Order Defined in the Process of its Emergence

by Don Boudreaux on March 28, 2005

in Complexity & Emergence, The Economy

Word for word, the most insightful thing I’ve ever read is James Buchanan’s 1982 comment on Norman Barry’s essay on spontaneous order.  This comment has since been published as a (very) short article under the title “Order Defined in the Process of Its Emergence.”  Here’s a link.


I think of Buchanan’s dazzling little article whenever I reflect on the question “why do so many people so readily believe that government is an appropriate institution for solving real and imagined ills?”  Of course, there are many reasons – some better than others – for why people are so ready to rely upon government.  But one of the deepest reasons is suggested by Buchanan’s article.


The very act of framing issues or describing problems as “social” entails thinking of society (usually in the form of a country) as the relevant unit upon which analysis is to be directed – as the relevant unit upon which corrective action is to be taken.  Once this step is taken, it’s easy to stumble into the presumption that action must be taken by government, for government is the only institution that claims for itself the authority and the ability to act on society as a whole.


The idea of society being “the result of human action but not of human design” is extraordinarily difficult to grasp.  We humans anthropomorphize so many things, it’s no surprise that we anthropomorphize society – that we think of it as a relevant and distinct unit with clear boundaries, with a life of its own, with purposes of its own – a distinct unit deserving and demanding attention to itself as a whole.


We talk, for example, about the U.S. unemployment rate.  Without dismissing this concept as irrelevant – for I emphatically do not believe it to be irrelevant – it strikes me as too easy to slip from worrying about the rate of unemployment of people residing within the boundaries of this place we call the U.S. into the notion that the best way to solve this problem is to act on the country as a whole.  It’s a problem spoken of as afflicting the nation as a unit; therefore, the solution, if one exists, must be to treat the unit.


Looked at differently, if I’m an employed American and I learn from, say, a CNN report that the U.S. unemployment rate is distressingly high, the problem is somehow mine, or part mine, even though I’m still happily employed.  All problems with “the United States” are somehow, at least in part, my problems, too, because I’m a citizen of the United States.


My powers of exposition are far inferior to those of Jim Buchanan.  Read his article.


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