The Good Society 11.3 (2002) 29-33
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Emergent Order and Liberal Political Theory
Liberalism is the first Western political outlook to begin freeing itself from the intuitively commonsense notion that social order required a great Legislator. The earliest thinkers associated with the rise of liberalism, such as Thomas Hobbes, still shared this view. But leading members of the Scottish Enlightenment made a conceptual breakthrough, grasping that important kinds of social order were the unintended consequences of people pursuing quite different purposes.
David Hume emphasized the limits to human understanding were far greater than earlier Enlightenment thinkers had imagined, and that our conceptions of morality and justice emerged from the accumulated experience of humankind. Law also emerged as an evolutionary process. In terms of social theory Adam Smith is perhaps the best known, because of his The Wealth of Nations. His work on similar processes in language has been less recognized. 1 Adam Ferguson emphasized that "nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design." 2 These insights marked the first systematic study of what today is often identified as "emergent" or "spontaneous order."
Today the importance of emergent order is widely recognized in a variety of disciplines, where it supports a small publishing industry. It is well known in computer science, psychology, economics, anthropology, brain research, and the life sciences, particularly under the terms of self-organization and chaos theory. It is perhaps the only major theoretical concept adopted by the natural sciences that first emerged in social theory. However, it has been largely ignored in political science and political theory alike, except when used to distinguish political orders from emergent ones. 3 This essay argues this oversight constitutes a serious error, particularly for liberal theory and practice.
Emergent order is implicit in liberal theory because it emphasizes the desirability of a society based on equal status and freedom from arbitrary power. A necessary assumption for such a society's viability, at least beyond the scope of a village, is that ordered and broadly useful outcomes have to emerge as unintended consequences of people's actions. Whether people were fundamentally cooperative or competitive, a crucial level of cooperation had to emerge "spontaneously" from their interactions.
It is unfortunate that much liberal theory never fully appreciated the importance of this concept. The beguiling value of rational control suggested an alternative: that science and wise leadership could best improve humanity's well being. The spectacular successes of science and later of industrial organization, lent credence to this alternative view, which ignored that the frameworks supporting both science and industry were themselves emergent orders. 4
With the rise of liberal democracy and the industrial economy, liberals were also confronted with problems unimagined by their early theorists. The result was a deep split in liberal political thought, one that persists to this day. Some liberals argued that democratic government was the best institution to bring what they perceived as the worst abuses of the market under control while ameliorating its failings, particularly with regard to the poor. They often call themselves progressive or modern liberals. Others argued that democracies were coercive states, and so just as much a threat to liberal freedoms as the undemocratic states against which earliest liberals had struggled. They call themselves classical liberals or libertarians.
In most cases progressive liberals acknowledged the dangers of large governmental organizations, but insisted wise legislation and democratic processes could prevent their worst abuses. Some classical liberals and libertarians acknowledged that large corporations were not really to be trusted, but that the market and competition would keep them in check better than government could. 5 Both groups shared a common perspective, but differed on the advisability of using government to counteract the problems existing within markets. Theirs is a family quarrel—but family quarrels can be among the most bitter. Ironically, each group has occasionally allied itself with anti-liberal forces, the better to oppose the other.
A renewed appreciation of emergent order's centrality to liberal theory and liberal institutions alike offers hope...