Saturday, July 21, 2012

And an example of opposition to spontaneous order I wish Don Boudreaux would spend more time complaining about falls right in my lap

Paul Krugman writes:

"Austin Frakt looks at the Republican health legislation, and finds (quoting a report from AcademyHealth) that
[I]t completely eliminates the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (Sec. 227), and prohibits any patient-centered outcomes research (Sec. 217) and all economic research within the National Institutes of Health (Page 57, line 19).
And remember the hatred aimed at comparative effectiveness research.

So let’s see: the conservative vision is that we can achieve low-cost, quality health care via the magic of the marketplace. This would almost certainly be wrong even under the best conditions. But the actual policy is not just to privatize Medicare and all that, but also to eliminate funding for all research into what actually works.

You sometimes hear conservatives saying that the role of government should be limited to the provision of public goods; obviously I don’t agree. But it turns out that they hate providing public goods, like research, too."

Government conducts and/or funds a lot of research. I should know: they've funded a lot of my research. But apropos to this post, it funds a lot of work in the medical and natural sciences. This wasn't some grand orchestrated outcome. This evolved over time. Government funding of science and precedent for it goes back well into the nineteenth century. Over time private research was folded into public research efforts, or private research efforts were spun off of what was once a public endeavor. After wars we had major discussions about how and whether we should transition frantically constructed wartime research efforts into peacetime endeavors. We've debated how public support for research would relate to research in the universities: both public and private. And we're still debating this, with some people encouraging new systems (see Paula Stephan's How Economics Shapes Science). The current system has evolved from a big froth of decentralized arguments and decisions about the public and private nature of science that have drawn on the tacit, local knowledge of scientists, bureaucrats, investors, teachers, students, and a host of other actors.

That's how the current system spontaneously emerged. Nobody planned what we have.

Now, spontaneous orders change over time, I understand that. There's no obligation for someone who respects spontaneous order to like everything that has evolved.

But just once I'd like to see someone like Don Boudreaux look at the current society we have - the society that has evolved over the years into what we have today - and say something like "you know, if I were a planner I wouldn't have done it this way - I would have proposed X, Y, Z libertarian solution - but spontaneous order is a powerful and robust process and perhaps we should give the social order that we have the benefit of the doubt: it was not planned, it evolved this way for a variety of reasons, and we should be wary of trying to reorder it in a sweeping way".

For some reason there are a lot of adherents of spontaneous order that never seem interested in saying that. 


  1. Let me reemphasize this one sentence:

    " Now, spontaneous orders change over time, I understand that. There's no obligation for someone who respects spontaneous order to like everything that has evolved."

    Evolution never stops. I know that. Is isn't ought either. I know that.

    My point is that you would think supposed theorists of spontaneous order would come out in support of the received spontaneous order some time. You wouldn't expect such consistent second guessing of spontaneous order.

    Instead you get consistent second guessing of social evolution. I can't think of a single element of modern American political economy that Don Boudreaux (since he inspired the last post, that's all) actually likes. Even our free markets aren't his kind of free markets, because - why? - because we have nutritional labels???

    It doesn't strike me as the way a Hayekian should respond to the spontaneous order we have in front of us.

    Of course we all have things we don't like and that we'd like to push in a different direction. That's part of how spontaneous order works.

    But you'd think on balance they'd find our political economy robust and amenable.

  2. What I don't understand Daniel is what you consider to not be spontaneous order. Even something like Communist regimes evolved out of the conditions of the time. It's not as though there was a central revolution planning board.

    I may sound flippant, but I'm really curious. I'm no anarcho-capitalist partially because I think they miss the part where states seem to always emerge from anarchy. (And if we restart the evolution of states once again, we'll probably start out with brutal dictatorships which seem much worst than what we have today) However, if emerging order just means: that thing which happens because people did stuff, it becomes a pretty meaningless concept and I have a fondness for concepts having meaning.

    1. I don't have a lot of time to respond to this, but I hope I'll get a chance to.

      First - yes, I think there's a lot of spontaneous order out there. I don't think that means everything is an example of it, and I hardly think that means the concept is meaningless.

      Second - As Gene pointed out the other day, there's a spectrum of spontaneous and planned order. And on top of that old planned orders can themselves evolve over time into something more functional. Plus people can - without central direction - converge on a decision to plan a part of their life that experience has taught them would benefit from some planning. Think about the formation of corporations or the constitutional convention - which were planning events that occurred naturally, without central direction which produced planned institutions that then subsequently changed after experiencing evolutionary pressures. So it's complicated, and its a mix of orders (and as edarniw points out below, there is spontaneous order at many different levels).

      What makes me nervous is people who look at an existing order and say "everything is wrong with this - across X, Y, and Z fields of life government actually plays a role (horror!). I know everything would work better if we changed all of that". Its analogous to the Communist who says the exact opposite.

      I don't think a spontaneous order is "ideal" or "desirable" as edarniw suggests I do. But I do consider it more reliable than the plans of people who think like that.

  3. Man, I don't know where to start. You frequently point out the butchering of Keynesianism. Then you proceed to butcher evolutionary and spontaneous processes. Prometheefeu makes a good point: you've basically reduced the concept of spontaneous order to the status quo, which, more or less, renders it useless.

    First, though, I will grant that it is inappropriate to only characterize a private property market process as the only process that "spontaneously" orders - something I think certain "libertarians" mistakenly think. As you point out, political processes, among many other processes, all of which often intertwine, also exhibit spontaneously emerging properties.

    But you tend to ignore or not appreciate the systematic differences between different selection mechanisms or evolutionary systems. Moreover, there are different layers at which order is spontaneously emerging.

    As an example, suppose there are two ways to create a system of walking paths on a landscape. One way is to simply let individuals go wherever they choose, so that over time a system of paths will emerge unintentionally. Another way is to appoint someone to plan a system of paths that he thinks will best fulfill the needs of prospective walkers. In the very short run, only the first process will exhibit spontaneously emerging properties. Over the long run, though, both systems will exhibit unintended properties. But the appointed/planned system will exhibit emergent properties at a level different from the non-planned system. That is, the unintentional aspect of the latter system consists of the process in which future planners are appointed, the constraints that they face from the past, and the rules within which they must operate. But the actual implementation and adjustment - via the appointed system - of the path arrangement itself is still done on the basis of conscious planning. The layers at which spontaneous order is emerging differs between the two systems. Not only that, they also differ in kind and degree.

    Put differently, there are fundamental differences at work in how these path systems are evolving. Not only in the layers at which evolution is operating, but the rate of change, the properties being selected for, and the degree of flexibility. You simply don't seem to understand or appreciate this.

    You may even go so far as to define a "spontaneity" metric, and measure each process accordingly. This has already been done in a great variety of ways with respect to complexity. That's whole the point of using the concept of spontaneous order. The way I've noticed you use it renders it useless - simply saying X is a spontaneous order gets you no where.

    And you continue to promote this bizarre argument that because the existing social arrangement has stood the test of time, we should accept that it is to some degree desirable and robust. As I've already pointed out, the plans and policies that are successful over time are simply those that have been the fittest with respect to some selection criteria. It all comes down to whether we think that selection criteria is desirable. One of the main reasons I usually prefer a market system to a bureaucratically oriented system, is because the outcomes selected in the latter system are fit on the basis of an undesirable selection criteria.

    If you're breeding dogs and you always choose for docile and friendly dogs - that's what you'll get. But if what you want is a guard dog, you're screwed.

    1. I'm not quite sure how to respond to this, edarniw, but thanks for the extended thought. I agree with everything you've written except for the first paragraph and except for this:

      "And you continue to promote this bizarre argument that because the existing social arrangement has stood the test of time, we should accept that it is to some degree desirable and robust."

      I've not argued this - certainly not desirable. I made a point of saying that it doesn't make it desirable. And it's robust only with respect to the conditions under which it emerged. So I agree with you on these points as well.

  4. If you think the evolutionary process of government doesn't effectively weed out the flaws, then you have reason to doubt the outcomes of this process.

    1. That's true, and I'm certainly not one that goes around saying it's always effective, but (1.) effective is a matter of degree, and (2.) you have to realize that you're substituting your own brain for that process when you propose broad adjustments.

      As I read the evidence there's not a very strong correlation between the presence of government in a society and its smooth functioning or effective weeding out of flaws. We have lots of basket case low-government societies, lots of basket case high-government societies, lots of well functioning low-government societies, and lots of well functioning high-government societies.

      I don't know of any well functioning low or high governing societies that are low or high governing because of a radical, plan-based change in their social order. As far as I know all examples of radical, plan-based change in societies ended in a great deal of dysfunction.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. For the one substantive point in that little rant, AH, I'd refer you to my second point in my comment of July 22nd, at 8:22.

      Guys - I have no obligation whatsoever to host people that just want to come here and insult me.


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