Understanding Spontaneous Order

Spontaneous order is one of the most important concepts in the social sciences, and also one of the most maligned. It’s most closely associated with Friedrich Hayek, but it has roots going back to at least the 18th century English and Scottish Enlightenments. Thinkers like Bernard Mandeville, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and David Hume all used some kind of spontaneous order framework. They knew that not every design requires a designer.

Nobody designed languages, for example. They emerge and continually evolve on their own, with nobody deliberately directing the process. The economy is also a spontaneous order, even though most people think it has to be be consciously directed. Nobody is in charge of food distribution for New York or Paris, and yet those great, farmless cities are still fed every day. It’s an everyday miracle if you think about it.

The reason that a lot of non-economists are skeptical or unaware of spontaneous order is that it’s a difficult concept for the human brain to comprehend. We’re not wired to.

Back in our hunter-gatherer days, the traits that evolutionary biologist Michael Shermer calls patternicity and agenticity had a great survival advantage. Find a pattern in everything, and know that some agent is probably behind it. There’s a rustle in the bush. A hungry tiger must be causing that rustle. Run. Hide. Survive.

Even if most rustles are false alarms, people with strong patternicity and agenticity tended to outlive their fellows who didn’t. We are their descendants, and our brains haven’t changed to match our new surroundings. We think that there are patterns and agents behind everything, even though there aren’t, really. We’re still looking for that tiger, but it isn’t there anymore.

To this day, a lot of people think the president runs the economy. His policies do have some effect, but he actually runs very little. The global economy has so many variables, so many nooks and crannies of specialized, dispersed local knowledge, that even if a president were to try and take charge of the economy, he simply couldn’t. The result is that presidents, like quarterbacks, get far too much credit when times are good, and far too much blame when times are bad. Patternicity and agenticity strike again.

Hayek has a well-deserved reputation as poor prose stylist. But he did come up with a very clear way to explain how spontaneous orders can emerge in everyday life:

The way in which footpaths are formed is such an instance. At first everyone will seek for himself what seems to him the best path.  But the fact that such a path has been used once is likely to make it easier to traverse and therefore more likely to be used again; and thus gradually more and more clearly defined tracks arise and come to be used to the exclusion of other possible ways. Human movements through the region come to conform to a definite pattern which, although the result of deliberate decisions of many people, has yet not been concsiously designed by anyone.

-F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason, pp. 70-71.

And when a regulator comes along and tries to design a straighter, more orderly path, the results will rarely be what he intends. In a way, you can blame his hubris on tigers.