. A. Hayek would call this new form of order a "spontaneous order" arising from the activities of independent equals, mediated through feedback that signaled what kinds of future projects might most likely succeed (Polanyi 1967; Hayek 1978). This coordinating framework enabled people who were pursuing independently conceived and even contradictory plans to contribute to a dynamic pattern rather than to generate a chaos of incompatible projects. (1) Spontaneous orders are processes of continual discovery in which independent equals generate systemwide coordination through a process of mutual adjustment.
Any broad value whose details must be discovered is open to pursuit by equal people with different insights. A spontaneous order develops when this pursuit is coordinated by impersonal feedback generated by previous actions. For this feedback to occur, people must follow procedural rules, with success being validated by systemic feedback, not by any authority. In this sense, spontaneous orders serve free and equal individuals.
Modern scientific progress was the unintended consequence of applying what later became known as liberal principles to the study of the physical world. Scientific knowledge existed within networks of scientists, each one understanding a small part of the whole. Yet this network collectively constituted the most effective means of discovery humanity has ever developed. What science initiated in the realm of knowledge, an increasingly free market, rooted in similar foundational principles but otherwise embodying different values, developed within material production. Both science and the market constitute discovery processes in which a coherent pattern arises from the pursuit of an indefinite number of independently chosen projects (Hayek 1978). These projects together enable people to assess their environment better for future choices.
Spontaneous orders manifest themselves differently in science and the market because they facilitate the pursuit of different values; by developing different procedural rules, they generate different patterns of coordination. But neither science nor the market pursues concrete goals. In this sense, neither is a teleological process, like the process research teams or businesses might follow.
To function as coordinating signals, the feedback generated by a spontaneous order must prove accurate enough to serve as a good guide for people who are strangers to one another to make future plans. Each new discovery and successful or unsuccessful project generates positive and negative feedback, reflecting the lowest common denominator of values pursued by participants within an order. For example, changing prices and scientific reputations indicate which possibilities are more likely to be successfully attained and which carry more risk in the market and science. People can then effectively integrate their local knowledge with otherwise unknown information made useful through these signals.
Civil Society and Spontaneous Order
Within liberal civil society, individuals are free to enter into cooperative relations with others. …
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Publication information: Article title: Spontaneous Order and Liberalism's Complex Relation to Democracy. Contributors: diZerega, Gus - Author. Journal title: Independent Review. Volume: 16. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2011. Page number: 173+. © 2009 Independent Institute. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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