Blogs > Liberty and Power > Timothy Sandefur, F. A. Hayek and the Nature of Spontaneous Order

Sep 17, 2010 9:25 pm

Timothy Sandefur, F. A. Hayek and the Nature of Spontaneous Order

The Fall issue of Independent Review has my response to Timothy Sandefur's essay "Some Problems With Spontaneous Order," that appeared in its summer, 2009 issue. (Download his article at )

Unfortunately neither my critique nor Sandefur's response to it are available yet without buying the journal, though that will change in 6 months. (But they can use the business so I hope you buy it if you do not subscribe!) In a word, my argument is that Sandefur completely misses the importance of Hayek's distinction between a spontaneous order and an instrumental organization.

Sandefur argues in his response that if a spontaneous orders is unable to be described teleologically then it says nothing about moral or policy issues. This is a mistake because the abstract procedural rules of spontaneous orders bias the resulting order in terms of specific values without saying what the manifestation will be, or even that other values might also be served. For example, both the market and science are spontaneous orders, but the rules that generate them are different, serve different values, and lead to different kinds of patterns, coordination, feedback, and outcomes.

In his reply Sandefur argues his position undermines the usefulness of Hayek's critique of constructivism. Again, I think this evidences a misunderstanding of Hayek. As Hayek used the term "constructivism" was the belief that we could rationally create planned orders where the pattern of results was superior to the performance of spontaneous orders. He did not mean to suggest that we could not create or cultivate the conditions within which a spontaneous order could arise or improve on it if it pre-existed. The US constitution adapted existing cultural and poliical values to procedural rules that were abstract, formally neutral, and so on - the characteristics of rules able to generate a spontaneous order. A key clue here is that contradictory purposes could be pursued, as in the market and in science, with no assurance as to what the outcome would be in the future.

Sandefur also argues my example of the US Constitution as essentially creating a spontaneous order is false because the Constitution explicitly prohibits certain kinds of legislation. But this misunderstands my point about democracies as spontaneous orders. That goes beyond a blog post, but my initial argument to that effect was published in Critical Review in 1989. It can be downloaded (along with more recent refereed pieces further exploring this issue) at

I hope that my Independent Review response and some other critical responses to Sandefur will initiate a renewed and better informed interest in the explanatory power of Hayek's concept.

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