Nina Brewer-Davis — Comments on Johnson and Long

Mutual Exchange is the Center’s goal in two senses — we favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue.

Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to the Center’s various publics. A lead essay, deliberately provocative, will be followed by responses from inside and outside of C4SS. Contributions and comments from readers are enthusiastically encouraged.

The following Mutual Exchange began as a Molinari Society Symposium on Spontaneous Order scheduled for the December 2010 meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in Boston; when that was snowed out, the venue was shifted, by the kind invitation of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, to the March 2011 Austrian Scholars Conference in Auburn, Alabama.

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I want to start by thanking the speakers for an intriguing set of papers, which shed light on the concept of spontaneous order by analyzing some of its more hurtful or troubling manifestations. I will start with some general observations about the concept as developed in the papers, from the perspective of a relative novice, and invite clarification or elaboration (whichever is appropriate). Then I will address each paper more directly. In both cases, while their accounts of these issues are interesting, they omit aspects of the issues that I would expect to be addressed in such a treatment, so I was surprised to find them absent from the discussion: from Johnson’s paper, women’s inequality of economic power, and from Long’s paper, the desire for unity with others. Why are these aspects of the issues omitted, and does their omission point to some limits of the concept of spontaneous order?

The papers develop the concept of spontaneous order by drawing attention to troubling instances of that concept, from a perspective that is nonetheless broadly sympathetic to the beneficial potential it has for improving lives in a manner consistent with liberty. Johnson’s paper suggests that discrimination against women, particularly in the form of the pervasive threat of violence, is a form of spontaneous order. All men benefit from this threat even in societies where it is not pervasively carried out. Feminist and libertarian theories alike are put in a new perspective by this analysis. Long’s paper starts by noting that the state cannot be effective without the support or at least the apathy of the people within its boundaries. If not strictly a necessary condition of state power, popular acquiescence greatly enables that power. Long develops the concept of spontaneous order by inspecting the mechanisms by which that acquiescence is maintained. These issues push the more common understanding of spontaneous order as an alternative to the current political system; both issues arise within the current system rather than as an alternative to it. The pattern of oppression of women through the pervasive threat of violence is one that might emerge within as well as without a state; it is more basic and conceptually prior to any given system of government. The way the current governmental system in the US makes use of patterns of behavior and belief reinforces what I will grant for the sake of argument is an oppressive system, which discriminates against everyone not within a small powerful elite of big government and big business. Long is thus interested in phenomena that have the current system as a necessary condition, and which encompasses as victims not just half the population but almost everyone.

According to Johnson, “spontaneous” has at least 3 overlapping meanings: consensual, polycentric, and emergent. While I appreciate this disambiguation, I would have liked to see similar explanation of “order,” which seems the more problematic half of the term. “Order” could mean, for instance, a pattern of behavior, or have a connotation closer to “orderliness,” which would apply only to certain patterns, such as those which contribute to productive life, or make it easier to achieve one’s goals. I leave out the authoritarian meaning of “order,” which clearly is not intended, though hard to ignore given the focus of both papers on the use of spontaneous order for some people to exert power over others. Orderliness has a normative meaning that may be appropriate for spontaneous order in its normative sense, but is ill-suited to the problematic cases analyzed by Johnson and Long.

Although I find the concept of spontaneous order attractive, I would like further elaboration on this term, especially on what might not count as an instance of spontaneous order. Spontaneous order is described by Johnson as contrasted with organized orders that are the result of someone’s deliberate plan; instead, “the interconnected but spontaneous actions of individuals produce an emergent order, without putting any one person or committee of people in charge.” In these two papers, the examples given of spontaneous order range far and wide, including: language, common law, international postal standards, even as the proper subject of study for any social science. The mechanisms attributed to these patterns include psychological habits of seeing what we expect to see and professional preferences for attention to smaller-scale abuses or interpretations over larger-scale or structural concerns, such as in journalism or education.

My concern here is that the concept is being used to do too much. If spontaneous order describes every identifiable non-centrally-planned pattern or habit, this surely expands the concept beyond anything particularly interesting or helpful. On the other hand, if it is restricted to its more common use, as a theory of the best political structure (or non-structure), this excludes many everyday behaviors that perhaps ought to be included. Are there some non-planned phenomena that spontaneous order does not claim to explain? Are there (rival or complementary) theories of non-planned human behavior? For instance, how does a theory of community spirit or responsibility differ from spontaneous order (assuming it is indeed different)?

What counts as an example of spontaneous order, and what forms a contrast class, might be further developed by considering what was not discussed in the papers, so I turn to them now. In response to Johnson’s paper specifically I wonder about the ultimate fittingness of the concept of spontaneous order to sexism. This connects with the limits of that term in a couple of ways: first, the pervasive threat of violence, while surely one aspect of sex discrimination, is poorly suited to explaining other manifestations of sex discrimination, like unequal pay or unequal representation in certain professions. Since these do not (presumably) represent centrally planned discrimination, are they the result of distinct spontaneous orders, or of some other phenomenon?

Many people believe that discrimination on the basis of arbitrary factors like race and sex is possible even if no individual deliberately intends to discriminate.1 This claim would not support discrimination as a result of the threat of violence, which requires, as Johnson notes, at least a few actual perpetrators, but does explain economic discrimination. The idea is that inequality can persist even after the original reasons for inequality have been addressed, and even if no individual acts out of a belief of superiority or a desire to oppress. If the initial conditions, so to speak, are unequal, then subsequent private, rational self-interested decisions made by those who are relatively advantaged will tend to benefit the relatively advantaged group. Discrimination is perpetuated when people hire others who look like them, or who look like their predecessor; there is no need for an explanation rooted in sexist beliefs or implied violence.

Because this is the result of rationally self-interested behavior, requiring no bigotry to enforce, it is very stable and could only be overcome through significant, deliberate intervention. This is a theory that seems as if it ought to be especially well-suited to spontaneous order, as an emergent result of many private rationally self-interested decisions, and by the same token especially problematic for libertarians concerned about the resulting inequality of power. The question for Johnson is, does such discrimination represent an example of spontaneous order, or an alternative to it?

Similarly, I found Long’s account of various mechanisms by which spontaneous order can manifest very interesting, but I was surprised by what was left out. The mechanisms he discusses fall in two groups: some express rational self- interest, like keeping (or getting) a job, or protecting one’s relative power, while others are sub-rational, psychological habits that blind us to the truth. What was missing from his account were mechanisms expressing sociability, or the desire to fit in with the group. Unlike sub-rational psychological habits they are rational expressions of value on a par with self-interest, which do not (necessarily) function as distractors from the truth. Indeed, a nuanced account of value acquisition in human development would rely more on the instinct to sociability than on self-interest, I suspect. It is not irrational to want to get along with those around you, even if it comes at some personal expense, including personal liberty. I don’t offer this as a defense of the status quo. Rather, for someone interested in understanding the mechanisms by which the current order is maintained, especially for the purposes of radical change, it is essential to be aware of the magnitude of the challenge: in the absence of a large-scale shift in perception, people must first be convinced to break with this basic value of togetherness, a very difficult task. One possible reason it is left out of Long’s paper, however, is that it is not a mechanism associated with spontaneous order. It would be helpful to get clear on exactly what place such a mechanism would have in Long’s theory.

Nina Brewer-Davis received a PhD in Philosophy from University of California, San Diego, after studying in Montreal, Canada and Edinburgh, Scotland. She now works on associative duties of personal, social, and political varieties at Auburn University.

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1 See, for instance, George Lipsitz’s theory called the “possessive investment in whiteness.” Although he clearly is considering racial discrimination, it can easily be extended to sex.

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