Monday, June 23, 2008

Thought on Hayek

I’ve been thinking about Friedrich Hayek since he came up in Will Wilkinson’s discussion of liberal-libertarian alliance, which led me to dip into The Constitution of Liberty for the first time since high school. While I admire Hayek greatly, I think libertarians would do better to take him as a treasure trove of ideas to take from rather than as a model for what libertarianism ought to mean. Will approvingly quoted Hayek in that book, when Hayek wrote:

All modern governments have made provision for the indigent, unfortunate and disabled and have concerned themselves with questions of health and the dissemination of knowledge. There is no reason why the volume of these pure service activities should not increase with general growth of wealth. There are common needs that can be satisfied only by collective action and can be thus provided for without restricting individual liberty. It can hardly be denied that, as we grow richer, that minimum of sustenance which the community has always provided for those not able to look after themselves, and which can be provided outside the market, will gradually rise, or that government may, usefully and without doing any harm, assist or even lead in such endeavors. (pp. 257-258)

On an initial scan I counted no less than five different things in this that are objectionable from a libertarian standpoint, and going over that would be tedious. I repeat the quote because it exemplifies what I see as a serious problem with Hayek.

Hayek had the unfortunate tendency to casually make important concessions to left-wing statism with a simple handwave about how of course there’s nothing objectionable about this or that leftist program, all reasonable people know that. This quote is an example. The Road to Serfdom is also a good example of this, ironically, despite its odd reputation for being the opposite. Leaving aside the more fundamental question, this has the effect of declaring moderate left-liberal statism to be the default state that is accepted without argument or proof, while placing the burden of proof on classical liberals like Hayek-the idea that the state should not act in a given situation is guilty until proven innocent. I suppose it isn’t surprising that Hayek thought that way- he started out as a socialist, was surrounded by a leftist intellectual climate, and was on close terms with many leftists and socialists in his personal and professional life, so it’s no shock that he accepted some of their basic assumptions, even if he strongly rejected their conclusions. Frankly, I’ve often thought that Hayek was too nice for his own intellectual good, and too eager to put his intellectual opponents in the best possible light. As vices go, being excessively nice isn’t a terribly bad one, but Hayek could be so charitable that it blurred his perception, and I suspect that led him to treat Leftist ideas with insufficient skepticism.

Another objectionable unintended consequence of the way Hayek sometimes blithely accepted Leftist premises is that it reinforces one of the key tenets of the Western Left, the privileging of “personal” freedom over “economic” freedom. The personal freedoms the American Left tends to like are made utterly sacrosanct, but merely economic freedoms and a person’s right to the fruits of his own labor are at best respected out of convenience, and more likely not respected at all. I’m not a Randian, but Ayn Rand had a very important virtue: She actually defended economic rights on moral grounds, insisting that a person’s right to control his own labor and the products thereof- in other words, his right to his life- was just as meaningful as his right to call the president a chimp or distribute hardcore pornography or whatever. She put the freedoms that the average person benefits from every day of his life on the same level as the freedoms that are especially dear to the intellectual/opinion-shaping class.

This is getting a bit long, so I’m keeping part two, on Hayek’s conception of “freedom,” for another post in a few days.

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