Welcome back to our series on the values of liberalism.
Value Number Eight. Finally, we arrived at the bottom of our list of the eight liberal values of liberalism. We are almost there !
“8 Values of Liberalism"
In this article, we will be talking about the value with the most confusing name: Spontaneous Order. It’s a term that we take from the liberal thinker Friedrich-August von Hayek. But do not worry. The term sounds much more difficult than what the value actually stands for. It’s one of the most powerful ideas, you will ever discover. So, don’t get scared off by our lack of a better word! And by the way, if you come up with a better term throughout the explanations in this article, let us know in the comments below.
In any case, let’s get going. Have you ever heard about Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”? We bet you have. And we bet that most of the time, you might have heard it in a negative context like “liberals believe in some sort of magic hand that makes markets efficient.” But by now you should know better and it hopefully will not take much effort to convince you that liberals do not put all their hope on some mysterious hands to make their core beliefs work.
Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” and Spontaneous Order are not about wizardry or alchemy.They are about the limits of social planning. They are about the question of who plans for whom? In socialism, nationalism or any sort of religious ideology, the answer to this question is clear and easy: the central committee, the supreme leader or God. Those entities will know what to do. They take care of us. Yet, we know that liberals take a different approach. They anchor responsibility at the individual level. They don’t think that social problems always have to be solved from top-down. They believe in the agency and capacity of “people on the ground ”to shoulder this responsibility.
Private individuals, entrepreneurs, local communities, families, and civic associations: They will come up with grassroots solutions to tackle the problem efficiently and effectively from the bottom-up.
There you go. You just understood the fundamental principle behind markets, civil society and many other social phenomena. Because it is the decentralized and uncoordinated action of individual agents on the group that gives rise to structures and systems that are more powerful than any human or central planner could ever imagine designing.
In the words of the Scottish thinker and friend of Adam Smith—Adam Ferguson: Those systems emerge as “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.” The great insight of Adam Smith is not that we have to believe in higher powers, such as the invisible hand, but in ordinary people following their very own life plans.
Because when they do so, they jointly create the institutions that serve us all: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” This trust in those beneficial and yet unintended consequences of free human interaction makes liberals unique. And tells you quite a lot about liberals’ view of human nature.
Just think of the obvious counter example: Lenin’s vision of economic planning in the Soviet Union. Lenin literally envisioned that this could and should be done in the way that a post office operates. That the bureaucrats and managers would be able to precisely determine what each citizen would need and demand. And of course, we all know how that turned out. Liberals believe in the power of individuals. But we do not idealize them. We do not idealize government planners as super humans. And we do not put impossible burdens on their shoulders. Instead, we trust in humility and modesty in institutions and cooperation.
Markets, prosperity, invention, and innovation did not come into the world through a single mind. They are the result of an ongoing process of cooperation and interaction between free individuals. “Oh, you liberals. we knew that in the end, it’s all about markets,” you might say. Fair enough. But just for a moment, think of the process how language emerges and develops. Is there one central committee that determines all the rules of how we speak and talk to each other? Or is this also a process of spontaneous and uncoordinated action? How do new words, such as “to google” come into our languages? By the approval of a language committee? No, certainly not. Because ordinary people start to use the word! Voilà, another example of spontaneous order. So, it is not only about economics.
Spontaneous Order takes many different forms. And Once you understood the the idea behind spontaneous order, you start to see it everywhere. Because we see spontaneous order processes everywhere in the world: from the evolution of language to the Internet and markets.All of those are the result of uncoordinated individual action of ordinary human beings and not of the design, planning or imposition of the ideas of the powerful. And this shows you how everything now falls in to place. Because this list of values was not given to us by one single liberal thinker. It was a spontaneous process through many different centuries involving many different thinkers from all over the world.
And although there is no central planner of liberalism, all these values now fit nicely together: From the way liberals recognize agency of individuals in society (Individualism) Without falsely idealizing them and knowing that putting them in a position of power might bring out the worst in human nature (Skepticism about Power) To the rules and procedures that constrain and prevent the abuse of those powers (Rule of Law) And ultimately the mindset that recognizes and cherishes individual differences and instead of trying to conceal or silence them(Tolerance) With a change-model that respects human dignity, the trusts in persuasion and the uncoercive force of the better argument(Peace)And that finally leaves the agency with ordinary people on the ground instead of superhuman bureaucrats (Responsibility & Spontaneous Order)Topped by our commitment that human flourishing is only possible if we empower each on all of us to become the author of their very own books of life.(Liberty) That is the family tree of liberalism. Of course, there is much more to say. And you can reach out to us to get more readings and information on your field of interest.
However, for the last and final article, we would like to turn to our obligations as citizens on what it means to live in a democratic society. See you there!