Spontaneous Society: Tradition as a Repository of Knowledge

Hayek AEC 4

by Kai Weiss

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

An invisible hand lets a spontaneous order come into being in the economy. This spontaneous order enables an ever wider, more extensive and complex economic order. As Edmund Burke (1729-1797) put it, “the benign and wise Disposer of all things … obliges men, whether they will or not, in pursuing their own selfish interests, to connect the general good with their own individual success.” Pursuing one’s dreams and collaborating with others through cooperation and trade will lead to beneficial effects for all.

And yet, Burke – like other thinkers in the tradition – also shows us how this order emerges similarly in society overall, leading to human flourishing. “Men come … into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation,” the 18th century Irish-British statesman and thinker wrote. This social fabric into which we are born, these “social ties and ligaments,” he continues, “in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will.”

Like language, money, the price system, and market institutions in general, social institutions, traditions, mores, and rules emerge through the interactions and collaborations of individuals. These institutions are what makes up our society and enable us to become truly citizens of a community or a country. As the Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), who emphasized the role of honor in this, framed it, this “makes all the parts of the body politic move; its very action binds them, and each person works for the common good, believing he works for his individual interests.”

The method these institutions come into being is history, where different approaches of living together are tested in a process of trial and error. The world Cicero (106-43 BC) lived in, for instance, was, according to him, “not shaped by one man’s talent but by that of many; and not in one person’s lifetime, but over many generations.” Indeed, history becomes a “repository of knowledge,” as Yuval Levin phrased it, in which we accumulate the experiences and wisdom of our ancestors – and through the traditions and rules that have emerged from that process successfully, we can continue living in a functional society. This explains and conveys “Burke’s celebrated defence of custom, tradition, and ‘prejudice’ against the ‘rationalism’ of the French revolutionaries,” argued Roger Scruton (1944-2020).

Indeed, Scruton demonstrated society’s emergence through our history particularly eloquently: “the knowledge that we need in the unforeseeable circumstances of human life is neither derived from nor contained in the experience of a single person, nor can it be deduced a priori from universal laws. This knowledge is bequeathed to us by customs, institutions, and habits of thought that have shaped themselves over generations, through the trials and errors of people many of whom have perished in the course of acquiring it.”

With this appreciation of our past and generations previous to ours and with the realization that we can only improve if we build off of this, the tradition of the spontaneous order – which is itself such a repository of knowledge – wants to defend civilization, yet shows that civilization can only be defended through freedom and voluntary collaboration.

“It would be an error to believe that, to achieve a higher civilization, we have merely to put into effect the ideas now guiding us,” warned Friedrich August von Hayek (1899-1992). “If we are to advance, we must leave room for a continuous revision of our present conceptions and ideals which will be necessitated by further experience. We are as little able to conceive what civilization will be, or can be, five hundred or even fifty years hence as our medieval forefathers or even our grandparents were able to foresee our manner of life today.”


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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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