Mastery and Spontaneous Order

On this week’s Econtalk Russ Roberts talks to Political Scientist/Theorist Alan Wolfe about liberalism (of the modern American variety, including its relationship to libertarianism). The conversation is interesting throughout. Wolfe is very concerned with the individual’s mastery of their own life: the positive liberty to act on the world and to determine their own destiny. I broadly agree that positive freedom is the paramount value liberals should wish to promote (but unlike Wolfe, I think the best way to do so is to expand the scope of negative liberty).

This concern with mastery leads Wolfe to a peculiar reaction to the invisible hand and spontaneous order-type explanations of Hayek, et al. He is worried that because society is the product of human action but not of human design, results are emerging somehow ‘behind our backs’ in a way which gives us no control or mastery over our destiny. Wolfe sees government as capable of stepping in to make the social world more transparent and controllable and thereby enhancing people’s mastery over their own lives.

I’d never heard this argument before, and I think there two major things wrong with it. First, government is itself a spontaneous order. The State is not a unitary actor, but a complex system through which action emerges from the interaction of various agents (politicians, bureaucrats, voters, interest groups, etc). In all but the most tyrannical states, no person has the capacity to determine political outcomes singlehandedly.

Second, and more importantly, while decentralized voluntary action does not give any person or group mastery over the social system as a whole, it does give individuals a high degree of mastery over their immediate surroundings and their own life-course. The market precludes conscious human action at the level of aggregate outcomes, which are determined by the impersonal forces of supply and demand. At an individual level, however, choice and action remain intact. The fact that the aggregate outcome is unplanned does nothing to alter the fact that in our everyday lives we make numerous free and conscious decisions, foreseeing the consequences those decisions will have on our own lives.

Giving all individuals mastery over society-as-a-whole is entirely nonsensical. The environment with which we interact is populated by other humans. Since we each have different goals and preferences, any attempt to control the social world must place others in a position of domination. We all have to share the same aggregate outcomes and there’s simply no way, even in principle, to give more than one person control over the entirety of the social world. Unless you believe in a Rousseauvian collective will, which Wolfe doesn’t, you should prefer macrobehaviour be largely determined by the complex interactions of micromotives. That’s as much mastery as we’re ever going to get.

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