Social Evolution & Classical Liberalism

by William N. Butos, Department of Economics

Course Overview

This Seminar will study classical liberalism – a body of ideas emphasizing individual rights, private property, limited government, and free markets – and its contributions to the development of an evolutionarily based social theory. Our aim is to approach the social realm from a perspective grounded on the evolutionary principles of variation, selection, and retention. These principles apply to both the biological (or natural) and social realms; however, their respective time-scales and degrees of complexity differ substantially. In directing our attention at the social realm, we recognize that for Homo sapiens the biological evolution of the species has been glacial compared to its social evolution.

But more than the pace of change, we must take special account of the qualitative differences between the capacities for producing emergent phenomena of a single individual and those of interacting individuals. Once we enter into social domains of inquiry, the interactions of individuals produce outcomes which reflect human purposes and design and thus are not entirely analogous to outcomes we associate with the biological realm. But these very same activities within the social realm also produce side-effects that are not part of human intentionality or design and so have in that sense a closer affinity with biological evolution. Understanding the mechanisms and processes within the social realm capable of producing emergent phenomena, both intentioned and unintended, requires analyzing the properties of social evolution from a distinctive vantage point.

To do so, we will use a body of ideas generally associated with classical liberalism as a framework for understanding social evolution in the political and economic spheres, especially in terms of the institutions that bear on the way individuals interact. Of particular interest will be to use insights from the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century to understand the unintended emergence of phenomena under institutional arrangements that differ with respect to societal constraints that span deep-level cultural mores and norms to enforceable general rules and statutes. Institutional analysis, a benchmark of much of classical liberal thinking from the 18th century to the present, is central to understanding the social realm in terms of systems in motion and their capacity to generate emergent outcomes.

We will examine the intellectual foundations of Classical Liberalism as expressed in the work of philosophers, political theorists, and economists such as John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and other 18th and 19th century writers. Substantial attention, however, will be directed at a critical analysis of classical liberal thought and expression as it has evolved during the 20th and into the 21st Centuries under the impetus of such leading intellectuals as F.A. Hayek, Michael Polanyi, and Robert Nozick.

While we wish to understand how the ideas of classical liberal thinking were aimed at ways to improve social outcomes, we will also examine case studies to understand the sorts of consequences that social systems are subject to when certain institutional arrangements somehow come to dominant yet produce arguably unacceptable outcomes.

Three main questions and topics will be addressed in this course:

(1) What are the similarities and differences between biological and social revolution?

(2) What does the positive analysis of classical liberal social theory contribute to our understanding of social evolution and adaptation, especially with respect to political and economic institutions?

(3) Does the positive analysis of classical liberal ideas carry important normative implications?

Required Texts

  1. Steven Johnson, Emergence (2001) [E]
  2. David Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer (1997) [Boaz]
  3. David Boaz, The Libertarian Reader (1997) [LR]
  4. Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson [Hazlitt]

Course Outline and Readings

  1. Evolution: Natural and Social
    1. Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea, chs. 1 & 11
    2. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, ch. 2
    3. [E], chs 1-5
  1. What is Classical Liberalism?
    1. Boaz, chs 1 & 2
    2. LR: M. Friedman, “Relation Between Economic & Political Freedom” (pp. 292-303)
  1. Political & Economic Liberalism: Institutions and Evolution
    1. Boaz 3-11
    2. Selections from LR:
    3. Locke, “Toleration” (pp. 53-7); “Second Treatise of Government” (pp. 123-34)
    4. Hume, “Justice and Property” (pp. 135-39)
    5. Mill, “On Liberty”(pp. 25-8, 96-104)
    6. “Spontaneous Order” (pp. 204-5)
    7. Hayek, “Made and Spontaneous Order (pp.233-42)
    8. “Free Markets & Voluntary Order” (pp. 249-52)
    9. Adam Smith, “Wealth of Nations” (pp. 253-64)
    10. Bastiat, “What is Seen and Not Seen” (pp. 265-73)
    11. Hayek, “The Market Order” (pp. 303-12)
    12. Kirzner, “The Theory of Entrepreneurial Discovery” (pp. 31-49 & 71-5), photocopy.
    13. Hazlitt: chs 1,3, 5, 8,10, 11
    14. [E], chs 6 & 7
    15. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), chs 1-3, 7.
    16. M. Polanyi, “The Republic of Science” (1962)
  1. Contra-Classical Liberal Evolution: Socialism & Totalitarianism
    1. LR: “Eclipse of Liberalism” (pp. 324-6)
    2. Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000), “Into the Soviet Morass”
    3. LR: Mises, “Socialism and Interventionism” (pp. 274-85)
    4. R. Higgs (1987), Crisis & Leviathan, Ch. 1