I’ve been reading up on the idea of spontaneous order lately, and came across this gem from James Buchanan. I found it through Don Boudreaux, who refers to it as “word for word, the most insightful thing I’ve ever read.”
It’s only a little over 500 words, so the whole thing is worth reading. But, to whet your appetite, here’s how it starts:
Norman Barry states, at one point in his essay, that the patterns of spontaneous order “appear to be a product of some omniscient designing mind” (p. 8). Almost everyone who has tried to explain the central principle of elementary economics has, at one time or another, made some similar statement. In making such statements, however, even the proponents-advocates of spontaneous order may have, inadvertently, “given the game away,” and, at the same time, made their didactic task more difficult.
I want to argue that the “order” of the market emerges only from the process of voluntary exchange among the participating individuals. The “order” is, itself, defined as the outcome of the process that generates it. The “it,” the allocation-distribution result, does not, and cannot, exist independently of the trading process. Absent this process, there is and can be no “order.”
And, while you’re at it, the essay by Norman Barry to which Buchanan is responding is worth a read itself. A masterful history of the treatment of the concept of spontaneous order from the Spanish School of Salamanca through Hale, Mandeville, Hume, Menger, Hayek, and more.