Thursday, June 26, 2008

More Hayek

This is a continuation of my previous post on Friedrich Hayek, which gives a bit of context for this one. Previously, I mentioned that, in defense of the idea of a sort of convergence of libertaranism and moderate welfare state liberalism, Will Wilkinson quoted Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty, where Hayek said:

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)

There’s a problem I see with Hayek, or at least Hayek in the phase of his career in which he wrote The Constitution of Liberty, which I think explains Hayek’s belief that having the government lead the provision of relief for the unfortunate would not entail any restriction of liberty. Ironically, I think this problem is an outgrowth (though not an inevitable or unavoidable one) of one of Hayek’s insights about why interventionism is undesirable. Hayek pointed out that what was needed for the greatest number of people to have the best chance of achieving their goals and desires was a reasonably predictable social environment that makes planning for the future easier. The more interventionist a society is, the harder this becomes- you can’t make secure plans for the future if what’s legal and what’s not is always shifting, or if the laws are so numerous or arcane that what you can and can’t do is unclear, or if the government might decide to seize your property at any moment. Thus, the best course is to ensure security of property rights and strictly limit the government’s ability to expand its power or change the law abruptly.

This is a very good point, and one to keep in mind when you hear people claiming that bigger government creates order. However, there’s a problem, which seems directly related to this valuable insight. In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek uses a somewhat idiosyncratic definition of “coercion,” in which general legal rules that restrict voluntary action or compel involuntary action are not coercive if they are known in advance and impartially applied, the idea being that you can then easily avoid being jailed or shot by abstaining from actions that you know will result in punishment. Freedom, as Hayek puts it, means “Independence of the arbitrary will of another.” (p.143) (Emphasis added.)

This has a fairly serious problem. As a concept of what “the rule of law” means, it’s quite good. As a concept of “freedom,” it is almost completely empty. Hayek himself demonstrates this fact when he uses this definition of freedom to argue that universal military conscription, of all things, is compatible with being “as independent of the will of another person as men have learned to be in society.” (p. 143) And more generally, the great majority of things libertarians would condemn would not violate people’s freedom under this principle- drug laws, sodomy laws, most forms of economic interventionism (though certain things that explicitly single out certain groups for government privilege, such as farm subsidies, would be prevented), compulsory “national service,” gun control, and so on.

Now, Hayek would not approve of these things- quite the contrary. And Hayek later evolved in his views to support a concept of freedom with more meat to it. But we should keep in mind that when Constitution of Liberty-era Hayek says that a welfare state can be created “without restricting individual liberty, he’s not using “liberty” in a sense that most libertarians (or even non-libertarians) would accept.

Hayek had his great moments too, though, and one of his remarks does a nice job of expressing my approach to advocating freedom. I’ll end on a positive note with one of my favorite quotes, from Hayek’s “The Intellectuals and Socialism”, which beautifully expresses the approach that I consider to be liberty’s best hope:

We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote. The practical compromises they must leave to the politicians.

Free trade and freedom of opportunity are ideals which still may arouse the imaginations of large numbers, but a mere "reasonable freedom of trade" or a mere "relaxation of controls" is neither intellectually respectable nor likely to inspire any enthusiasm… Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this had rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide. Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue… the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

No comments: