From Hayek's The Counter-Revolution of Science:
"We flatter ourselves undeservedly if we represent human
civilization as entirely the product of conscious reason or as the
product of human design, or when we assume that it is necessarily in our
power deliberately to re-create or to maintain what we have built
without knowing what we are doing. Though our civilization is the
result of a cumulation of individual knowledge, it is not by the
explicit or conscious combination of all this knowledge in any
individual brain, but by its embodiment in symbols which we use without
understanding them, in habits and institutions, tools and concepts, that
man in society is constantly able to profit from a body of knowledge
neither he nor any other man completely possesses. Many of the greatest
things that man has achieved are the result not of consciously directed
thought, and still less the product of a deliberately coordinated
effort of many individuals, but of a process in which the individual
plays a part which he can never fully understand. They are greater than
any individual precisely because they result from the combination of
knowledge more extensive than a single mind can master."
Hayek's work on emergent or spontaneous order is not a new contribution to economics at all. It goes at least back to Adam Smith and I only don't go earlier than that because I'm no expert on pre-Smithian economic thought. So Hayek is not terribly original in this regard, but he is eloquent and he provides fresh insights on an old idea.
And when I read passages like this my feeling is "exactly: that's not just economics but social science in a nutshell".
I've always found it interesting, then, that guys like Don regularly act as if guys like me are flaunting this truth. It's interesting first because I like it so much so it's strange that someone would assume someone like me wouldn't. But it's also interesting because it's along these lines that libertarians frustrate me so much.
Social order evolves without central or top-down direction. So the obvious question for a social scientist, it seems to me, is to ask how that evolution has happened in societies that have not had plans imposed on them.
The answer seems pretty obvious: the natural evolutionary path of unplanned human societies has been industrialization, the emergence of market democracies limited by the constraints of law, egalitarian social safety nets, public provision of public goods, and a steadily increasing recognition of human rights. If you want to ask "what human societies seem to spontaneously emerge?" that list pretty much hits the major bases for the last couple centuries.
The societies that deliberately try to change this evolutionary path constitute the great tragedies of the twentieth century, and the socieites that resisted the emergence of this evolutionary outcome in the first place constitute the backwards forces of reaction in the nineteenth century.
So you would think an appreciation of this point would lead people to question extreme changes in polity and have more faith in the spontaneous evolution of these societies that we observe all around the world.
You would think this point would give us pause when it comes to the more extreme libertarians (I'm not talking about the Greg Mankiw types) and the communists and planners alike. You would think this point would bolster the case for liberally oriented social democrats.
But it never seems to play out that way in the blogosphere.