Freedom, Decentralism, Prudence: Lessons for Today


by Kai Weiss

This article is part of the series Spontaneous Order: A Rich Tradition with Lessons for Today. Read the previous article here.

The spontaneous order is always at work. We see this ongoing process of organic emergence, reinvention, and change of our society – and we can observe the further accumulation of experience and knowledge over the decades, centuries, and millennia, as the heritage of our ancestors grows, generation by generation. We see traditions and social rules everywhere. And if we think about it more consciously, we see the decentralized global economy at work at every moment, too, whenever we buy something, whenever we use something, whenever we eat something.

It would be wrong to personify the spontaneous order as a being with its own power. That’s one of its strong suits: precisely that it’s not such a living being. Some may have seen something – or someone – Greater at work behind the invisible hand, perhaps the Holy Spirit (and as a Catholic, I at least sympathize with this view). That is most certainly how someone like Adam Smith saw it. But regardless of whether religious or not, it’s clear that the spontaneous order is, ultimately, a process of the people, of the demos, coming together and creating this emerging order that is not anyone’s intention. But it is not only the demos of today, it is most beautifully that “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born,” as Edmund Burke phrased it.

Consequently, it is rather shocking how, all across the political spectrum today, centralization is at the top of the political agenda. The left is increasingly advocating for socialism these days, an ideology that does not see the spontaneous order working at all and instead just tries to use the government to remake both society and economy – something that has never worked, and as has been laid out here, never will.

Mainstream politicians in places like Brussels and Washington meanwhile subscribe to a similar pretense of knowledge. While they pay lip service to a free and spontaneously emerging society, they are in favor of more centralization in a capital city far away from most citizens and of more regulations and intrusions in the vast majority of problems they are presented with. True personal and communal sovereignty are considered ancient concepts.

Granted, the right tends to see very clearly the importance of history and one’s heritage – and, thus, the importance of a spontaneously emerging society. And yet, if change in those societies does not fit into their plans, they also tend to think government has to halt the spontaneous development. Moreover, if the economy does not correspond to their societal ideal, the government may also clamp down on the former – which is all too apparent in the rise of protectionism today. What is more, the right too often sees government as part of the spontaneously emerging society – thus, the government can be able to do much more to promote the common good than commonly thought. But most of today’s governments are hardly the local, decentralized units that we have been talking about in previous chapters, but rather outside intruders with little connection to its people.

Libertarians often ignore how spontaneous order impacts society; instead, traditions and social rules are considered backward or mystical, and need to be selectively destroyed, particularly if they prevent individuals from indulging the ‘anything goes’ mantra. Even worse is when civil society impinges on the free economy, which is constantly marching forward on the unstoppable path of Progress. Social issues are irrelevant when we indulge a Whig interpretation of history and shout from the rooftops the great news of the prosperous economy (or, “the best age in world history”).

Alternatively, the spontaneous order is simply discounted in general and instead we should view our world as an eternal battle between the state and the individual (while all the institutions in between may be precisely what could protect the individual from the state). In this view, it’s all about the individual and his or her self-determination. The government is dictatorial (‘basically Stalin’) whenever it intrudes in anything, and even society is frequently a nemesis. Collective approaches do not exist at all. Atomistic individualism, an ‘each to his own’ and very little else, reigns.

The spontaneous order is by no means a perfect model. Essential questions arise from it: what is the place for objective truth in a spontaneous order? Is it completely at odds with concepts such as natural law? Does it necessarily lead to relativism? Will it eventually end up in an ‘anything goes’ mentality? What if the results of a spontaneous order are not ideal? Should government intervene? Or would that be even worse, and we should let the negative outcomes of spontaneity simply happen, shrugging our shoulders over them in ambivalence?

Is it possible that different elements of the spontaneous order – e.g., the economic and the social, as we have depicted it – are sometimes in conflict with one another (say, economic globalization leading to social problems such as a weakening of social institutions and communities)? And if so, what does this mean?

Despite these potential difficulties, which we will have to discuss at a later point, the spontaneous order theory is one of the most helpful ways of thinking about today’s world. It takes a comprehensive and interdisciplinary view of the world, honoring society, culture, economy, and politics. It trusts that social and economic processes tend to be most successful when initiated by the people and for the people, from the bottom-up.

This means that, by and large, it is pro-market and pro-entrepreneurs. It sees the virtues of innovations in moving us forward as every order continually changes and evolves. However, it is still distinctly opposed to progress as a good in itself, but instead sees change only as a positive if it builds off of previous achievements in a healthy way, not wrecking everything ‘old’ outright.

Socially, it realizes the great significance of social, mediating institutions – such as the Church, family, clubs, universities, schools, and any other voluntary associations – in holding together civil society. Thus, it honors the social fabric with its traditions, mores, and rules that have evolved throughout history. And it is horrified when this social fabric is torn and a society, the ‘we’ that holds the spontaneous order together, disintegrates into lonely individuals that are alienated from economic and political life, or, worst of all, even from their fellow human beings.

Since a civil society comes into being bottom-up and organically, we may talk about a common people – we can, in a sense, speak of collective groups and identities that are more than merely the individuals composing them. We can talk about a ‘we.’ We can also speak of striving for a common human flourishing and a common good in a society (and which better system is there for that than one in which individuals and communities are free from government intrusion as much as possible?). We shall not use this as an opportunity to equate government with society, as many do today. We also need to realize that, indeed, when it comes down to it, these groups still consist of individuals – and only individuals can act.

As previously mentioned, the spontaneous political order will emphasize the importance of keeping politics on a decentralized level as far as possible. In these cases, those governing will be close to those affected by decisions. Local democracy is not inimical to organic processes but tends to correspond with them. Centralized superpowers, however, need to be held in check.

Finally, as a culmination of everything that has been mentioned, and very much in contrast to almost everyone on the political spectrum today, the spontaneous order approach is based on prudence and caution instead of a pretense of knowledge that one can make decisions top-down, based on supposedly rational claims that go against what has developed in a trial-and-error process over many centuries. It sees the people and a people’s heritage as more trustworthy than a government bureaucrat, a wise technocrat, a socialist who awaits the coming of a Communist paradise, a conservative who just wants to return to previous, ‘better’ ages, and an anarchist who, if faced with the choice, would simply let chaos reign tomorrow for his or her own freedom.

The spontaneous order is instead a prudent and careful defense of liberal, republican principles, the freedom to choose for the individual and community, self-government, and decentralism. It is sorely needed today.


Do you want to add something to Kai’s thoughts? Or do you disagree? Then feel free to respond to it by sending or pitching us an article.

Find all articles in German on the blog of the Friedrich A. v. Hayek Institute.

Kai Weiss is the Research and Outreach Coordinator of the Austrian Economics Center and a board member of the Friedrich A. v. Hayek Institute.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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