≡ Menu

Spontaneous Order Is More than Markets

Here’s a letter to the Washington Monthly:

Reviewing Jonathan Rowe’s Our Common Wealth, Timothy Noah appropriately applauds the research of the late Nobel economist Elinor Ostrom (“The Glory of the Commons,” July/August). Lin Ostrom’s careful observations of reality showed that human beings are remarkably creative at solving collective-action problems in ways that often involve neither arms-length commercial transactions nor government regulation of the sort that less-informed thinkers presume to be indispensable.

But Ms. Ostrom wasn’t unique among scholars skeptical of government intervention to recognize that impersonal commerce – what F.A. Hayek called “the extended order” – is not the only alternative to command-and-control regulation. No less a market champion than Hayek himself wrote that “Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within the different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro cosmos (i.e. of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once.”*

It is a serious error to suppose that those of us who oppose government intervention want all human relationships to be guided by impersonal monetary exchanges within commercial markets.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

* F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 18.