Hayek and Liberty
Sheldon Richman posts (15 June) and edits The Freeman HERE
“F. A. Hayek’s essay “Individualism: True and False” (pdf; chapter one of Individualism and Economic Order) overflows with insights that belong in any brief on behalf of the free society. As the title suggests, Hayek wished to distinguish two markedly different philosophies associated with the label individualism: one that rejected rationalism and one that embraced it
“One might even say,” Hayek explained, “that the former is a product of an acute consciousness of the limitations of the individual mind which induces an attitude of humility toward the impersonal and anonymous social processes by which individuals help to create things greater than they know, while the latter is the product of an exaggerated belief in the powers of individual reason and a consequent contempt for anything which has not been consciously designed by it or is not fully intelligible to it.”
Thus for Hayek the crucial difference is over whether societies (institutions) are largely spontaneous, emergent, and organic – or designed. His great concern was that rationalistic individualism, in awe of the mind’s ability to engineer solutions, too readily leads to the centralization of power and totalitarianism.
This essay has not been without controversy even among fans of Hayek. He has been criticized for drawing too sharp a distinction between the liberal rationalists and liberal empiricists and for being arbitrarily pro-British and anti-French in dividing the true from the false individualists. I happily duck those controversies here and focus instead on points that are both less controversial among liberals and, in my view, indispensable to the full case for freedom. (In his book Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School, the great intellectual historian Ralph Raico criticizes [pdf] Hayek’s derogation of the French liberals. “Some might uncharitably suspect Hayek of a terminal Anglophilia which tended to blind him to some obvious facts,” Raico writes.)
The first point I draw attention to comes in Hayek’s discussion of Adam Smith’s view of mankind. Smith’s “chief concern,” Hayek wrote, was not so much with what man might occasionally achieve when he was at his best but that he should have as little opportunity as possible to do harm when he was at his worst. It would scarcely be too much to claim that the main merit of the individualism which he and his contemporaries advocated is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm. It is a social system which does not depend for its functioning on our finding good men for running it, or on all men becoming better than they now are, but which makes use of men in all their given variety and complexity, sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes intelligent and more often stupid. Their aim was a system under which it should be possible to grant freedom to all, instead of restricting it . . . to “the good and the wise.”
Keep this in mind the next time someone proclaims that a muscular State, unconstrained by strict rules, is needed to prevent flawed human beings from harming others. Then ask: What will keep the flawed–and privileged–human beings who have access to the violent power of the State from harming others? Those who are familiar with Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and especially his chapter “Why the Worst Get on Top,” will know what Hayek is getting at."
I’d love to quote it all but do not wish to trespass on The Freeman’s copyright; an example of refraining from doing harm either because I might get away with it at the risk of harm to the people at The Freeman, or because I recognise that laws protect all from the harm that might be caused by others and therefore should be obeyed, and, where necessary, only changed by due process not willful defiance.
[Follow the link above provided by The Freeman and read it for yourself.]
I think Sheldon Richman gives an account of the central tenets of a non-threatening libertarianism that I can go along with that is both persuasive and compelling. A lot of anarchists and libertarians that I know (not always the same people I find) would do well from considering what Hayek’s had to say on these subjects, which is close to Adam Smith’s philosophy. Hayek puts the state in its place within a libertarian society and protects it from the excesses of those who see States as the enemy, and from the other lot who see the State as an instrument for their particular proposals to ‘design’ a society in their image.
Sheldon puts in their proper place and perspective the ‘rational’ ‘maximisers’ of utility’ theorists that abound in modern economics and who design brilliant images of an economy that does not exist, in which Homo economicus is alive and well.
“What the economists understood for the first time,” Hayek wrote, “was that the market as it had grown up was an effective way of making man take part in a process more complex and extended than he could comprehend and that it was through the market that he was made to contribute ‘to ends which were no part of his purpose’.”
No individual, group of individuals be they ever so brilliant (and well meaning), or any collective of Government Ministers, know or can know enough about and economy to run such a complex social structure. Those who think they can are deluded. So are those who vote for them in the belief that they can acquire and apply such knowledge, are those who engage in civil disorder and violence in the belief that the outcome will improve the world.
The world changed from the long 200,000 years of permanent subsistence for the many and better than subsistence for rulers (for as long as they held onto power) up to the great revolution in the gradual spread of markets from the 17th- 18th century from North Western Europe (especially Holland and England) without anybody noticing, without imperial decrees, without Devine guidance, without a single manifesto, without a single prophet, or Great Leader, or a mass movement of proselytisers, and not even a visionary founder.
That part of the world that quietly adopted what had begun, amidst all the hustle and bustle of High Society vanity and place, who wasted millions on wars and people in genocides across the globe, which adoptees slowly and gradually discovered the power of individual drive, innovation, and enterprise, that changed the old, subsistence dependence in favour of rising per capita incomes for masses of people, into what we call development through discovering economic growth, technology, division of labour, and personal liberties. Those societies (China, particularly, but also many others) than discovered so much technology in anticipation of what was to follow, failed to carry their early start from the absence of liberty.
[I recommend to readers of Lost Legacy that they read Deirdre McCloksey’s “Bourgeois Dignity: why economics cannot explain the modern world”, Chicago, 2011, as well the rest of Sheldon Richman’s post in The Freeman HERE