Jamie and/or Patrick Stephens has blogged a response to my post about gradualism vs. consciously planned reforms. First, I should try to clarify my earlier point. I object to what I see as the overly common invocation of gradual, incremental, or organic social change as the alternative to consciously planned methods of top-down reform. Such invocations usually involve a reference to Friedrich Hayek’s distinction between “spontaneous order” and “rationalistic constructivism,” a distinction that I find fatuous, because a spontaneous order is really just a chain of incidents of “constructivist rationalism” seen from a distance. Take, for example, the common law—a “spontaneous order,” which, when looked at close-up is really just a series of cases in which judges consciously apply principles to cases with an eye to the effect their decisions will have on the future. If we look at them from a distance, they seem to be a decentralized process of social decision-making, but if we examine them in detail, they aren’t that at all: they’re incidents of people trying to rationally construct a solution to the problem.
Now, one of Hayek’s points was that we cannot know the information necessary to “rationally construct” the whole shebang at once, and of course he’s right about that—a fine and useful observation. But unfortunately, it seems that many libertarians and conservatives take from this observation the notion that decentralized, spontaneous orders are somehow always the proper solution to a problem, and that conscious processes of top-down rule-making are somehow never the correct solution. I don’t think that’s actually what Hayek meant—although Law, Legislation And Liberty has so many ambiguous passages and self-contradictions that it’s amenable to more than one reading—but be that as it may, it is simply not true that conscious “rationalistic” solutions ought always to be avoided.
Now, the examples that I cited were the French Revolution and the history of American race relations (two historical episodes that actually have a lot in common, I think). Oftentimes people who take the gradualism tack point to the French Revolution as an example of the inevitable failure of “constructivist rationalism.” Now, putting aside whether or not the Revolution can be fairly described as “rationalist,” it is still absurd for people to assume, as they seem to, that everything would have been great in France if only people had waited and made reforms incrementally. The fact is, life is short, and incrementalism means waiting, often for more than a lifetime. And if we’re going to compare the record of constructivist rationalism with the record of spontaneous order, then we’re going to have to take into account all the suffering and dying that is going to go on before the spontaneous order makes things right.* Sometimes people even contrast the American and French Revolutions to emphasize their point, but this just shows the weaknesses of their assumptions, because the American Revolution was an almost complete failure from the perspective of blacks in America.
One or more of the Stephenses write that “[t]he French Revolution wasn’t a failure simply because of Robespierre’s short and brutal rule. Had France endured that and then emerged free and whole and vibrant, the point—and the comparison to the American Civil War—might be valid. But the Reign of Terror gave birth to Napoleon, not freedom. The French Revolution failed utterly—not because of a madman and a few months of horror—but because it failed entirely to achieve the least of its ambitions. The French Revolution guillotined a king and crowned an emperor.” Of course that’s true, but there’s nothing about “rationalist constructivism” that makes this an inevitable result. There may be something about the nature of revolution that makes it a more likely result—no doubt about that—but that’s an argument against all revolutions, and unless the concept of “spontaneous order” really is to mean that we just sit back and never do anything about injustice, surely we’re going to have to accept that revolution is proper under some circumstances. (Or are we to play into the old joke: “how many libertarians does it take to change a lightbulb? None—if it needed changing, the market would have taken care of it!”)
The point I’m making about the French Revolution isn’t that it was a good or bad thing or that it might have come out differently one way or another—the point is that it is dishonest for Burkeans/Hayekians to use it as an example of the alleged inevitable failure of constructivist rationalism, without also keeping in mind that if nothing had been done—if “gradualism” had been the word of the day—the result would have been more and more death, more and more poverty, more and more oppression. Now, maybe it would have been, all things considered, a better path for France to have taken, but we can’t make that decision without at least considering the suffering that gradualism would have entailed. Incrementalism is not, not the answer, and William Easterly is completely, 100 percent wrong to say that “The French Revolution didn’t work. The gradual path has worked wonderfully for the U.S.” (Besides, in the whole scheme of Western European history from Charlemagne to the Hydrogen Bomb, the French Revolution is but a tiny little dumpling of spontaneous order, no?)
As for the American Civil War and Civil Rights Movements, look at what happened: people waited, and took the incremental path after Reconstruction. Yes, some things improved between 1865 and 1965 through a gradual process of incremental change. But it was not until Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders—and Lyndon Johnson in 1964—took the route of constructivist rationalism that things really began to change for blacks in the south. At least one Stephens says “the civil rights movement, while violent, was conducted entirely within the constraints and confines of the law [which is definitely not true, but let’s put that to one side]. That, I think, makes it a ‘gradual’ movement by the definition of the Burkeans.” But I don’t think so. Their complaint isn’t about legality/illegality. Their complaint is about the rational reconstruction of society on the basis of predetermined views about justice. That’s why they also complain about legislation which seeks to reform a social institution in the service of a vision of justice. The Civil Rights Movement is an example of constructivist rationalism because civil rights leaders declared that their principle was racial equality and then they sought to impose remake society in the image of that ideal, disrupting all sorts of spontaneous orders in the process.
The point of this isn’t to get into the history, however—it’s to point out what I think is a terrible habit among some libertarians and conservatives of abusing the concept of spontaneous order or social evolution, in ways that render the concept trivial, or that just totally ignore the actual ingredients of successful social reform.
*-Now, again, you could take the easy way out, and say “no, conscious reform efforts are a part of a spontaneous order,” but, again, that’s nothing more than standing back and looking at historical processes from a distance that, as far as I can tell, renders the entire observation of “spontaneous order” trivial.