Economics and the Complexity Vision
2009 Summer Project
Mesa Community College
The static neo classical model of economics typically found in the economics
classroom (and professional journals) belies the reality of human interaction. While
models demand a set of simplifying assumptions, the quantitative approach that swept
economics in the post WW II era to dominate the profession does as great a disservice to
society as a service. However, looking back to classical economics as well as the
Austrian school a small group of scholars have begun to examine what has been called
economic behavior from another perspective. While these scholars are a tiny part of the
profession, their view has more than passing importance. David Colander in The
Complexity Vision and the Teaching of Economics observes: “ . . . the field of
economics displayed many of the characterize a complex system. It had a self-organized
quality to it, and it dealt with interdependent agents. Indeed it has along history of
explanations involving the invisible hand and spontaneous order. “(4).
So the examination of the emerging work in complexity, centered at the Santa Fe
Institute (SFI), is an appropriate and compelling allocation of time. The Santa Fe
Institute is a private, not-for-profit, independent research and education center founded in
1984, for multidisciplinary collaborations in the physical, biological, computational, and
social sciences. Understanding of complex adaptive systems is critical to addressing key
environmental, technological, biological, economic, and political challenges.
(http://www.santafe.edu/about/ ) Colander’s edited work in The Complexity Vision and
the Teaching of Economics is based upon the work of SFI scholars and covers a series of
topics ranging from bioeconomics to the Austrian school of economics.
This complexity work is tied to two of the giants in Austrian thought – Ludig von
Mises and F. A. Hayek as well as Adam Smith. The major problem for any economy
Hayek argued, is how people’s actions are coordinated. He noticed, as Adam Smith had,
that the price system—free markets—did a remarkable job of coordinating people’s
actions, even though that coordination was not part of anyone’s intent. The market, said
Hayek, was a spontaneous order. By spontaneous Hayek meant unplanned—the market
was not designed by anyone but evolved slowly as the result of human actions. Roger
Koppl writes of the connection between Austrian and complexity:
Austrian economists (of the Hayekian variety at least) share
common elements and a common past with complexity theory.
Complexity theorists trace their origins in part to Ludwig von
Bertalanffy’s work on systems theory and Norbert Wiener, creater of the
related field of cybernetics. Hayek had a series knowledge of and interest
in systems theory and cybernetics. . . . The most characteristic feature of
Hayek’s system of thought is probably his notion of ‘spontaneous order. . .
A spontaneous order is a complex adaptive system. It is Adam Smith’s
idea of the ‘invisible hand’. (Colander 139-140)
The tie then between classical economics, modern Austrian thought and complexity
theory can be found both in the work the SFI as well as the sources of classical and
modern economic thought.
This tie between complexity theory and the Hayekian notion of spontaneous order
(1) is not widely communicated in social sciences and is arguably one of the most
important contributions that is lacking in contemporary social sciences education. The
connection between the two is both clear and compelling. Koppl goes on to clarify this
connection when he points out: “ . . . they are complex; for spontaneous orders, the
‘degree of complexity is not limited to what a human mind can master. Second, they are
abstract . . . Third, they have no purpose, ‘not having be made’ by any designing
minds,”(140). This final point is critical, complexity is adaptive, emergent and
evolutionary and the work of the Austrians builds on the insight of Adam Smith to
indicate the implications of these set of conditions which seem to inform behavior. (2)
Harvard economist and former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers
explains Hayek's place in modern economics this way: quot;What's the single most important
thing to learn from an economics course today? What I tried to leave my students with is
the view that the invisible hand is more powerful than the [un]hidden hand. Things will
happen in well-organized efforts without direction, controls, plans. That's the consensus
among economists. That's the Hayek legacy.quot;(quoted in The Commanding Heights: The
Battle Between Government and the Marketplace that Is Remaking the Modern World pp.
While Hayek is neglected or often unknown in current economic education, Adam
Smith remains a central, if misunderstood, element of both instructor generated
instruction and textbook analysis of the markets. His invisible hand (mentioned only 3
times in his collected works) is frequently emphasized although misinterpreted. Vernon
Smith, an advocate of the constructivist or complex vision points to Smith’s contributions
to his work in experimental economics. He writes that this vision is:
an undesigned ecological system that emerges out of cultural and
biological evolutionary processes: home grown principles of action,
norms, traditions, and morality. Thus, quot;the rules of morality are not the
conclusions of our reason.quot; According to Hume, who was concerned with
the limits of reason and the boundedness of human understanding,
rationality was a phenomena that reason discovers in emergent
institutions. Adam Smith expressed the idea of emergent order in both The
Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. According to this
concept of rationality, truth is discovered in the form of the intelligence
embodied in rules and traditions that have formed, inscrutably, out of the
ancient history of human social interactions. (Vernon Smith)
Vernon Smith argues for the view that Adam Smith in both the well known Wealth of
Nations and virtually unknown Theory of Moral Sentiments finds the emergent and
evolutionary view of human activity persuasive. Thus, the invisible hand metaphor
acquires a deeper meaning as a symbol for what Hayek would call spontaneous order that
is emergent, in the words of Vernon Smith, over the extended period of the “ancient
History of human social interactions. These interactions are the informal institutions –
norms and conventions that Douglass North sees shaping formal institutions and
incentive structures that impact behavior. This process is one that is complex in nature,
has not been fully understood or modeled, in spite of the impression given by
introductory texts in economics that see markets and outcomes as fait accompliat. North
writes: Informal constraints (norms, conventions and codes of conduct) favorable to
growth can sometimes produce economic growth even with unstable or adverse political
rules. So North agrees with Vernon Smith and writes: “It is necessary to dismantle the
rationality assumption underlying economic theory in order to approach constructively
the nature of human learning. History demonstrates that ideas, ideologies, myths,
dogmas, and prejudices matter; and an understanding of the way they evolve is necessary
for further progress in developing a framework to understand societal change.”(Nobel
As Douglass North reminds us, the complicating factor in our study and
instruction of economics is change. In works ranging from Structure and Change in
Economic History toUnderstanding the Process of Economic Change North reiterates the
centrality challenge of understanding the forces that lead to change. In his 1993 Nobel
lecture North explicates what he calls the non ergodic nature of change. “increasing our
understanding of the historical evolution of economies” can “contribute to our
understanding of the complex interplay between institutions, technology, and
demography in the overall process of economic change.” He concludes much of his
recent work with the twin observations that it is “adaptive rather than allocative
efficiency that is key to our understanding of complex economic process and path
dependence, one of the remarkable regularities of history. . . . Pioneering work on this
subject is beginning to give us insights into the sources of path dependence (Arthur, 1989
and David, 1985). But there is much that we still do not know.” (Nobel) In a subsequent
Nobel ceremony, Vernon Smith recognized this limitation in his banquet toast. (3)
So the line of thought from Smith to Hayek to North is clear – there is much we
do not know, the modern models used in economics mask or ignore this ignorance and
complexity theory is a vision or prism that can allow a more realized view of human
behavior. All three provide a rationale for their vision; the economic growth or change
has allowed humanity to dramatically increase the standard of living in the 21st century.
While an understanding of the limitation of contemporary quantitative economic
modeling, institutions such as the Santa Fe Institute seem to argue for a Hayekean
recognition of the limits to understanding of spontaneous orders or complex systems.
(1) Because it is undesigned and not the product of conscious reflection, the
spontaneous order that emerges of itself in social life can cope with the radical
ignorance we all share of the countless facts on knowledge of which society
depends. This is to say, to begin with, that a spontaneous social order can utilize
fragmented knowledge, knowledge dispersed among millions of people, in a way
a holistically planned order (if such there could be) cannot. “This structure of
human activities” as Hayek puts it “consistently adapts itself, and functions
through adapting itself, to millions of facts which in their entirety are not known
to everybody. The significance of this process is most obvious and was at first
stressed in the economic field.”34 It is to say, also, that a spontaneous social
order can use the practical knowledge preserved in men's habits and dispositions
and that society always depends on such practical knowledge and cannot do
(2) One idea propounded by Hayek is central for the understanding of the Social
Sciences: the notion of complex phenomena. This notion was originally
introduced in his paper “The theory of the complex phenomena” published in
Studies in 1967. He proposes that the degree of complexity of a phenomenon
depends upon “the minimum number of elements of which an instance of the
pattern must consist in order to exhibit all the characteristic attributes of the class
of pattern in question…”
(3) Vernon L. Smith's speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 2002
Colander, David. The Complexity Vision and the Teaching of Economics. Edward
Elgar, Northampton, MA, USA. 2000.
Hayek, FA. -----The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
-----Economics and Knowledge A presidential address to the London Economic
Club, 10 November 1936. First published in Economica (February 1937).
----- Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
-----The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason. Glencoe,
Ill.: Free Press. 1960.
-----Law, Legislation, and Liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1973.
----“The Use of Knowledge in Society.” American Economic Review 35 (September):
519–530. Available online at: http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/hykKnw1.html.
North, Douglass. Nobel Prize Lecture, 1993.
-----Structure and Change in Economic History, 1981
-----Understanding the Process of Economic Change
Smith, Adam. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Edited by Edwin Cannan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Available
online at: http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html
-----1759. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D. D. Raphael and A. L.
Macfie. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Available online at: http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smMS.html
Smith, Vernon. What is Experimental Economics? http://www.ices-
Yergin, Daniel and Joseph Stanislaw The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between
Government and the Marketplace that Is Remaking the Modern World, New York:
Simon & Schuster. 1998.
Warch, David. The Idea of Economic Complexity. New York: Penquin. 1984.