Thursday, April 05, 2012

Understanding Spontaneous Order

“Understanding Spontaneous Order by RYAN YOUNG on 4 APRIL HERE

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 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. …

… 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 consciously 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

Ryan Young’s short piece on “spontaneous order” is neat. It’s not self-evident the tiger parable accounts for the phenomenon (not all early humans were vulnerable to tigers, especially where there was none in the African bush). However, we get his point.

I have long been dissatisfied with the word “spontaneous” as the description of non-designed processes. Maybe it is my limited imagination. I agree whole-heartedly with what the word describes; I just do not think it describes situations particularly well.

Such events produce behaviours and ideas (knowledge) about a form of response (‘avoid rustles in the bushes’), which is not planned or initiated by a directing individual, though elders pass knowledge onto children which those who react appropriately (‘run fast away from rustles’) survive to tell their children (as do those who ‘stand and fight and kill the lion’).

In short, I think another word might be better suited than “spontaneous”. Some do not run away or are insufficiently skilled or strong. Mainly, they die. For those who do, is the difference only that they act ”spontaneously”? Or is it that they are more fearful or remember what they were told by elders about dangers whereas those who are killed? Choice may be random; on leaving their night location next day they go left rather than right and nothing rustles in the bushes where they go.

In the case of the informal shorter path that appears to cross an open space instead of using the designed perimeter path prepared for the development, is the diagonal crossway “spontaneous”, or is it explained by people who see a shorter walk from their relative lethargy, or they are carrying heavy shopping bags, or similar such motive. This suggests an action following a motive driving the actor, and their deliberate, not mysteriously “spontaneous” or motiveless, action (and similarly for all those who take the short-cut).

The consequence of these actions, contrary to the intentions of the designer of the longer pathway, is unintentional – nobody intended the informal path to appear; it did appear though, despite the intention of the architects who designed the intended official, but unused path.

An unintended consequence of actions has a long history in economics. Adam Smith identified unintentional consequences in Wealth of Nations when he used the metaphor of “an invisible hand” of the additive affects of individuals who are so concerned with the security of their capital if they sent it abroad to invest domestically and thereby, in consequence, unintentionally add to domestic “revenue and output” (WN IV.ii.9: 456).

This is the famous “invisible hand” paragraph. The grammatical object of this particular metaphor is the “concern for his security” that leads the merchant to invest locally. His insecurity leads him to act in a certain manner. Is “spontaneous” an adequate description for his actions? I am not convinced that it is.

My search for a better word continues …

Labels: , ,


Blogger airth10 said...


Your dissatisfaction with the word “spontaneous” reminds me of somebody else's dissatisfaction, with the word "sustainability". Perhaps there are no other words to describe what they are trying to describe. But even if you don't care for the phase "spontaneous order" I am sure you know what it means or is getting at.

"Spontaneous order" does describe things falling in place if one follows certain patterns. But for those who don't follow the pattern there is also a sort of spontaneous order for them, whether they like it or not. That is because, like with all of us, one is contained and constrained by the "system", the system that naturally evolve order and from it.

I like order and the system. But I also like a level of agitation and upheaval because otherwise order and systems become unsustainable and fall into decline, because crippling order creates stagnation. Systems need a 'creative tension' in order to remain sustainable. We need a balance. And that I think is what "spontaneous order" is all about, striking a balance.

Why somebody didn't like the word Sustainability is because it is generally coupled with words like development or growth. He found the term Sustainable Development a contradiction. As an environmentalist he wondered how we could achieve sustainability while still developing and growing. One good definition I found cheering for Sustainable Development is "strategies for meshing human activities with the limits of planet and the needs of future generations".

I am sure there are people who don't like the term invisible hand. It is also lacking, in something and a definative meaning. That is probably why you find it misused, because there is a vagueness about it.

4:26 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Interesting but not quite my point. Unintended outcomes is evident, but the issue is whether they are spontaneous, Something causes consequential events, but "spontaneous" denies cause, as in "spontaneous combustion". Hence the word is unhelpful.

Philosophers, such as Hayek, denied "design" as a cause, especially in its theological form of a divine designer (God). "Spontaneous" completely negates god an explanation (quite rightly) but implies no cause at all. The diagonal crossers of a space are caused by, perhaps, the heavy load they carry, or just plain laziness, which are human traits and not godlike.


11:14 am  
Blogger Mark Michael Lewis said...

I am fond of the word "organic" in this context - and use it to describe the process most often. Weeds grow where they can, flowers and vegetables arrange themselves and grow into sunlight, birds find opportune places for nests, and abandoned houses become "infested" with "pests" - it is an organic process that creates an ecology. It seems like a spontaneous order in retrospect, or when you take a snapshot of it in time, but it grew organically and will evolve organically.

You can try to cultivate it, but nature does not care what your intentions are. It just grows around your plans according to its organic creativity.

12:53 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thank you for you belated comment on a post I published in April 2012. I like the word ‘organic’. It comes from the natural order in which species propogate. All species, except humans, propogate according to their biological impulses common to their species within their environments. There are two sources that occasion changes in their norms of propagation: random internal genetic changes and external enviromental changes. These changes evolve through time and cirmcumstance. Biologically, taller/smaller, faster/slower, stronger/weaker, predation, intelligence, etc., and Environmental: climate, weather, physical location, desertification, rainfall, temperature, etc.
Human kind evolved both under changing biological changes (the varied pre-human species since speciation from a common ancestor of apes) and conscious and separate adaptations to local environments, including discovering different means of subsistence across the planet, with ‘leakages’ of practices from unplanned contacts with neighbouring humans, many violent and by inter-breeding among lines of descent. None, or very little, of these evolutionary processes were intentional, but they were conscious where they occurred. All were also subject to unintentional consequences.
I am still unsatisfied with the word ‘spontaneous’ in the sense that changes in behaviour occurred and in many separate cases they did not occur, hence varying levels of social development and acculated knowledge across the human species, with which we lived through during the past 10,000 years (agriculture in some areas and hunting in the Forest that once dominated in other larger areas).
All this does not imply ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ sub-species in human history, or superior ‘rulers’ versus untalented ‘mobs’.

3:06 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home