Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2019
Due especially to the work of Friedrich Hayek, “spontaneous order” has become an influential concept in social theory. It seeks to explain how human practices and institutions emerge as unintended consequences of myriad individual actions, and points to the limits of rationalism and conscious design in social life. The political implications of spontaneous order theory explain both the enthusiasm and the skepticism it has elicited, but its basic mechanisms remain elusive and underexamined. This article teases out the internal logic of the concept, arguing that it can be taken to mean several different things. Some are forward-looking (defining it in terms of present-day functioning), whereas others are backward-looking (defining it in terms of historical origins). Yet none of these possibilities prove fully coherent or satisfactory, suggesting that spontaneous order cannot bear the analytical weight that has been placed on it.
I thank audiences at Yale, the University of Virginia, and the APSA annual meeting in Washington for the chance to present early versions of some of this material, and I especially thank discussants Alex Bleiberg, Stefan Eich, Andrew Sabl, and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins for their helpful comments. For further discussion of these themes and other help along the way, I am grateful to Gary Herrigel, Ben Jackson, Karuna Mantena, John McCormick, Sankar Muthu, Jennifer Pitts, Sophie Smith, and Kenta Tsuda. Finally, I thank Leigh Jenco and the APSR editorial team along with four anonymous reviewers for their guidance.