Spontaneous order

See also the closely related articles: emergence and self-organization.

Spontaneous order is a term that describes the spontaneous emergence of order out of seeming chaos. It is also a social theory that describes the emergence of various kinds of social order from a combination of self-interested individuals who are not intentionally trying to create order.

The evolution of life on Earth, human language, rules of the road, and a free market economy have all been proposed as examples of systems which evolved through spontaneous order. Atheists and naturalists often point to the inherent "watch-like" precision of uncultivated ecosystems and to the universe itself as ultimate examples of this phenomenon, while creationists such as William Paley and deists believe that these intricate arrangements could not have arisen accidentally and must have been devised by a divine consciousness or "watchmaker".

Spontaneous order is also used as a synonym for any emergent behavior of which self-interested spontaneous order is just an instance.

History of the theory

According to Murray Rothbard, Zhuangzi (369-c. 286 B.c.) was the first to work out the idea of spontaneous order, before Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Friedrich Hayek. The Taoist Zhuangzi said, "Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone." . Proudhon said, "The notion of anarchy in politics is just as rational and positive as any other. It means that once industrial functions have taken over from political functions, then business transactions alone produce the social order. Proudhon's position was that freedom is prerequisite for spontaneous order to take place, rather than liberty being the result of spontaneous order. Hence his statement, liberty "is not the daughter but the mother of order.

The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment were the first to seriously develop and inquire into the idea of the market as a 'spontaneous order' (the "result of human action, but not the execution of any human design", as Adam Ferguson put it first ).

The Austrian School of Economics, lead by Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, would later refine the concept and use it as a centerpiece in its social and economic thought.

Most Austrian School thinkers and other libertarian figures such as Milton Friedman concurred with Proudhon's position mentioned above, although they supported the existence of a minimal state to maintain the liberty requisite for spontaneous order to take place.



Many economic classic liberals, such as Hayek, have argued that market economies are creative of a spontaneous order - "a more efficient allocation of societal resources than any design could achieve. They claim this spontaneous order is superior to any order human mind can design due to the specifics of the information required. Centralized statistical data cannot convey this information because the statistics are created by abstracting away from the particulars of the situation. In a market economy, price is the aggregation of information acquired when people are free to use their individual knowledge. Price then allows everyone dealing in a commodity or its substitutes to make decisions based on more information than they could personally acquire, information not statistically conveyable to a centralized authority. Interference from a central authority which affects price will have consequences they could not foresee because they do not know all of the particulars involved. This is illustrated in the concept of the invisible hand proposed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Thus in this view by acting on information with greater detail and accuracy than possible for any centralized authority, a more efficient economy is created to the benefit of a whole society.

Game studies

The concept of spontaneous order is closely related with modern game studies. As early as in the 1940s, historian Johan Huizinga wrote that "in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primeval soil of play". Following on this in his book The Fatal Conceit, Hayek notably wrote that "A game is indeed a clear instance of a process wherein obedience to common rules by elements pursuing different and even conflicting purposes results in overall order".


The bubble in dotcom and telecom stock prices in the late 1990s, which led to a flurry of corporate scandals in the United States in 2001-2003, led many observers to stress the importance of "transparency" as a condition of the efficient development of spontaneous order in the financial world. The idea is that a corporation cannot be a black box into which investors pour money in the hope of returns -- they have to be able to see through the box, into the books and records of their company.

Advocates of broad application for the concept of spontaneous order have argued that the aforementioned corporate scandals could have been avoided through the alleged self-correcting tendencies of the private sector. This argument is centered on the actions of a private sector agency, the Financial Accounting Standards Board, who warned against certain practices that were distorting balance sheets and enabling a stock price bubble. As early as 1993, the FASB issued a rule that would have required corporations to count the value of employee stock options on their books as an expense – a rule that might by itself have done a good deal to moderate the still-then-forming bubble, according to its advocates. However, when the U.S. Congress held hearings and called the more conscientious accountants to the carpet, the FASB backed down from its initiative.

According to the advocates of spontaneous order, the FASB initiative could have been a successful example of spontaneous order in practice, leading to self-regulation in the private sector. They criticize the actions of Congress for ensuring an unregulated period of easy money in some industries, while also ensuring an eventual bursting of the bubble and consequent scandal.


Anarchists argue that the state is in fact an artificial creation of the ruling elite, and that true spontaneous order would arise if it was eliminated. In the anarchist view, such spontaneous order would involve the voluntary cooperation of individuals. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, "the work of many symbolic interactionists is largely compatible with the anarchist vision, since it harbours a view of society as spontaneous order."


The concept of spontaneous order can also be seen in the works of the Russian slavophile movements and in specific the works of Dostoevsky. The concept of an organic social manifestation as a concept in Russia expressed under the idea of sobornost. Sobornost was also used by Tolstoy as an underpinning to the concept of Christian Anarchy. Lenin also later exploited the concept of sobornost as a foundation for his own reforms. The concept was used to describe the uniting force behind the peasant or serf Obshchina in pre Soviet Russia.


See also

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