28 December 2015

The least worst of all possible worlds

Back on Christmas George Will went against the grain of the holiday by publishing a hymn to spontaneous order. He had some fun with liberals and statists of all sorts by comparing them with religious creationists. Will may be a pious man in private life, but in print he didn't mean the comparison to be flattering. Playing the freethinker, he observed that religious creationism is "mistaken but inconsequential," while the cost of secular (i.e. political) creationism is steep. Just as religious creationists contend that there can be no moral order without a Creator, secular "theists" believe -- just as falsely, Will irreverently suggests -- that there can be no social order without acts of political will. From Will's perspective, this is undemocratic thinking; it is a call for "top-down" commands by "wise designers, a.k.a. them." But if some people find the notion of spontaneous order abhorrent or simply frightening because "no one is in charge," Will offers comfort with the argument that "everyone is in charge of social change." He's not so reckless as to argue that everyone is equally in charge, but he probably would find the question of equality irrelevant, if not irreverent. He mocks the critics of spontaneous order as theists, implicitly accusing them of wanting to play God, but he's really no less theistic. The idea of spontaneous order, identified in modern times with the Nobel-winning economist Friedrich Hayek, is really no more complex than vox populi, vox dei, on the understanding that vox populi isn't the same as majority rule. It is also, as I've noted in the past, pathetically panglossian. The argument for spontaneous order is a defensive argument against any tampering with the vox populi through individual or collective will. If the original Pangloss argued that the world we lived in was the best of all possible worlds, defenders of spontaneous order argue the same thing with a negative spin: the world of spontaneous order is the least worst of all possible worlds because any consciously willed alternative will only make things worse. This point is taken on as much faith as any argument against spontaneous order.

Since any alternative to spontaneous order is defined as "top-down," no matter how many people support it, -- it is inevitably "command" rather than "commerce" -- it disrupts the multidirectional flow of information upon which, according to Hayek, truly efficient if not beneficial social evolution depends. There's a lot of epistemological flimflam going on here over what is "spontaneous" and what is "willed," what is "command" or "top-down" and what is not. There's also too much indifference to who has power and who has not, or an indifference to inequalities of power so long as no one has power to command from the top down. That indifference shouldn't surprise anyone, since spontaneous order is a philosophy of indifference. That may not sound right if you think of libertarians defending spontaneous order desperately from every top-down (not to mention bottom-up) assault and insisting that it's better than any other imaginable arrangement. But spontaneous order considered in isolation from alternatives is, like much of classical liberalism,indifferent to results. Classical liberal political theory depends on it making no great difference what results from liberal political processes; if the political system works properly there can never be any real danger to the polity from any particular candidate or party winning an election, and there is no reason to suppress political ideas. Spontaneous order in the economic realm is indifferent to inequality or individual suffering so long as some people -- in abstract, anyone -- can succeed. In each case citizens are expected to recognize outcomes as "fair" and suppress any impulse to alter them, whether those impulses are based on raw self-interest or a misplaced and self-serving notion of "fairness" or a deduction that certain results are destructive of a common good that is not determined spontaneously. In politics, liberalism rules that once you decide that certain things can't happen, or that others must, you become a tyrant. In economics, the argument from spontaneous order is that once you care how things turn out, once you prefer or demand one result over others, once you value results over process, you can only do damage.

The problem with the spontaneous-order superstition is that it draws an arbitrary line separating spontaneous order from top-down command, as if it is not spontaneous to attempt to impose order on human commerce and other relations, and as if there can never be an attempt to impose order and law on society through commerce or other non-political means. Yet if the so-called thinkers who idolize Hayek would step back for a second, they might see that the philosophical attempt to exclude political thinking from any concept of spontaneous order is absurd. I can understand why people want to think that way, since political thinking itself is often absurd or worse, but political thinking is as natural and spontaneous a human activity as commerce, and to think that one activity is more spontaneous or natural than the other really sounds like special pleading along the lines of "don't tell me what to do" or "don't judge me." But if spontaneous order is good because it's democratic rather than top-down, as Will insists, then let's remember that democracy also means that everyone judges everyone else, and that democracy carries with it at least an implicit power of command. If none of that is part of democracy in a spontaneous order, if what people like Will want a democracy where no one actually rules, then politics may eventually evolve spontaneously in ways the Wills of the world won't like. Their dislike won't make it any less spontaneous, however, so I suppose they'll have no right to object to the outcome.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"...that there can be no social order without acts of political will. "

I'd like to see some historical evidence to back that up. Even the small, local tribes of relatively "anarchist" natives established a social order through acts of political will (and the unspoken other side, political acquiescence.) The two are, pretty much, inseparable. There is no politics with some sort of social order and, by its very nature, social order denotes a political will on the part of whomever within society establishes that order and the agreement (or non-refusal) of at least a large proportion of the social order.

If you were to create a mob of people, each from a different culture, speaking a different language, the only social order you would see that could arguable arise without an act of political will, would be that of a despot, with the big man on top and everyone else either kowtowing beneath him or out of the picture.