Abstract: Due especially to the work of Friedrich Hayek, “spontaneous order” has become an influential concept in social theory. It seeks to explain how human practices and institutions emerge as unintended consequences of myriad individual actions, and points to the limits of rationalism and conscious design in social life. The political implications of spontaneous order theory explain both the enthusiasm and the skepticism is has generated, but its basic mechanisms remain elusive and under-examined. This paper teases out the internal logic of the concept, arguing that it can be taken to mean several distinct things. Some are forward-looking (defining it in terms of present-day functioning) while others are backward-looking (defining it in terms of historical origins). Yet none of these possibilities prove fully coherent or satisfactory, suggesting that spontaneous order cannot bear the analytical weight that has been placed upon it.
Bio: Daniel Luban is a junior research fellow in politics at University College, Oxford. He is particularly interested in the history of modern social and political thought and in theories of capitalism and economic order.