Hayek on Order: Cosmos and Taxis

Jonathan Wilde’s superb post on the emergent order that has arisen online, with specific reference to weblogs, mentions a lot of themes that are important for understanding human institutions in general, and for my own work in electricity deregulation and restructuring.

His analysis of Technorati as a mechanism for supporting unplanned order is bang on; one reason why human systems have emergent order is the voluntary actions of some to create institutions that provide order. In many cases, people do this initially for their own interest — imagine how helpful Technorati was to David Sifry when he came up with it, just simply to create a structure and context in which he could arrange his personal reading of various websites. Then when others can partake of those benefits (through either commercial or non-commercial means), the voluntary, unplanned order spreads. This idea is the core of network theory, standardization, and the increasing returns/lock-in literature. As Jonathan notes:

Each of these implementations were created by different individuals, such as Sifry, pursuing their own ends. There was no central authority barking out orders or making grand designs. The inception of a solid anatomy to the blogosphere was an entirely peripheral phenomenon.

Jonathan then goes on to quote Hayek, from Chapter 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty, entitled “Cosmos and Taxis”. In this chapter Hayek is laying out the precise distinctions between unplanned order, cosmos, and planned order, taxis. Indeed, for my money one of Hayek’s most important contributions to modern thought is his articulation of spontaneous order, and why it is that order need not emerge from top-down design or intention. Jonathan then goes on to say

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in convincing authoritarians about the benefits of a free society is their inability to accept the fact that order can can be an emergent property of individual action. For them, all facets of life have to have some sort of grand blueprint implemented by expert soverigns. The cannot conceive of the economy, culture, infrastructure, morality, or society itself as a bottom-up result of billions of autonomous individual actions. Yet, the blogosphere is a vivid example of how wrong they are.

This really hits close to home with me, given that part of my life’s work is to persuade regulators and policymakers that their taxis, their planned, top-down order, is suboptimal and not robust, and that a more spontaneous order would result in better satisfaction of “the public interest”. And that’s a really hard sell, because it means butting up against the desire to control and manage outcomes, which makes people less convinced that outcomes arising from processes that are not controlled and managed can be superior. [Note: I abstract from notions of rent seeking, capture, and public choice in this discussion.]

Later in Chapter 2 Hayek goes on to discuss differences in ordering organizations and human society, observing that smaller organizations (such as families) can thrive with more specific commands, but that as the complexity of the organization increases and approaches the complexity of society, that specificity of commands becomes counterproductive:

To some extent every organization must rely also on rules and not only on specific commands. The reason here is the same as that which makes it necessary for a spontaneous order to rely solely on rules; namely that by guiding the actions of individuals by rules rather than specific commands it is possible to make use of knowledge which nobody possesses as a whole. Every organization in which the members are not mere tools of the organizer will determine by commands only the function to be performed by each member, the purposes to be achieved, and certain general aspects of the methods to be employed, and will leave the detail to be decided by the individuals on the basis of their respective knowledge and skills.

Hayek then goes on to point out the crucial practical reason why relying on rules that enables individuals to use their individual knowledge and skills creates the opportunity for superior outcomes: planned orders reduce or eliminate the potential for beneficial complexity.

If anyone did ever succeed in fully organizing such a society, it would no longer make use of many minds but would be altogether dependent on one mind: it would certainly not be very complex but extremely primitive — and so would soon be the mind whose knowledge and will determined everything … there would be none of that interplay of many minds in which alone mind can grow.

The desire for fully-specified, legalistic, control-oriented regulation leads to this type of primitive, planned order, relative to the flexibility and robustness of arrangements that could arise from the interaction of multiples of dispersed, personal knowledge, skills and interests. And in this planned order minds wither and atrophy, increasing the primitive and simplistic nature of the resulting order. Rules that allow for the challenge and application of individual creativity and personal knowledge make for more robust institutions, and enable minds to thrive in an order that is complex beyond their understanding, without their having to understand its entirety. Thus relinquishing the base desire to control and manage is crucial to well-being, growth, and living together in civil society.