Understanding the Spontaneous Society

February 6, 2009

Understanding the Spontaneous Society

[First published July 25, 2005] In my blogs I’ have tried to lay bare the incredible ability of the spontaneous society, that between free people, to provide a social order that allocates goods, runs a family, rules a neighborhood, and governs the relationship among friends, and thus satisfies the desires and values of millions of people. How can this be? So many people, so many diverse interests, so many different values, and yet the spontaneous society, does all this automatically — seemingly untouched by human hands. Certainly, it does it much more efficiency, and with the greater happiness of the greater number, than does the command society.

And how do we understand the role of conflict and cooperation among individuals in such a spontaneous society where people are free to do whatever? Nobody is telling them what to do. Nobody is establishing the framework within which they can interact without conflict. In those social spaces where no boss, government official, or chairman rules, how can people get along? They do, and wonderfully — better than anyone can dictate. What achieves this is a universal process of conflict and cooperation I call the conflict helix. It is shown in the figure below. All its aspects are described in the chapters I’ve posted on my Freedom’s Principles blog, and that have been summarized in the chapter I just posted there.

In sum, the conflict helix is a general process whereby individuals in a free society establish and maintain the understandings, accommodations, and agreements that enable them to cooperate and satisfy their interests. Within this process conflict itself is a means through which they adjust to their different interests, capabilities, and wills; it is a trial-and-error, mutual learning process that achieves an accommodation of some sort between what they want, can get, and are willing to pursue. These accommodations, whether forced or negotiated, explicit or implicit, written or unwritten, constitute a social contract: a structure of expectations defining who owns, controls, influences, gets, or does what. And this structure of expectations is based on a balance of powers (such as the capability of individuals to persuade, bargain, use authority, threaten) achieved by the conflict, such as in a family who chooses the TV programs, takes out the garbage, does the dishes, or how this is decided (flipping coin?).

The social contract that is an outcome of such conflict is initially congruent with the balance of powers established between individuals and defines their social order: it establishes and permits cooperation between them and delineates for them an oasis of peace. Unfortunately, what individuals want, can, and will get changes in time and causes the balance of powers to shift away from the structure of expectations. As the balance becomes less congruent with expectations, a gap is formed between the social contract and the underlying balance of powers. As the gap gets larger it becomes an increasing source of tension until some trigger event surfaces the disparity between power and expectations; new conflict then erupts, as it often does between people who have lived together for a short time, and their structure of expectations — social contract — is disrupted.

This new conflict establishes a more realistic balance of powers and associated social contract; a new phase of cooperation and peace is determined. And eventually, this peace will likewise breakdown into conflict as for this structure of expectations a gap between power and expectations also develop.
Although this process seems cyclic–conflict to cooperation to conflict to cooperation, and so on — and unending, conflict actually can become less intense and frequent. As the two parties learn more about each other through successive conflicts and periods of peace and cooperation, and assuming no change in the fundamental conditions of their relationship, their conflict becomes less intense and shorter, their periods of cooperation more friendly and durable. Thus the helix is an upward spiral in learning as the relationship between individuals progresses through conflict and cooperation.

Link of Note

“Why is F A Hayek a Conservative” (1987 pdf) By Dr. Madsen Pirie

Pirie says:

If there were those who thought from Hayek’s earlier work that he wanted to distil the essence of liberty and use it to build a society anew, his later writing must have changed their opinion. Hayek seeks, as conservatives do, a spontaneous society in which individual actions produce an unplanned order. He rejects, with them, the attempt to construct a rational order and impose it upon people in place of their own decisions. He stresses, as they do, the value of culture in its broadest sense as a repository of wisdom greater than can be retained by any one mind.

Hayek recognizes that societies change; that is what evolution is all about. But it is evolution, not revolution which makes change take place successfully. This, too, is part of the conservative political tradition. In Hayek’s earlier works, we saw, as he did, the differences between his own outlook and those of conservative disposition. He saw the contrast between those who wanted to win back ground for freedom and spontaneity, and those who did not. In his later work we see how his ideas mesh with the political ideas which conservatives have stood for and worked for.

Hayek searched to find a name for the party which would represent people who thought as he did. His search is over. There already is a name for the party which stands for freedom of choice, and which seeks to preserve the spontaneity of outcome which those individual choices accumulate toward. It is a party which recognizes the role played by traditions and cultural inheritance in the safe evolution of society. It is the party which rejects the pretensions of central planners, collectivists, and advocates of a preconceived design. If Professor Hayek has avoided knowing it hitherto, he should know now that the name of this party is Conservative.

The name for such a party that Hayek sought is freedomist. See “Why the Freedomist Network?”
Social Fields and
Types of Societies

Democracy As A Spontaneous Society

January 16, 2009

[First published on February 7, 2006] This is in response to a comment by Gus DeZerega on “The Myth Of ‘The Myth Of Democratic Peace'”. Gus is a 1984 Berkeley Ph.D. in political science and a Visiting Assistant Professor, Dept. of Government, HYPERLINK “http://www.stlawu.edu/”St. Lawrence University. His website is here. He is also into art , as I am. He has written, among others, Persuasion, Power and Polity: A Theory of Democratic Self-Organization, and the article, “HYPERLINK “http://www.dizerega.com/demspon.htm”Democracy as a Spontaneous Order,” published in Critical Review.

Pro Forma, Gus, and I are the only ones, to my knowledge, who have recognized the critical role that F.A. Hayek’s felicitous term, “spontaneous society,” plays in understanding democratic freedom and the democratic peace. This is very close to the idea of a free market, but involving all of a society and not only its economic system. In my mathematical, and subsequent philosophical development of the theory, I use the idea of a social field instead of spontaneous society, but no matter, although the former is more precise the meaning is much the same.

Now, in his comment, Gus DeZerega (GD) said:

This is an excellent rebuttal of the libertarian position, which unfortunately too often these days puts having the ideologically correct conclusion ahead of good analysis. (Disclosure: I am a former libertarian.)

RJR: As I am. I now call myself a freedomist.


However, I think that Dr. Rummel’s disparagement of anti-Iraq war positions, libertarian or leftist, is tangential to the strength of the democratic peace argument. 

There are two separate issues at stake. First, is there a democratic peace? Some of us have said “Yes” for a long time – in my case pretty much since Cliff Ketzel pointed it out in an IR class at the University of Kansas in the 60s. Alas, he didn’t publish and it took me years to arrive at insights similar to those Dr. Rummel arrived at first. Happily so eventually did many others.

Second, if there is a democratic peace, how do we get more democracies and therefore more peace? Here there are two broad positions, and the answers to this question do not translate into where we stand on the validity of the first. 

The first position is that it is possible to bring democracy to undemocratic areas by means of liberating war. The second does not necessarily oppose that view in every instance, but is skeptical and cautious, emphasizing a country needs certain socio-cultural pre-conditions before it can reliably become democratic. This view argues that stable democracy needs to arise largely within and through the efforts of people in the society adopting the institutions. Democracies can assist this process but they cannot impose or control it under most circumstances. (Germany, Italy, and Japan are seeming exceptions, but I would argue otherwise.)

RJR: As I would.


As I read him (and I may misread him) Dr. Rummel is in the first camp, and I most definitely am in the second.

RJR: While I do not accept that war should be fought to democratize a nation, I do say that if it is fought for other reasons, such as to stop wide scale democide, as it would be in Sudan, than once a country is defeated, I believe its people should be freed from their former enslavement by promoting democratization. Japan, Germany, and Italy are examples of what I mean. It may fail, as it has done in Haiti, but better to fail than not try at all.

A fascinating experiment is taking place in Palestine today that may shed light on the strength of one or the other position, though the real world is always messy enough to make a single case only suggestive, no matter what the issue. I truly hope the Palestinian experiment in democracy works. I am dubious. I am even more dubious regarding Iraq because it is far more divided internally than Palestine and its democratic institutions more obviously imposed.

RJR: Not imposed, but the Iraqis have been freed from a bloody tyrant. If freeing slaves is “imposing” freedom on them, then so is imposing freedom on the prisoners of a concentration camp by killing the guards and throwing open the barbed wire gates for all to leave.


Further. My own analysis, which shares a great deal in common with Dr. Rummel’s, emphasizes the degree to which democracies are unlike undemocratic states in their internal organization as a crucial element in the democratic peace phenomena. War unites democracies behind executive power, weakening those differences. Thus, war that is not truly necessary runs the risk of weakening those systemic elements in a democracy that are most crucial to maintaining the democratic peace.

Which general view is correct? Perhaps the next few years will give us a pretty good test.

RJR: War is always a danger to a democracy in that it more or less creates a garrison state, which after a war is only partially dismantled. It is not as though, however, democracies can pick and choose whether to fight a war because of this danger, since often survival in the short or long run is at stake, as it has been for the U.S. with its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. WWI was an exception and need not have been engaged by the U.S., in my view. Thus, by creating a garrison state that cast a long shadow over the future of a democracy, as Gus points out, fighting a war can weaken those very aspects of the democratic peace that promote long run peace. However, if the war ends in the further spread of democracy, then this garrison state effect is more than offset.

Links of Day

Quadrennial Defense Review Report: This is the once every four years review of American defense policy. Rather, what’s new, what’s old, what’s changed, and what’s to be changed. It starts with this provocative, but correct, statement:

The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war.

Liberty vs. democracy: An argument for liberty under an authoritarian regime, rather than for a corrupt and economically unfree democracy. Not a parody.

“Freedom first, democracy after”. Relevant to the Hamas electoral win, this expresses Natan Sharansky’s argument that freedom should come first and then democracy.

Quoting Sharansky, “Germany and Japan didn’t have elections in 1945, either,” he claimed. “Elections are the end of the building process of a free society, not the beginning.”

“Violent Rhetoric or Flush Toilets”:

Democracy may not be a perfect defense against the Mafia — obviously, it is not. American mobsters exist. They intimidate judges in New Jersey, own aldermen in Chicago, and slide cash to congressmen via K Street. Democracies, however, tend to marginalize gangsters, in the same way they tend to marginalize political extremists. With checks and balances like the rule of law, the free press and electoral politics, Al Capones and Jack Abramoffs end up in jail. Even a president can lose his law license for “misleading” a federal judge.

Democracy is no perfect defense against religious and ethnic terrorists, either. Hamas won an election, soundly drubbing secular Fatah.

Democracy is flawed — the other choices, however, are fatal.

“DEMOCRACY AND VIOLENCE GO TOGETHER LIKE BUSH AND LIES”: Re the claim that democracy and violence are incompatible:

it nearly made me choke over my breakfast.
The hypocrisy of it all. . . . As if democracy and violence do not go simply and always hand in hand. Which present day democratic state does not employ violence and terror?

RJR: I give this link just to show that I am not making up the incredibly ignorant, if not ideologically dogmatic, opposition to the democratic peace.

“Facts vs. Fiction: A Report from the Front “ By Karl Zinsmeister, author of Dawn Over Baghdad:

Well, nearly every war is riddled with disappointment and pain, Iraq certainly included. But judged fairly, Iraq has been much less costly and debacle-ridden than the Civil War, World War II, Korea, and the Cold War, each considered in retrospect to have been noble successes.

Warning: a blood and gore democide
painting not for the queasy