The Negative Capability of a Good Legislator

In a former post, we had explored the idea of considering the law as an abstract machine which provides its users with information about the correct expectancies about human conduct that, if fulfilled, would contribute to the social system inner stability (here). The specific characteristic of the law working as an abstract machine resides in its capability of dealing with an amount of information more complex than human minds. This thesis had been previously stated by Friedrich Hayek in his late work titled “Law, Legislation and Liberty”, aimed to provide the foundations to a proposal of an constitutional reform that would assure the separation of the law from politics -not in the sense of depriving politics from the rule of law, but to protect law from the interference of politics.

Paradoxically, the said opus had many unintended outcomes that surpassed the author’s foresight. One of them was the coinage of the notion of “Spontaneous Order”, which Hayek himself regretted about, because of the misleading sense of the word “spontaneous”. At the foreword of the third volume of the cited “Law, Legislation and Liberty”, he explained why he would prefer to use of the term of “Abstract Order”. Notwithstanding its creator’s allegations, the label of “Spontaneous Order” gained autonomy from him in the realm of the ideas (for example, here).

Why better “abstract order” than “spontaneous”? Because while no “concrete order” might be spontaneous, we could nevertheless find normative systems created by human decision, besides the spontaneous ones (see “Law, Legislation and Liberty”, Chapter V). Moreover, we do not see spontaneous orders whose rules fail to provide stability to the system, because of “evolutionary matters”: such orders could not endure the test of time. Nevertheless, for the same reason, we could imagine a spontaneous order whose rules of conduct became obsolete due to a change in the environment and, thus, fails to enable the social system with the needed stability.

Spontaneity is, thus, not the central characteristic of the law as a complex order. What delimits law from a “concrete order” is the level of abstraction. An alternative name given by Hayek to designate the concrete orders was the Greek term “taxis”, a disposition of soldiers for battle commanded by the single voice of the general. Concrete orders could be fully understood by the human mind and that is why they are regarded as “simple phenomena”: the whole outcome of their rules could be predicted by a system of equations simpler than the human mind.

Notwithstanding a single legislator could sanction a complete set of rules to be followed by the members of a given society, the inner system of decision making of those individuals are more abstract that the said set of rules and, thus, the human interactions will always result in some subset of unintended consequences.

These unintended consequences should not necessarily be regarded as deviations from the social order, but indeed as factors of stabilisation -and, thus, all abstract orders are, in some sense, still spontaneous. These characteristics of the law as a complex order concern on the information about the final configuration of a society given a certain institutional frame: we can establish the whole set of institutions but never fully predict its final outcome. At this stage, we reach what Hayek called in The Sensory Order “an absolute limit to knowledge”.

We now see that the legislator could sanction a complete system of rules -a system that provides solutions for every possible concrete controversy between at least two contenders-, but he is unable to be aware of the full set of consequences of that set of rules. We might ascertain, then, that being enabled with a “negative capability” to anticipate the outcome of the law as a complex phenomenon is a quality to be demanded to a good legislator.

By this “negative capability” we want to designate some understanding of the human nature that allows to anticipate the impact of a given norm among the human interactions. For example, simple statements about human nature such as “people respond to incentives”, or “all powers tend to be abusive”. These notions that are not theoretical but incompletely explained assumptions about human nature are well known in the arts and literature and constitute the undertow of the main narratives that remain mostly inarticulate.

Precisely, as Hayek stated, every abstract order rests upon a series of inarticulate rules, some of which might be discovered and  later articulated by the judges, while other rules would remain inarticulate despite being elements of the normative system.

However, we praise Negative Capability as a virtue to be cultivated by the legislator, not by the judge. The function of the judge is to decide about the actual content of the law when applied to a particular case. It is the legislator the one who should foresee the influence to be exerted by the law upon a general pattern of human behaviour.

Notwithstanding Negative Capability could be dismissed in order of not being a scientific concept, this negative attribute is one of its main virtues: it means lack of ideology, in the sense given to that term by Kenneth Minogue. While an ideological political discourse reassures itself in a notion of scientific truth, at least a legislator inspired by common and humble ideas about human nature would be free from that “pretence of knowledge”.

Please keep it civil

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