The Mind-Society Spiral

I believe I have made honest use of what I know about the world in which we live. The reader will have to decide whether he wants to accept the values in the service of which I have used that knowledge. — Friedrich Hayek, Preface, The Constitution of Liberty [1]

In his response to me, Sandefur writes that Hayek’s “arguments … just don’t work as a normative critique of economic and legal planning.” They don’t work as critique of every case of such planning, but, when we enter into Hayek’s liberal foci (again, The Distinction, the liberty maxim), they work against much of the statist folly and misadventure of his day and ours.

Sandefur posits walled communities and pleas for free exit, that glorious principle. And then asks: “And where does that principle come from?” Well, it must go way back, but, proximately, it comes from Sandefur. Sandefur cites system(i) — the nexus and legacies of the walled communities — and then adds himself (and, accordingly, the legacies he carries), augmenting system(i) and yielding system(i+1). No quarrels there. But if you want to do the spontaneous-vs.-rationalistic thing, you get a spiral — no First moment, no Last moment. Others put it in terms of circles of “we,” again a sequence in which each circle gets a subscript.

Sandefur quotes Hayek on the embeddedness of the mind, and infers Hayek to be saying that “patterns of thought … cannot stand outside the system and criticize it.” But speaking of “the system” is wrongheaded; we need subscripts on “system,” and it is wrong to infer Hayek to be saying someone cannot stand with at least one foot outside system(i) and criticize it. Sandefur’s critique is helpful as caution against some of Hayek’s muddy swirls and dubious ratiocinations, but not as challenge to his central drift.

In his final paragraph, Sandefur writes, “there is no conceptual distinction between spontaneous and constructed orders such that constructed orders are bad and spontaneous orders good.” As a matter of “every,” that’s correct. But, Tim, when we mind Hayek’s liberal foci, what about preponderantly?

In most policy conversations, an enlightened view holds that, mostly, more freedom, good; more coercion, bad. Hayek negotiated a way up and stood tall for that presumption.

Acknowledgment: I thank Jason Briggeman for valuable feedback.


[1] Friedrich Hayek, Preface, The Constitution of Liberty University of Chicago Press, 1960, p. 6.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, lawyer and legal theorist Timothy Sandefur proposes that Friedrich Hayek’s understanding of law and justice is flawed: Spontaneous order may be a descriptively accurate concept, but it has little or no effective normative content. Depending on how one chooses to focus, those who wish to reform a spontaneous order are either constructive rationalists — thus, outside the order, and presumptively bad — or they are manifestations of the spontaneous order itself, which changes over time. He suggests that the Hayekian approach to legal reform is simply “be careful,” and that this is not terribly helpful advice.

Response Essays

  • In his response essay, John Hasnas offers solutions to Sandefur’s problems. He suggests that genuine spontaneous orders can be recognized as having no final decision makers, and hence as recognizing a multitude of individual choices. Constructed orders have a final decision maker, and do not respect individual choice. The normative benefits of a spontaneous order are therefore clear: It offers a greater scope for peaceful cooperation, while tending to reduce coercion incrementally. Still, Hasnas admits, spontaneous orders will always be “riddled with injustice,” in part owing to our own limited knowledge and virtue. He suggests that one key missing insight helps rescue much of Hayekian legal thought: the notion that laws, too, respond to market forces.

  • Daniel Klein argues that much of the fuzziness in Hayek’s writing was strategic — designed to bring lapsed liberals back into the fold, or to appeal to people who would never accept an unvarnished liberalism. Still, Klein finds great value in Hayek’s work. He argues that, while out of fashion at the time, Hayek’s own willingness to be indeterminate, and to embrace indeterminateness, was both consistent with the Smithian understanding of the social order — and predictive of some of the best work being done today in economics and in other social sciences.

  • Bruce Caldwell proposes two solutions to Sandefur’s problems. The first is to acknowledge that Hayek was a rule utilitarian, albeit one who recognized that the rules we have inherited are the products of a spontaneous order. The second is to claim that Hayek wasn’t proposing any normative conclusions at all — he was simply making observations in a value-neutral way, as might befit a member of the Austrian School, which was deeply influenced by Max Weber’s ideal of a value-neutral social science. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, Caldwell admits, yet in the end he cannot accept Sandefur’s claim that there is no meaningful distinction between spontaneous and designed orders. Although the difference can be difficult to put into words, we know them when we see them.