Spontaneous social order, mutual arising, and the Tâo of laissez-faire

I saw a discussion among several friends on twitter about the concept of “spontaneous social order” and I immediately thought of Taoism and the Tâo Te Ching. I thought of the Taoist idea of “mutual arising”.

Taoists see the our universe as being in a continuous state of flux. What we experience is a process where everything is always changing and nothing remains constant. There is a constant interplay of opposing forces that shape our reality, much like rock and water meet to shape the river bed over time. Taoism is the philosophy that gave us the concept of yin and yang and it is from this constant, cooperative competition that the unity and harmony of nature arises. Nature is self-sufficient and uncreated. We don’t need to postulate a conscious, controlling “god” to give orders to nature or to man. We also don’t need human ‘rulers’, bureaucracy, or a panel of “experts” to shape our society. We don’t need central planners to tell man what his best course is. This interplay of forces is often called “mutual arising”. I first became aware of this concept reading Alan Watts who may be one of the best sources of explanation on Taoism that you will find.


The mutual arising of opposites implies many things. For one it means that chaos and order are two sides of the same coin. Order will arise from chaos and the opposite also happens. This Taoist concept is strikingly similar to the idea of a spontaneous order. We see from the Wikipedia entry:

Spontaneous order, also known as “self-organization“, is the spontaneous emergence of order out of seeming chaos. It is a process found in physical, biological, and social networks, as well as economics, though the term “self-organization” is more often used for physical and biological processes, while “spontaneous order” is typically used to describe the emergence of various kinds of social orders from a combination of self-interested individuals who are not intentionally trying to create order through planning. The evolution of life on Earth, language, crystal structure, the Internet and a free market economy have all been proposed as examples of systems which evolved through spontaneous order.[1] Naturalists often point to the inherent “watch-like” precision of uncultivated ecosystems and to the universe itself as ultimate examples of this phenomenon.[citation needed]

Spontaneous orders are to be distinguished from organizations. Spontaneous orders are distinguished by being scale-free networks, while organizations are hierarchical networks. Further, organizations can be and often are a part of spontaneous social orders, but the reverse is not true. Further, while organizations are created and controlled by humans, spontaneous orders are created, controlled, and controllable by no one.[citation needed]. In economy and the social studies, spontaneous order is defined as “the result of human actions, not of human design.”

Spontaneous order is also used as a synonym for any emergent behavior of which self-interested spontaneous order is just an instance.[citation needed]

According to Murray Rothbard, Zhuangzi (369 BCE – 286 BCE) was the first to work out the idea of spontaneous order. The philosopher rejected the authorianism of Confucianism, writing that there “has been such a thing as letting making alone; there has never been such a thing a governing mankind [with success].” He articulated an early form of spontaneous order, asserting that “good order results spontaneously when things are let alone”, a concept later “developed particularly by Proudhon in the nineteenth” century.[2]

The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment were the first to seriously develop and inquire into the idea of the market as a spontaneous order. The sociologist and historian Adam Ferguson described the phenomenon of spontaneous order in society as the “result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”.[3][4]

The Austrian School of Economics, led by Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, would later refine the concept and use it as a centerpiece in its social and economic thought.

I also agree  that the Taoists were the first (that we know) to advocate against central planing or rulers giving orders on how to live. Consider Lao Tzu writing in The Tâo Te Ching Chapter 57.

The Genuine Influence.
1. A state may be ruled by (measures of) correction; weapons of war may be used with crafty dexterity; (but) the kingdom is made one’s own (only) by freedom from action and purpose.

2. How do I know that it is so? By these facts:– In the kingdom the multiplication of prohibitive enactments increases the poverty of the people; the more implements to add to their profit that the people have, the greater disorder is there in the state and clan; the more acts of crafty dexterity that men possess, the more do strange contrivances appear; the more display there is of legislation, the more thieves and robbers there are.

3. Therefore a sage has said, ‘I will do nothing (of purpose), and the people will be transformed of themselves; I will be fond of keeping still, and the people will of themselves become correct. I will take no trouble about it, and the people will of themselves become rich; I will manifest no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain to the primitive simplicity.’

The sage is talking to a ruler and advising him that taking no action at all will lead to the greatest good for all; himself included. This is telling the ruler not to rule! By allowing the people to jointly arrive at “the way” by cooperation and trial and error we will see the best results.

Thousands of years before the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment and later the French economists of the 18h century developed the idea that the market is spontaneous order in action and that “laissez-faire” was the wisest path, the Taoists were saying that “The Tao” was the natural force that ordered everything in the universe and to oppose the Tao was folly.

Some define the phenomenon of spontaneous order in society as the “result of human action, but not the execution of any human design“. The Taoist idea of “mutual arising” is that there is no straight line cause and effect in the universe like the simple idea of Newton’s famous “billiard ball universe” in action. The Taoists would tell you that all of us, all of the animals, and everything else is part of one process. Every action is part of every other action — and so the sage can tell us that we experience the whole universe without leaving our dwelling place.

The idea of “mutual arising” is an ancient idea that is basically the same as, or at least very compatible with,  “spontaneous order”. And both of these concepts are compatible with modern physics. Some say that Taoism foreshadowed modern physics.

Lao Tzu sees only evil and woe coming from any action by the ruler. He sees government as man’s folly and he offers us advice that might have come from any modern market anarchist:

The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men’s weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.

So we can conclude that the idea of a spontaneous order arising from mutual cooperation is not new at all, and it is at the very heart of Austrian Economics and their advocacy of laissez-faire. The central idea is that millions of people working together will come up with ideas far better than some committee of even the brightest of people. Trial and error will lead the “crowd” to outperform the panel of “experts” every time; and that is even on the rare occasions when the government panel is actually trying to help the masses.

Letting the people voluntarily order society is the path to our greatest fulfillment. Let us toss aside all beliefs that some planning board made up of “experts” will do anything but harm.


14 thoughts on “Spontaneous social order, mutual arising, and the Tâo of laissez-faire

  1. I enjoyed your article, but I think that I find the philosophies somewhat utopian. The ideas laid out do seem sensible and almost perfect. However, they are by no means tried and true. And history seems to dictate that no perfect society has ever arisen without rulers. Of course there has been no perfect society. Now this will sound rather naive. I at times view mathematics as the manipulation of numbers. And I see philosophy as the manipulation of words. The manipulation of words to the extent that they make perfect and absolute sense. But they do not translate well into real life.

    • There are many examples of societies that existed without the state. Consider this example.

      I know that many people can’t imagine living without rulers to impose order from above, but considering that governments murdered over 200 million of their own citizens in the 20th century alone, I think they are much more of a danger than any robber in a dark ally.

      • Thank you. This was fascinating. I did however take issue with “largely” anarchist and the system of Tuaths.

        “I know that many people can’t imagine living without rulers to impose order from above, but considering that governments murdered over 200 million of their own citizens in the 20th century alone, I think they are much more of a danger than any robber in a dark ally.” I take no issue whatsoever with your above statements.

        • Hi. The Catholic monks left detailed records of the anarchy that they found and they recorded a history of anarchy over the next 1,000 years in Ireland. That is fact not in dispute. Some say that the anarchy that they found was already very ancient and may have been 8 or 9 thousand years old when the monks got there.

          Regardless, we know of several anarchies in history were the society ordered itself without a government. And so, we argue that we could do it again.

          Thanks for the replies.

  2. The original meaning of “liberal” was a person who held to the political ideology that developed in the nineteenth century in Western Europe that was committed to the ideal of limited government and individual liberty, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and free markets. The liberal believed that the government should not be involved in the actions of men at all other than to provided protection against the invasion of our natural rights, liberties, and freedoms by someone or some group. Some liberals went even further and said that there should be no government even for that task since the free market could provide defense services better than the state and without the danger of the government itself becoming the aggressor. Obviously the word “liberal” in America at least no longer means what it once did since government-loving socialists usurped the word and pretended to be “liberals”.

  3. Pingback: Spontaneous social order, mutual arising, and the Tâo of laissez-faire – The Tao of Anarchy

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