Hayek on Spontaneous Order and the Mirage of Social Justice by John Tomasi

John Tomasi, "Hayek on Spontaneous Order and the Mirage of Social Justice," lecture, Manhattan Institute, June 20, 2007.


There is a problem with this simple reading of Hayek, however, and it has much vexed Hayek scholars. For while claiming to reject social justice, Hayek often invokes a standard of social justice in arguing for his Ron Paul–like policies of limited government. Thus, Hayek says repeatedly that a society of free markets and limited government will be beneficial to all citizens, providing each his best chance of using his own information for his own purposes. On occasions where he fears that the market system may not have this hoped-for result, infamously, Hayek advocates governmental correctives: a guaranteed minimum income, public funding for schools, and an array of social services for needy families—all to be funded by increased taxation. Perhaps we would merely call this Obama-Lite. But whatever we call it, it looks a lot like a concern for the pattern of material holdings across the whole society—a concern, that is, for social justice.

Hayek scholars wrestle with this problem. For example, Adam Tebble, my colleague at Brown, thinks that these concessive passages were simply a blunder on Hayek’s part. Hayek wrote many of them when he was older, so perhaps it is a case of “hardening arteries and a softening heart.” Now, I don’t know whether Hayek was softhearted. But I am convinced that he was not softheaded.

Despite what many Hayek scholars have said, I see no deep inconsistency between Hayek’s rejection of social justice and his expression of social justice–like concerns. To see why, we need to travel into some technical terrain. In particular, we need to consider an idea I mentioned at the start of this talk, the idea of spontaneous order.

Manhattan Institute