Practical Libertarianism for Americans: Addendum to Part IV

This is a work in progress. I welcome constructive criticisms and suggestions. Please send an e-mail to: libertycorner-at-sbcglobal-dot-net .

MORE HAYEK

Let’s begin with some excerpts of Hayek’s 1945 essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society“:

Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active coöperation. We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances….

It follows…that central planning based on statistical information by its nature cannot take direct account of these circumstances of time and place and that the central planner will have to find some way or other in which the decisions depending on them can be left to the “man on the spot.”…

We must look at the price system as such a mechanism for communicating information if we want to understand its real function—a function which, of course, it fulfils less perfectly as prices grow more rigid….The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action. In abbreviated form, by a kind of symbol, only the most essential information is passed on and passed on only to those concerned. It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.

Of course, these adjustments are probably never “perfect” in the sense in which the economist conceives of them in his equilibrium analysis. But I fear that our theoretical habits of approaching the problem with the assumption of more or less perfect knowledge on the part of almost everyone has made us somewhat blind to the true function of the price mechanism and led us to apply rather misleading standards in judging its efficiency. The marvel is that in a case like that of a scarcity of one raw material, without an order being issued, without more than perhaps a handful of people knowing the cause, tens of thousands of people whose identity could not be ascertained by months of investigation, are made to use the material or its products more sparingly; i.e., they move in the right direction. This is enough of a marvel even if, in a constantly changing world, not all will hit it off so perfectly that their profit rates will always be maintained at the same constant or “normal” level.

I have deliberately used the word “marvel” to shock the reader out of the complacency with which we often take the working of this mechanism for granted. I am convinced that if it were the result of deliberate human design, and if the people guided by the price changes understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind. Its misfortune is the double one that it is not the product of human design and that the people guided by it usually do not know why they are made to do what they do. But those who clamor for “conscious direction”—and who cannot believe that anything which has evolved without design (and even without our understanding it) should solve problems which we should not be able to solve consciously—should remember this: The problem is precisely how to extend the span of out utilization of resources beyond the span of the control of any one mind; and therefore, how to dispense with the need of conscious control, and how to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.

The problem which we meet here is by no means peculiar to economics but arises in connection with nearly all truly social phenomena, with language and with most of our cultural inheritance, and constitutes really the central theoretical problem of all social science. As Alfred [North] Whitehead has said in another connection, “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” This is of profound significance in the social field. We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.

The price system is just one of those formations which man has learned to use (though he is still very far from having learned to make the best use of it) after he had stumbled upon it without understanding it. Through it not only a division of labor but also a coördinated utilization of resources based on an equally divided knowledge has become possible. The people who like to deride any suggestion that this may be so usually distort the argument by insinuating that it asserts that by some miracle just that sort of system has spontaneously grown up which is best suited to modern civilization. It is the other way round: man has been able to develop that division of labor on which our civilization is based because he happened to stumble upon a method which made it possible. Had he not done so, he might still have developed some other, altogether different, type of civilization, something like the “state” of the termite ants, or some other altogether unimaginable type. All that we can say is that nobody has yet succeeded in designing an alternative system in which certain features of the existing one can be preserved which are dear even to those who most violently assail it—such as particularly the extent to which the individual can choose his pursuits and consequently freely use his own knowledge and skill.

Hayek, writing in The Constitution of Liberty (1960) went on to say:

[B]efore we can try to remould society intelligently, we must understand its functioning; we must realise that, even when we believe that we understand it, we may be mistaken. What we must learn to understand is that human civilisation has a life of its own, that all our efforts to improve things must operate within a working whole which we cannot entirely control, and the operation of whose forces we can hope merely to facilitate and assist so far as we can understand them. [Chapter 4, pp. 69-70]

As one writer puts it:

[I]n Hayek’s moral philosophy, human beings are seen as only the product of the biological and cultural evolution, not as the creator of civilization; and, in the evolution of society, human economy “‘blindly follows the route of maximum resource use just as within biology evolutionary change tends towards a maximum economy in the use of resources.” Neither a conscious or teleological force, nor a supernatural deity autonomous from the natural order sets evolution in motion; therefore, the notion of agency, either human or divine, is only infantile and the notion of the inevitability of progress is only exuberant and naïve. Such notions are only an intellectual retrogression to the “anthropomorphic tendencies of all primitive thinking.” Therefore, for Hayek, all progress must be understood in the sense of cultural evolution which is characterized by the discovery of the unknown, and whose consequences are therefore unpredictable. Hayek argues that human civilization has a life of its own, and therefore our attitude to it ought to be similar to that of the physician toward a living organism.

But, in a postcript to The Constitution of Liberty (“Why I Am Not a Conservative“), Hayek was careful to distinguish his philosophy from that of conservatism:

This difference between [classical] liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.

…Before I consider the main points on which the liberal attitude is sharply opposed to the conservative one, I ought to stress that there is much that the liberal might with advantage have learned from the work of some conservative thinkers. To their loving and reverential study of the value of grown institutions we owe (at least outside the field of economics) some profound insights which are real contributions to our understanding of a free society. However reactionary in politics such figures as Coleridge, Bonald, De Maistre, Justus Möser, or Donoso Cortès may have been, they did show an understanding of the meaning of spontaneously grown institutions such as language, law, morals, and conventions that anticipated modern scientific approaches and from which the liberals might have profited. But the admiration of the conservatives for free growth generally applies only to the past. They typically lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavors will emerge.

This brings me to the first point on which the conservative and the liberal dispositions differ radically. As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers, one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such,…while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about. It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance. There is perhaps no single factor contributing so much to people’s frequent reluctance to let the market work as their inability to conceive how some necessary balance, between demand and supply, between exports and imports, or the like, will be brought about without deliberate control. The conservative feels safe and content only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change, only if he knows that some authority is charged with keeping the change “orderly.”

This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since it distrusts both abstract theories and general principles,…it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy. Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule. A commitment to principles presupposes an understanding of the general forces by which the efforts of society are co-ordinated, but it is such a theory of society and especially of the economic mechanism that conservatism conspicuously lacks. So unproductive has conservatism been in producing a general conception of how a social order is maintained that its modern votaries, in trying to construct a theoretical foundation, invariably find themselves appealing almost exclusively to authors who regarded themselves as liberal. Macaulay, Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and Lecky certainly considered themselves liberals, and with justice; and even Edmund Burke remained an Old Whig to the end and would have shuddered at the thought of being regarded as a Tory.

Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules. Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule – not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them….Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people.

When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike. There are many values of the conservative which appeal to me more than those of the socialists; yet for a liberal the importance he personally attaches to specific goals is no sufficient justification for forcing others to serve them. I have little doubt that some of my conservative friends will be shocked by what they will regard as “concessions” to modern views that I have made in Part III of this book. But, though I may dislike some of the measures concerned as much as they do and might vote against them, I know of no general principles to which I could appeal to persuade those of a different view that those measures are not permissible in the general kind of society which we both desire. To live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one’s concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends.

It is for this reason that to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits. I sometimes feel that the most conspicuous attribute of liberalism that distinguishes it as much from conservatism as from socialism is the view that moral beliefs concerning matters of conduct which do not directly interfere with the protected sphere of other persons do not justify coercion. This may also explain why it seems to be so much easier for the repentant socialist to find a new spiritual home in the conservative fold than in the liberal.

In the last resort, the conservative position rests on the belief that in any society there are recognizably superior persons whose inherited standards and values and position ought to be protected and who should have a greater influence on public affairs than others. The liberal, of course, does not deny that there are some superior people – he is not an egalitarian – bet he denies that anyone has authority to decide who these superior people are. While the conservative inclines to defend a particular established hierarchy and wishes authority to protect the status of those whom he values, the liberal feels that no respect for established values can justify the resort to privilege or monopoly or any other coercive power of the state in order to shelter such people against the forces of economic change. Though he is fully aware of the important role that cultural and intellectual elites have played in the evolution of civilization, he also believes that these elites have to prove themselves by their capacity to maintain their position under the same rules that apply to all others.

Closely connected with this is the usual attitude of the conservative to democracy. I have made it clear earlier that I do not regard majority rule as an end but merely as a means, or perhaps even as the least evil of those forms of government from which we have to choose. But I believe that the conservatives deceive themselves when they blame the evils of our time on democracy. The chief evil is unlimited government, and nobody is qualified to wield unlimited power….The powers which modern democracy possesses would be even more intolerable in the hands of some small elite.

Admittedly, it was only when power came into the hands of the majority that further limitations of the power of government was thought unnecessary. In this sense democracy and unlimited government are connected. But it is not democracy but unlimited government that is objectionable, and I do not see why the people should not learn to limit the scope of majority rule as well as that of any other form of government. At any rate, the advantages of democracy as a method of peaceful change and of political education seem to be so great compared with those of any other system that I can have no sympathy with the antidemocratic strain of conservatism. It is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.

In 1973, Hayek wrote a long article on “Liberalism” [classical liberalism, of course] for the Italian Enciclopedia del Novicento. The article was reprinted as Chapter Nine of New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas. Some relevant excerpts:

The central belief from which all liberal postulates may be said to spring is that more successful solutions of the problems of society are to be expected if we do not rely on the application of anyone’s given knowledge, but encourage the interpersonal process of the exchange of opinion from which better knowledge can be expected to emerge. It is the discussion and mutual criticism of men’s different opinions derived from different experiences which was assumed to facilitate the discovery of truth, or at least the best approximation to truth which could be achieved. Freedom for individual opinion was demanded precisely because every individual was regarded as fallible, and the discovery of the best knowledge was expected only from that continuous testing of all beliefs which free discussion secured. Or, to put this differently, it was not so much from the power of individual reason (which the genuine liberals distrusted), as from the results of the interpersonal process of discussion and criticism, that a progressive advance towards the truth was expected. Even the growth of individual reason and knowledge is regarded as possible only in so ‑far as the individual is part of this process.

That the advance of knowledge, or progress, which intellectual freedom secured, and the consequent increased power of men to achieve their aims, was eminently desirable, was one of the unquestioned presuppositions of the liberal creed. It is sometimes alleged, not quite justly, that its stress was entirely on material progress. Though it is true that it expected the solution of most problems from the advance of scientific and technological knowledge, it combined with this a somewhat uncritical, though probably empirically justified, belief that freedom would also bring progress in the moral sphere; it seems at least true that during periods of advancing civilization moral views often came to be more widely accepted which in earlier periods had been only imperfectly or partially recognized. (It is perhaps more doubtful whether the rapid intellectual advance that freedom produced also led to a growth of aesthetic susceptibilities; but liberal doctrine never claimed any influence in this respect.)

All the arguments in support of intellectual freedom also apply, however, to the case for the freedom of doing things, or freedom of action. The varied experiences which lead to the differences of opinion from which intellectual growth originates are in turn the result of the different actions taken by different people in different circumstances. As in the intellectual so in the material sphere, competition is the most effective discovery procedure which will lead to the finding of better ways for the pursuit of human aims. Only when a great many different ways of doing things can be tried will there exist such a variety of individual experience, knowledge and skills, that a continuous selection of the most successful will lead to steady improvement. As action is the main source of the individual knowledge on which the social process of the advance of knowledge is based, the case for the freedom of action is as strong as the case for freedom of opinion. And in a modern society based on the division of labour and the market, most of the new forms of action arise in the economic field.

There is, however, yet another reason why freedom of action, especially in the economic field that is so often represented as being of minor importance, is in fact as important as the freedom of the mind. If it is the mind which chooses the ends of human action, their realization depends on the availability of the required means, and any economic control which gives power over the means also gives power over the ends. There can be no freedom of the press if the instruments of printing are under the control of government, no freedom of assembly if the needed rooms are so controlled, no freedom of movement if the means of transport are a government monopoly, etc. This is the reason why governmental direction of all economic activity, often undertaken in the vain hope of providing more ample means for all purposes, has invariably brought severe restrictions of the ends which the individuals can pursue. It is probably the most significant lesson of the political developments of the twentieth century that control of the material part of life has given government, in what we have learnt to call totalitarian systems, far‑reaching powers over the intellectual life. It is the multiplicity of different and independent agencies prepared to supply the means which enables us to choose the ends which we will pursue.

For more of Hayek in his own words, go here. For other takes on Hayek and the indivisibility of economic and social liberty, go here, here, here, and here.