That quotation from Michael Polanyi's The Logic of Liberty nicely captures one of the fundamental problems in political philosophy and the social sciences. Because of our common experience of intelligently designed order through the intentional actions of ourselves and others, we "instinctively" project such intentionality onto any well ordered arrangement in the physical world or the social world. The appeal of natural theology and "intelligent design theory" arises from such anthropomorphic projections of intentionality, so that we see the whole universe as governed by Mind. Similarly, we assume that social order must arise from the intelligent planning of a human mind or group of minds. This fails to recognize, however, how the most complex social orders arise not by intentional design but as the unintended outcome of human interactions in which the result could not have been foreseen or understood by any of the individuals involved. This is what Polanyi called "spontaneous order."
In the history of political philosophy, beginning in ancient Greece, it took over 2,000 years before the idea of spontaneous order was clearly formulated for the first time in the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century (in the writings of Adam Ferguson, David Hume, and Adam Smith). This Scottish theory of spontaneous order was then picked up by Charles Darwin and developed as his theory of evolution to explain how the complex order of the living world, including human beings, could have arisen from inherited variation and natural selection without being planned out by intelligent design.
As indicated by the statement on the masthead of this blog, this theory of evolved spontaneous order runs through my argument for Darwinian liberal conservatism.
Perhaps the single best survey of the intellectual history of the theory of spontaneous order is Norman Barry's "The Tradition of Spontaneous Order," Literature of Liberty, 5 (Summer 1982), pp. 7-58, which is available online at the Liberty Fund's "Online Library of Liberty" website. Barry traces this history from the Scholastic "School of Salamanca" to the Scottish philosophers to Carl Menger and the Austrian School economists and, finally, to F. A. Hayek's revival of this tradition in the second half of the 20th century.
Originally, the idea of spontaneous order came most clearly from the explanation of how market order arises through the mechanism of a price system. We can see this, of course, in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. But we can also see Smith extending this theory of spontaneous order to explain moral order (in his Theory of Moral Sentiments)legal order (in his Lectures of Jurisprudence), and linguistic order (in his Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages). Menger and Hayek continued in this tradition.
Like me, Barry is impressed by the profound ways in which Hayek deepened this theory of spontaneous order, while also seeing weaknesses. One major weakness comes from Hayek pushing his antirationalist position so hard that he almost denies the role of reason in criticizing or correcting spontaneous order traditions, and thus he falls into a relativism that subverts his commitment to classical liberal principles. Other critics of Hayek--including many classical liberal critics--have made this criticism.
Although I agree with Barry on this point, I don't agree with his claim that Hayek's mistake comes from the influence of Darwinian evolutionary theory. I suggest that Hayek's mistake comes from his failure to see how Darwin's theory of human evolution recognizes the decisive role of human reason in social order, although that reason is constrained by the spontaneous orders of genetic evolution and cultural evolution. (This has come up in some of my recent posts on Hayek and evolution.)
Barry introduces the problem in this way:
The role of 'reason' is crucially important here because the theorists of spontaneous order are commonly associated with the anti-rationalist tradition in social thought. However, this does not mean that the doctrine turns upon any kind of irrationalism, or that the persistence and continuity of social systems is a product of divine intervention or some other extraterrestrial force which is invulnerable to rational explanation. Rather, the position is that originally formulated by David Hume. Hume argued that a pure and unaided human reason is incapable of determining a priori those moral and legal norms which are required for the servicing of a social order. In addition, Hume maintained that tradition, experience, and general uniformities in human nature themselves contain the guidelines for appropriate social conduct. In other words, so far from being irrationalist, the Humean argument is that rationality should be used to 'whittle down' the exaggerated claims made on behalf of reason by th Enlightenment philosophes. The danger here, however, is that the doctrine of spontaneous evolution may collapse into a certain kind of relativism: the elimination of the role of reason from making universal statements about the appropriate structure of a social order may well tempt the social theorist into accepting a given structure of rules merely because it is the product of traditional processes.
Barry sees Hayek leaning towards relativism because Hayek fails to distinguish "two senses of spontaneous order: noncoercive emergent patterns vs. 'survival of the fittest'" (11). By associating spontaneous order with a Darwinian order of evolutionary survival, Hayek falls into relativism. "For if the criterion of social value is survival in an evolutionary process, what can be said against those institutions which, although they may embody anti-liberal values, have survived?" (30). Barry observes: "The difficulty with Hayek's analysis is that social evolution does not necessarily culminate in the classical liberalism that he so clearly favors: there are as many non-liberal institutions which have survived. . . . If we are intellectually tied to tradition, and if our 'reason' is too fragile an instrument to recommend satisfactory alternatives, how are we to evaluate critically that statist and anti-individualist order of society which seems to have as much claim to be a product of evolution as any other social structure?" (46) One good example of this problem is that while Hayek favors the spontaneous order of British common law as superior to statutory law, the spontaneous emergence of parliamentary sovereignty has subverted the common law and the liberal order (16, 46).
Barry also rightly observes that Menger, who had such a powerful influence on Hayek's understanding of spontaneous order, did not deny the importance of reason and constructivist rationalism the way Hayek did. Menger did not assume that spontaneous evolved rules were always superior to deliberately designed rules. Menger believed that reason could criticize the outcomes of undesigned traditions and try to correct them (33, 52). After all, as even Hayek conceded, the successful functioning of a spontaneous order always depends on a legal and political framework that is subject to rational criticism and deliberate design.
Barry is mistaken, however, in attributing this mistake of Hayek to Darwinian evolutionary theory. The Darwinian evolutionary explanation of social order--including economic, moral, legal, and political order--sees a complex interaction of human nature, human culture, and human reason. This is evident in Darwin's account of the evolution of the moral sense in The Descent of Man, in which the emergence of human morality requires social instincts, habituation, language, and deliberation. "Ultimately," Darwin concluded, "our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment--originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit."
In Darwinian Conservatism (Chapter 2), I lay out this Darwinian explanation of the moral sense as moving through three levels of human experience: moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments. Moreover, by looking to the twenty natural desires of evolved human nature, we can judge moral, legal, and political traditions by how well they satisfy those natural desires.
The role of reason in this evolutionary understanding of social order is exactly what Barry says about Hume's position as being antirationalist but not irrationalist. Unaided reason--abstract or a priori reason--cannot by itself design a moral, legal, or political order. Reason needs the lessons coming from "tradition, experience, and general uniformities in human nature," but within the constraints set by our evolved human nature and our evolved human traditions, we can exercise practical judgment in deciding particular cases and devising general rules to promote the fullest satisfaction of our desires.
The instinctive human tendency to look for intelligent-design explanations for order underlies the tradition of Platonic moral cosmology and the attempt to explain the intelligibility of the whole as intelligently designed. The Straussians have struggled with this in their reading of Plato's dialogues. This was the subject of a series of my posts in the summer of 2009.