I’ve never been a big fan of Friedrich Hayek and spontaneous order—an observation I think valid, but in many ways trivial. One downside to his influence, I think, is that it leads many libertarians to argue that gradual, decentralized decision-making is presumptively superior to centralized, conscious processes. Take this episode of EconTalk, for instance, about foreign aid. At one point, the guest, William Easterly, invokes Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution as being a centralized, rationalistic process and therefore doomed to failure because society is an organic spontaneous order. (I suspect this is a bit of an anachronistic reading of Burke, but not being an expert on him, I won’t pursue that.)
A lot of Enlightenment folks inspired the French Revolution which was very much a top-down kind of attempt to remake society all at once. And the contrasting viewpoint was given at the time of the French Revolution by Edmund Burke who said “no, no, no, you can’t just start with a blank slate and tear everything up and start from scratch; you have to realize that institutions evolve for a reason, and experts never have enough knowledge to know exactly how to remake society.” The experts tend to be very humble and modest and say, “well, what incremental and gradual changes can we make that will make things better?” I think that’s really the philosophical difference.... This first camp [is] kind of What Karl Popper called “utopian social engineering,” that you can engineer society to move it towards utopia. And I'm in the camp of the evolutionary, gradual kind of thinker who’s pessimistic about how much you can radically remake society with the aid of a few experts.... I think the historical evidence is very much on my side, though. The French Revolution didn’t work. The gradual path has worked wonderfully for the U.S. and the United Kingdom and other rich societies.
Worked wonderfully? Gradual path? This does not describe the history of reform in the United States as I know it. Let’s take the most obvious example of a barbaric institution that needed to be radically reformed in the United States: slavery. Slavery was not abolished as a result of a “gradual path.” It was abolished at the price of hundreds of thousands of lives, in a “top-down” fashion of centralized government planning.
The legacy of slavery, however, in the form of Jim Crow, segregation, and so forth—well, there blacks were told to be patient for “the gradual path” to work its wonders. They were told that for a century. They were told that as the lynchings went on, and on, and on. It was only when the Civil Rights movement began that this practice began to wither away. And that movement was, once again, a centralized, conscious effort that cost many lives and disrupted social institutions awfully. It was a movement backed eventually by the full force of the central, federal government. It was certainly disruptive, it was certainly imperfect, it may even have been “utopian social engineering,” but that hardly discredits it or its achievements.
Now, one might try, as Hayek did, to incorporate such incidents into one’s account of decentralized gradualism and say that such conscious reform efforts are an integral part of spontaneous order, but if so, that reduces the concept of spontaneous order to a triviality, as I’ve argued before—because it says that if you stand back far enough, and view each example of constructivist rationalism or “social engineering” as just part of a long historical process, why then it all seems like it’s gradual and spontaneous.
The French Revolution is the favorite example of the Burkeans, and interestingly, Mark Twain had a reply to the Burkean/Hayekian account of that Revolution, in his book A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:
There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.
Central planning and conscious reform efforts by government have all sorts of shortcomings. And it is true that social institutions can be described as a spontaneous order just like biological evolution can. But it is extremely misleading to imagine that these processes are just processes, when in fact they (like biological institutions) are actually just chains of causation that are made up of individual instances, each one of which is often an instance of “constructivist rationalism” and not spontaneous order. And it is much more misleading to say that the “gradual path” was either actually followed in the United States—it was not—or that it “worked wonderfully” for the oppressed—which it did not. The “romance of gradualism” can be just as delusional as the “romance of utopia.”