F. A. Hayek, Spontaneous Order, and the Mirage of Social Justice
AEI Newsletter

John Tomasi of Brown University delivered the seventh of the 2007-2008 Bradley Lectures on March 10. Edited excerpts follow. A video of the lecture is available at ww.aei.org/event1554/.

Friedrich Hayek was one of the greatest political thinkers of the twentieth century. He is also one of the most misunderstood. I would like to talk about two ideas that make Hayek great but that have caused him to be misunderstood: Hayek's idea of spontaneous order and his attack on "social justice."

In places, famously, Hayek certainly indicates that he is opposed to social justice. Indeed, he wrote an entire book on this subject called The Mirage of Social Justice. Justice, Hayek tells us, is a property of the actions of individual persons. The complex pattern of holdings we find across a free society, Hayek says, is the product of many human actions. To apply notions of justice to the relative holdings of people across an entire society is simply confusion. The phrase "social justice," Hayek tells us, "does not belong to the category of error but to that of nonsense, like the term 'a moral stone.'"

There is a problem with this simple reading of Hayek, however, and it has much vexed Hayek scholars. For while claiming to reject social justice, Hayek often invokes a standard of social justice in arguing for limited government--he says repeatedly that a society of free markets and limited government should be beneficial to all citizens. On occasions when he fears the market system may not have this hoped-for result, Hayek advocates governmental correctives--a guaranteed minimum income, public funding for schools, and an array of social services for needy families--all to be funded by increased taxation. It looks a lot like a concern for social justice.

Despite what many Hayek scholars have said, I see no deep inconsistency between Hayek's rejection of social justice and his expression of social justice-like concerns. To see why, though, we need to consider the idea of spontaneous order. To understand Hayek's idea of spontaneous order, consider a collection of crystals--say, a cluster of rock candy on a string. Candy crystals form when a solution of sugar and water cools. As the temperature drops, the lattice bonds of the sugar molecules begin to re-form. Crystal facets gather on the string.
Now compare the string of rock candy with another complex structure: a Lego model--say, the Death Star from Star Wars. The Death Star is one of the most complex of all the models made by Lego. The large box contains 3,449 small pieces and an instructional booklet with many pages of step-by-step instructions, and a person must carry out each step precisely as directed by the Lego engineers.

The Death Star and a string of rock candy are both complex organizational structures. Yet each is a product of a different type of organizational process. The bringing together of the Lego parts into the form of the completed Death Star requires constant application of goal-directed reason on the part of some organizing agent. By contrast, the molecular units that compose the rock candy are not moved by any unified agent according to some preconceived plan. The components act in accord with general laws of molecular chemistry, but the precise shape the candy will take is beyond the predictive power of even the most sophisticated scientist. A rock candy crystal is a spontaneous system. The Lego model is made.

Apply this to social systems. Within a totalitarian or socialist society, every person is assigned a particular place according to the will of some central planner. With "made" orders of that sort, Hayek says, it does indeed make sense to talk in terms of the social justice (or injustice) of the society as a whole. But a free society--a society formed according to classical liberal principles--is a spontaneous order rather than a made one.

Hayek's distinction between spontaneous and made orders is one of the most important and fascinating ideas in all of social science. But there is one point about spontaneous orders that I urge you to ponder: spontaneous orders, on the societal level at least, are almost always the products of design. This is true even of rock candy. Granted, the molecules interact with each other freely, and the crystals grow spontaneously, but somebody had to stir up the solution, cut off the piece of string, dip it in, and carefully cool the thing down. Any child can tell a good batch of rock candy from a lousy one, and they rightly praise some candy makers and condemn others on that basis.

Within a free society, Hayek argues, no one controls all the activities and positions of all the members. The ideal of personal freedom and the ideal of direct control by so-called experts are in tension. But as with sugar candy, so with human freedom and prosperity: we can tell an experiment that is realizing its goals from one that is falling short. And we rightly praise some societies (and public policy programs) and condemn others on that basis. One lesson we can learn from Hayek is that one can be against expansive governmental programs precisely because one is for social justice.

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