Hayek on Individualism and Spontaneous Order

Course Outline

Hayek on Individualism and Spontaneous Order

Instructor: Tyler Cowen, George Mason University

The 1945 essay “Individualism: True and False” is the opening piece in Friedrich Hayek’s “Individualism and Economic Order.” In it, Hayek addresses two traditions of individualism, but he argues only one of these traditions, known as the skeptical tradition of individualism, will lead to liberty and civic order. This skeptical tradition embraces spontaneous order, which follows that institutions are the result of human action, but not of human design. Not everything can be planned – there are limitations to the human mind. Hayek believes that allowing spontaneous order to flourish is the essence of a free society.

Hayek also addresses the rationalist tradition which he warns leads to a false individualism. The rationalist tradition draws too much emphasis to the power of the human mind, and the individual’s ability to manipulate reality and make comprehensive plans. Hayek argues this can be dangerous – potentially leading to oppression, tyranny, coercion, and centralized control. While the rationalist tradition calls for movement toward collectivist thinking, the skeptical tradition of individualism calls for a better understanding of limits to knowledge, which ultimately leads to a healthier economy, better policies, and a better government.

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