If They Don’t Get This Point, Much of What We Say Sounds Like Gibberish to Them

by Don Boudreaux on October 5, 2013

in Complexity & Emergence, Law, Man of System, Myths and Fallacies

Like Bob Murphy, I, too, get frustrated by comments such as the one that Bob quotes here from a recent post by Steve Landsburg.  (Similar comments, of course, appear regularly also here at the Cafe.)  Here’s the most-relevant part of Bob’s post:

OK, now that I hope I’ve convinced my libertarian readers of my bona fides, let me point out how my conscience dinged me on this topic. (I hate when that happens!) In the comments of Steve’s post, somebody wrote to Steve (who had been in his car listening to a radio story about the guy needing a license to export his wares):

So you’re in a car, on a road, driving safely in traffic, listening to a radio and complaining about government.

In a car, on a road, driving safely in traffic, listening to a radio.

Got it.

The explanation for such comments is straightforward: many people simply cannot conceive of social order that isn’t consciously designed and enforced by some secular creator (that is, by the state).  Most people are secular theists regarding social order.  Order must, for secular theists, be the result of a some higher power that designs, intends, imposes, and guides willfully the order that we see about us.  Without a higher secular power designing and keeping control of things, chaos or near-chaos would necessarily reign.

Get rid of this secular deity – or suffer it to fall under the influence of secular devils (for American “Progressives,” those devils today are tea-partiers) – and society must deteriorate.  Rules of the road would wither away, or certainly not be enforced; roads themselves would never be built; the electromagnetic spectrum would become a commons tragically overused (and, hence, rendered useless) by countless broadcasters scrambling for airtime; and automobiles – were they to exist at all – would be horrible death traps.

The great insight of the social sciences – which too few social scientists themselves get – is that society, to the extent that it is complex and functional, is necessarily the result of human action but not of human design.

Reasonable people can and do dispute how much sovereign intention and design are necessary or worthwhile to tweak, modify, polish, protect, top-off the emergent social order that not only did government not design but couldn’t possibly have even begun to design.*  But it is totally false and wrongheaded – yet it is the dominant view of almost everyone – that most of the economic and social order that we experience about us is the result of government and, hence, would necessarily disappear or collapse into disarray were government to disappear or fail to perform its duty well.

Sadly, most people are apparently just incapable of understanding that almost all social order emerges undesigned and unplanned.  Most people are and seemingly will remain naive secular creationists, ignorant that the forces of natural selection and evolution are constantly at play in society, and that these force are usually only thwarted or distorted by attempts to engineer society from on high.  And (here’s an irony) this sad ignorance of the nature of society afflicts even – perhaps especially – those people who have no difficulty understanding that very complex, beautiful, and highly functional non-social orders (such as biological order and the order of the cosmos) emerge unplanned and undesigned.

* Please, no comments here claiming that the 1787 U.S. Constitution is evidence that society can be designed.  Any such claim reveals near-complete ignorance of American and constitutional history – and also of the text of the document itself.  That document created an organization – the national government – and spelled out some of the relations between that organization and the state government and citizens.  It did not remotely create all law in the new United States.  (Most of that law, in 1787, was rooted deeply in English history and was modified by nearly two centuries of colonial experience.  It existed prior to May 1787 and continued in existence and in service after the Constitutional convention ended in September of that year.  Much of that law continues in existence today.)  And, of course, nor did the Constitution create American society.  Again, assertions that the 1787 Constitutional conventioneers “created” American society, or even American law ex nihilohave zero basis in fact and none in any respectable theory.

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