Order without intent

Adam Ferguson (1723 – 1816) was a moral philosopher and historian. He was a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. In his An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) he observed:

“Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”

The claim is that sometimes order emerges from the actions of the collective without there being some master plan that was being followed. The term “spontaneous order” describes that well: “the emergence of various kinds of social orders from a combination of self-interested individuals who are not intentionally trying to create order through planning. The evolution of life on Earth, language, crystal structure, the Internet and a free market economy have all been proposed as examples of systems which evolved through spontaneous order.” (wiki)

Design and planning is certainly important. But too much design and planning is disastrous because of two problems. First, we cannot precisely predict the future. That’s a knowledge problem. Second, people behave strategically. They cannot be controlled and made to follow plans; they are not inert matter to be moved around at will. That’s the control problem.

Powerful but not very wise leaders have frequently labored under the illusion that they can achieve their grand schemes by planning and designing. They have wreaked havoc on society and murdered by the millions.

Ferguson’s insight was shared by the old-world classical liberals. Their normative stance was to leave people alone. Laissez faire. Leave people alone to follow their own plans, and don’t try to impose some grand scheme on others. Order will emerge provided that people are civil, and don’t engage in force, fraud or theft.

In his book The Fatal Conceit (1988) Hayek wrote

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order.

It is counter-intuitive — absurd — that order can emerge without orders being given from up on high. And yet we see that order all around us. That’s what amazes me.

I cannot conclude this line of thought without quoting from a favorite poem, “To a Mouse” (1785) by the great Scottish poet Robert Burns.

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy!
Alright, here’s a video that I liked.

Order without intent: How spontaneous order built our world.


Author: Atanu Dey


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