O upright judge! Is Hayek Like Nietzsche or not?

by John Holbo on May 20, 2013

I’m a bit late, responding to Corey’s ‘Nietzsche’s Marginal Children’ essay (and post). But here goes.

In this post I will say what I think is right about Corey’s basic thesis. We can then – if you like – argue the degree to which I’m agreeing with what Corey actually said, or maybe substituting something that’s more my own, but clearly in the same vicinity, conclusion-wise. (We’ll be pretty tired by then, however. Long post.)

I know Nietzsche well, Hayek well enough – The Constitution of Liberty, in particular – and the rest of the marginalists not well at all. So this is going to be a Hayek-Nietzsche post.

The proper way to put the Nietzsche-Hayek ‘elective affinity’ thesis – that is a good term for it – is going to sound weak and disappointingly loose. But it’s actually interesting. Showing the interest, despite the looseness, is where it gets a bit tricky.

Here’s how elective affinity is supposed to go. Let A be some libertarian and B a big stack of Hayek. Let C be an enthusiastic Nietzschean and D a big stack of Nietzsche. And suddenly – bam! – A, who seemed so stuck on B, jumps to D and gets restuck. And C unsticks from D and sticks to B. (The reason Goethe went for this chemical metaphor, in his original novel, is that he was born too early to be exposed to the sorts of cultural products that might have led him to express it as a higher synthetic relation.)

The reason this superficially surprising swap could happen is not that Nietzsche is a closet lover of free-market economics and petit bourgeois values. The reason is that Hayek has his romantic, aristocratic, transvaluation-of-values, the overman-will-save-us side. Plausibly.

I made this point about Hayek myself in this post. I made it about as strongly as I’m comfortable seeing it made. I didn’t see fit to drag Nietzsche into it but we’ll get to that. Let me quote the most relevant bit of that old post.

Hayek fails to see that he [Hayek himself] is not actually interested in maximizing freedom because, actually, he thinks that some people’s freedom is a lot more valuable than other people’s freedom. Liberals always want to ensure the maximum freedom consistent with enjoyment of that freedom by all. Hayek is definitely not on board with that sort of egalitarianism regarding freedom: “To grant no more freedom than all can exercise would be to misconceive its function completely. The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use.” Ideally, we would find that one man and even make all others his slaves, if that is what it took to let him exercise his freedom to the fullest. Hayek thus affirms a freedom monster argument somehat analogous to the classic pleasure monster reductio. But obviously the point would not be that the man might have some preposterously bottomless capacity to be free. Rather, Hayek is saying that a world with much less freedom – a world in which this one-man-in-a-million is even a tyrant, perhaps – is better than a world full of freedom.

Of course, it doesn’t matter, because Hayek is insistent that we can’t identify that man. (He is yet another god we cannot name [the first being utility itself: what is it?].) So we have no choice but to maximize freedom, i.e. give everyone roughly the same dose of the stuff. Maximizing freedom is thus not really even second best, overall, but third best. Best: maximize welfare (but we can’t and don’t even really know what that means). Second best: maximize freedom for only those who can best maximize welfare (but we can’t pick them out of a line-up). Third best: maximize freedom. But really I think it’s pretty likely Hayek thinks (or feels) we can actually do a bit better than third best. We can pick out a class of people who are likely to be better users of freedom. This is no part of Hayek’s official philosophy, but the reason he sees coercion on one side (workers) not the other (employers), even when this is flagrantly inconsistent with his own philosophy, is that he has a strong intuition that the freedoms of workers are less valuable. Employers/capital/management will be more likely to want to do things that will, on the whole, benefit everyone. So it is more important for them to be able to do what they want. I think this unexpressed conviction explains a lot of the oddities in Hayek’s writings.

This view that Hayek is really all about the hierarchy – freedom for the better people – seems to fit with Corey Robin’s standard line on the reactionary mind.

So that’s me, agreeing with Corey’s thesis, basically. Corey’s title (which he probably didn’t write) is wrong, frankly, because you shouldn’t call them Nietzsche’s children unless it’s an influence thesis. But I’ll buy the subtitle: “How did the conservative ideas of Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian school become our economic reality? By turning the market into the realm of great politics and morals.” Hayek didn’t make economics exciting by being a utilitarian. He didn’t make economics exciting by being a classical liberal. He made economics exciting by painting its petit bourgeois portrait as secretly sublime – a romantic landscape of mysterious heights and depths. In this landscape a hero makes his lonely way, his high fate unknown even to himself. He stands alone, against great odds.

So if someone were to hop from The Will To Power to The Constitution of Liberty, or vice versa, getting the same intense jolt from both – well, that would be less surprising than if they jumped from The Will To Power to Jeremy Bentham or John Locke. Bentham and Locke don’t do the whole ‘pathos of distance’ thing, if that’s your ‘modernity and its anti-democratic discontents’ bag.

But how interesting is this sort of result (if it is one)?

Let me quote Arthur Lovejoy on why it’s hard to write good history of ideas, particularly the history of ideas that become popular. [Fun fact! I drafted this post before being reminded – by Corey – that he himself quoted this very bit in his book. Did I get it from his book, then? No! It’s in my dissertation. Like minds think alike; influence is tricky to track.]

This influential cause in the determination of philosophical fashions and speculative tendencies has been so little considered that I find no recognized name for it, and have been compelled to invent one which is not, perhaps, wholly self-explanatory. ‘Metaphysical pathos’ is exemplified in any description of the nature of things, any characterization of the world to which one belongs, in terms which, like the words of a poem, awaken through their associations, and through a sort of empathy which they engender, a congenial mood or tone of feeling on the part of the philosopher or his readers. For many people – for most of the laity, I suspect – the reading of a philosophical book is usually nothing but a form of aesthetic experience.

If, for you, The Constitution of Liberty is metaphysical poetry, then it will probably be kindasorta Nietzschean metaphysical poetry. But how interesting is that?

If someone says they think Harry Potter is libertarian, it’s tempting to reply that what they have actually discovered is that libertarianism is a children’s story. (The story elements that seem like libertarian insights are generic conventions: of course the Ministry of Magic has to be both idiotic and feeble. Otherwise it won’t be left to a small band of scrappy kids to save the world.) But that’s not it either. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

If you are interested in the popular life of ideas, metaphysical pathos is important because it does most of the pushing. Why is The Road To Serfdom popular, even though its predictions failed to pan out? Because it’s a ripping yarn. It’s got brave heroes standing against a dark force that threatens to enslave humanity. Worse: the humans who see the threat are panicking and making things worse – even attacking our heroes! – rather than doing something to stop the real threat. In short: what could be more awesome!

Even so: don’t pathologize every philosophy that is the cause of pathos in others. Saying that someone who got a jolt out of Genealogy of Morals might get the same jolt from Road To Serfdom is true, and potentially important. But they might have gotten it from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. We don’t want to say that J.K. Rowling is, spiritually, a marginal child of marginalist economics. How do we limit this sort of speculative spread, sanely?

The place to start is with the author. As Nietzsche says: “The artist has the same relation to the connoisseurs and lovers of his art as a piece of heavy artillery to a flock of sparrows.” (More about that in a moment.) We can’t gauge, just by looking at a scatterplot of sparrows, the true caliber of the intellectual artillery hereabouts.

Is there any reason to think Hayek himself was pathologized by the metaphysical pathos of his position? Can Nietzschean parallels be spun into substantive objections, or interpretive insights? I think: yes. It is, I think, impossible to read The Road To Serfdom and imagine its author is not caught up by the thrill of the Romantic contours of his own story. But this is still pretty trivial: everyone likes a good monster fight. That doesn’t mean everyone is a Nietzschean. Are we sure that Hayek’s monster is really the revolting masses (ergo he can be slotted neatly with all those other reactionary minds Corey is always trying to say are surprisingly alike)? Also: even if Serfdom is a bit of an overheated potboiler, is the same true of, say, The Constitution of Liberty? That is, even if Hayek is somewhat pathologized by the metaphysical pathos of his own thinking – more so in some places than others – is there no corner of his thinking that is free from this?

Can’t someone say: Hayek is utilitarianism, not Also Sprach Larrystustra class warfare fanfic. Even if, as is possible, some people read it that way. If you want to assess the value of Hayek’s philosophy, it’s not fair to grade him on the basis of the aesthetic daydreams he inspires, rather than the technical ideas he espouses. (Who doesn’t have silly superhero daydreams. And what philosopher isn’t, in some sense, the hero in his/her own little adventure of ideas? Technical stuff that excites people does not, thereby, cease to be technical.)

And now we really come to it. In my original Hayek post I said that I didn’t think this sort of hermeneutically suspicious approach can be dismissed as cheap ad hominem dismissiveness. Let me quote my original post again:

This is a common disease: political theory as crypto-virtue ethics. You have a perhaps rather narrow sort of character ideal in mind, playing no official part in your theory, but exerting a great influence over its overall shape. J.S. Mill, for example, obviously exalts a certain sort of contrarian, cosmopolitan individualist. On Liberty is justly charged with begging the question, rather badly, on behalf of the sort of person Mill most admires. Hayek may be guilty of nothing worse: he admires economic actors of a certain sort more than other people. He maximizes freedom for them, while genuinely thinking he is maximizing it for everyone.

I say this as someone who thinks On Liberty is a great book. But it would have been a greater book if Mill had added a final chapter in which he asked, with a lot more self-critical severity: am I really a utilitarian? If he had concluded that chapter by saying ‘no, if I am absolutely honest, I am compelled to admit that I only said I was a utilitarian for somewhat confused, actually oddly personal reasons’ then that would have been best of all. It would have made On Liberty a landmark of skeptical thinking, and in that way a monument to the value of its ideals. And it would have right. (This isn’t a Mill post. We can argue about it, if you like.)

I think something pretty exactly parallel is true about, say, The Constitution of Liberty. Hayek is, officially, a utilitarian. But – who are we kidding? – that isn’t what gets him out of bed in the morning. This isn’t ad hominem speculation about his sleep patterns because, as in the Mill case, there are lots of weird junctures where we get screwy million-to-one alleged utilitarian calculations. We want to understand what’s going on, on the page, when things get weird like that. It’s frankly impossible to believe that the author seriously believes he’s performing some kind of utilitarian calculation. (Mill will tell you that every contrarian opinion is infinitely valuable. Hayek, per above, gestures at these weird million-to-one freedom monsters, in passing, yet leaves them lurking in the shadows.) In the philosopher’s mind’s eye, he sees his virtuous hero. But the philosopher doesn’t say he’s substituting a bit of behind-the-scenes hero worship for actual argument, hence he’s unclear about what makes the hero a hero. What is the value of this value? Is the hero a means to an end or an end in himself? There are serious dangers of dramatic reversals. If Mill is trying to cram a narrow conception of virtue ethics down everyone’s throat, then there is a sense in which his philosophy is not just not as advertised. It’s really the opposite of what he said it was. If Hayek is entranced by a kind of ‘only the hidden million-to-one overman aristocrat can save us, because the masses are asses’ position – if that is what freedom is for – then he is not just not a classical liberal. He is an enemy of classical liberalism.

As Nietzsche says: those who fight monsters must take care that they do not become monsters themselves. Which is why, personally, I think the problem with Hayek is that (envelope pleeze!) … he isn’t Nietzschean enough. Because the great thing about Nietzsche is that he is actually really good when it comes to this sort of thing. What is the real value of this value?

Let me quote a few passage from Nietzsche that Corey does not happen to have quoted, but that are interesting to read in connection with Hayek. These are market-y thoughts, in an odd-angle sort of way. (Pardon the old public domain Levy translation.)

From “Uses and Disadvantages of History For Life”:

It is sometimes harder to agree to a thing than to understand it; many will feel this when they consider the proposition — “Mankind must toil unceasingly to bring forth individual great men: this and nothing else is its task.” One would like to apply to society and its ends a fact that holds universally in the animal and vegetable world; where progress depends only on the higher individual types, which are rarer, yet more persistent, complex and productive. But traditional notions of what the end of society is, absolutely bar the way. We can easily understand how in the natural world, where one species passes at some point into a higher one, the aim of their evolution cannot be held to lie in the high level attained by the mass, or in the latest types developed;—but rather in what seem accidental beings produced here and there by favourable circumstances. It should be just as easy to understand that it is the duty of mankind to provide the circumstances favourable to the birth of the new redeemer, simply because men can have a consciousness of their object. But there is always something to prevent them. They find their ultimate aim in the happiness of all, or the greatest number, or in the expansion of a great commonwealth. A man will very readily decide to sacrifice his life for the state; he will be much slower to respond if an individual, and not a state, ask for the sacrifice. It seems to be out of reason that one man should exist for the sake of another: “Let it be rather for the sake of every other, or, at any rate, of as many as possible!” O upright judge! As if it were more in reason to let the majority decide a question of value and significance! For the problem is — “In what way may your life, the individual life, retain the highest value and the deepest significance? and how may it least be squandered?” Only by your living for the good of the rarest and most valuable types, not for that of the majority, — who are the most worthless types, taken as individuals. This way of thinking should be implanted and fostered in every young man’s mind: he should regard himself both as a failure of Nature’s handiwork and a testimony to her larger ideas. “She has succeeded badly,” he should say; “but I will do honour to her great idea by being a means to its better success.”

Yet there is a utility paradox of sorts, due to an information problem. From “Schopenhauer as Educator” [same link as the one above]:

Nature always desires the greatest utility, but does not understand how to find the best and handiest means to her end; that is her great sorrow, and the cause of her melancholy. The impulse towards her own redemption shows clearly her wish to give men a significant existence by the generation of the philosopher and the artist: but how unclear and weak is the effect she generally obtains with her artists and philosophers, and how seldom is there any effect at all! She is especially perplexed in her efforts to make the philosopher useful; her methods are casual and tentative, her failures innumerable; most of her philosophers never touch the common good of mankind at all. Her actions seem those of a spendthrift; but the cause lies in no prodigal luxury, but in her inexperience. Were she human, she would probably never cease to be dissatisfied with herself and her bungling. Nature shoots the philosopher at mankind like an arrow; she does not aim, but hopes that the arrow will stick somewhere. She makes countless mistakes that give her pain. She is as extravagant in the sphere of culture as in her planting and sowing. She fulfils her ends in a large and clumsy fashion, using up far too much of her strength. The artist has the same relation to the connoisseurs and lovers of his art as a piece of heavy artillery to a flock of sparrows. [Now you see the context for this quote!] It is a fool’s part to use a great avalanche to sweep away a little snow, to kill a man in order to strike the fly on his nose. The artist and the philosopher are witnesses against Nature’s adaptation of her means, however well they may show the wisdom of her ends. They only reach a few and should reach all — and even these few are not struck with the strength they used when they shot. It is sad to have to value art so differently as cause and effect; how huge in its inception, how faint the echo afterwards! The artist does his work as Nature bids him, for the benefit of other men—no doubt of it; but he knows that none of those men will understand and love his work as he understands and loves it himself. That lonely height of love and understanding is necessary, by Nature’s clumsy law, to produce a lower type; the great and noble are used as the means to the small and ignoble. Nature is a bad manager; her expenses are far greater than her profits: for all her riches she must one day go bankrupt. She would have acted more reasonably to make the rule of her household — small expense and hundredfold profit; if there had been, for example, only a few artists with moderate powers, but an immense number of hearers to appreciate them, stronger and more powerful characters than the artists themselves; then the effect of the art-work, in comparison with the cause, might be a hundred-tongued echo. One might at least expect cause and effect to be of equal power; but Nature lags infinitely behind this consummation. An artist, and especially a philosopher, seems often to have dropped by chance into his age, as a wandering hermit or straggler cut off from the main body.

Now note: if you read ‘great man’ as ‘capitalist entrepreneur’ in the first passage, then you get a weirdly lurid ‘who is John Galt?’ fantasy. If you read ‘nature’ as ‘market’ and ‘artist’ as ‘capitalist entrepreneur’ in the second passage, then you get an ironic sort of meditation on the informational haphazardness of ‘creative destruction’.

But wait! doesn’t that second passage actually undermine the first? In a sense, it underscores the aristocratic vision of the first. It says great art is pearls before swine, which only reinforces our sense that we don’t need to bother about swine. Let them eat filth! (Pity the poor artist, that he must be unappreciated by swine. Not pity the poor swine, that they must live like swine. They like it!) Then again, the first passage seemed to suggest a kind of redemption of the lower types through a kind of trickledown of transvalued values – a democratic side-effect of ruthless art market, aristo efficiency. A rising tide of transvalued value will raise all boats! But the second passage says there is inevitable market breakdown. The low types must be sacrificed for the higher types and these costs will not be recouped, in absolute utilitarian terms. That kind of sucks for the swine who get paid in a few pearls, here and there. Oh, and by the way: what is it that makes them swine? Well, they’re stupid and unappreciative. But so is Nature. So, by extension, is the artist – who is just a kind of blind arrow striking home, or not.

Is there anything Hayekian about this? (Is Hayek Nietzschean in this way?) There are interesting echoes to be heard. The image of a kind of market in which it’s the million-to-one shot that counts. And the exceptional protagonist of the story – like every good Romantic hero – has, in addition to this pathos of distance, a kind of pathos of blindness. He is a doer not a knower.

And – perhaps most interestingly – in Hayek, as in Nietzsche, there’s a basic equivocation as to the outer frame of valuation: nature aims at Utility – which is very democratic and egalitarian of her. But she does it in an attractively aristocratic, Romantic way. So what is the value of this ‘natural’ order here? The Romanticism of nature’s procedures, or their utility? If either the Romance or the utility should fail, where would that leave us?

If you ask me (and I acknowledge this might not be your preference): all of Nietzsche’s philosophy amounts to the thought that the vision of the first passage is attractively glorious but monstrous and, ultimately, in peril of tipping in to nihilism, due to highly equivocal elements introduced by the second passage. There is no redemption for the ‘little man’ – the ‘broken specimen’. This is why the thought of Eternal Recurrence – Nietzsche’s central teaching, he says – is so awful. So abyssmal. What good are Great Men if they aren’t great for the not-great man? It gets worse. The problem with the masses, per that first passage, is that they want to make themselves Slaves To All – to everyone, to the state. But this sort of pseudo-benevolence is really a kind of nihilism, because it destroys the value of individual life. But (who are we kidding?): asking everyone to grind themselves into dust for the sake of the Overman, even though this won’t redeem them, is supposed to be a giant improvement over asking them to sacrifice themselves for the State? This vision of the Overman is not a redemption fanatasy. It’s a revenge fantasy. It’s a revenge fantasy of taking revenge on all the little men who are petty enough to want to take revenge. Is being a sore winner really ‘higher’ than being a sore loser in a contest that is basically a ‘let’s see who can be least sore about this contest?’ contest?

Nietsche’s philosophy is supposed to break with all that – to be life-affirming, rather than negative and resentful. But give the corkscrew another twist: it looks like merely the most twisted form of resentfulness yet invented. Nietzsche sees this.

How is it possible to thrill to the artistic vision of that first passage without just being a resentful bastard, in the spirit of the second? In an artistic context, I think we can relate: how can you tell the difference between loving great art, for great art’s sake, and loving great art merely as a precondition for hating on bad art. Where’s the line between rarified taste and passive-aggressive pretension? The pathos of distance requires relative highs and lows. That’s what makes for aristocracy. Even so, no true aristocrat is petty enough to want a peasant to be miserable, for misery’s sake. That’s a low desire.

In an economic or political context, we can get something similar. ‘Such-and-such-a-percent are takers, and we are at a tipping point, past which takers will suck the lifeblood evermore from the real makers.’ Forget about how the story may hinge on equivocations about the tax code. Here’s the interesting question: why are such stories such fun? Why do some people want such a thing to be true? Well, obviously because it transforms the market into grand politics and a proper field for the exhibition of personal virtue.

Let’s make it about Hayek. What does he truly value? What are the values of his values, for him?

Conjoin that quote, from above – “To grant no more freedom than all can exercise would be to misconceive its function completely. The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use” – with the Lord Acton epigraph from “Why I Am Not A Conservative”, which closes out The Constitution of Liberty.

At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition.

Hayek’s point is that conservatives are not sincere friends of freedom, yet the likes of Hayek may have to side with them for enemy-is-my-enemy reasons, broadly speaking.

But think about how complicated this is. You have to do the conservative thing, even though its not the free thing, because this is a bank-shot to freedom. But it’s not. Because freedom itself is a bank shot. Freedom for everyone is just a bank shot to freedom to that one-in-a-million Overman. But that one-in-a-million Overman is himself just a means to an end even he doesn’t see – crazy blind arrow fired into the market for the sake of – …. of what? Utility?

Utility in what sense? As mentioned above, the God of Utility is a hidden God. How the hell should Hayek or anyone else know Him. So, mixing mystery religion with that most English thing – a pool table – we make a triple bank shot at a hole we can’t see. (Is this pool, or some mystery ritual?) How are we sure we are aiming at it? In what sense can we be?

Is Hayek a benevolent, utilitarian Lover of Mankind, who wants only the best for all men equally? He just happens to know that the best way to achieve that end is fiendishly indirect? Or is he an aristocrat at heart? Like Nietzsche, he confronts modern mass culture and politics and society with aristocratic revulsion. But he feels guilty about feeling that way – he’s a modern himself, after all – so he has to confabulate this utilitarian cover story. He has to pretend to be a democrat at heart – more democrat than the democrats – even though he’s an aristocrat. But doesn’t that make him a democrat at heart, because hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue?

It’s genuinely puzzling. Really. I find it puzzling.

If only Hayek had written The Constitution of Liberty: A Nightmare, as a G. K. Chesterton novel, in which the entrepreneur-hermit is visited in his retreat – Zarathustra’s Gulch – by his animals who tell him that they know what he teaches. The market is just nature and they have no problem with. It’s easy. Hakuna Matata.

—”O Zarathustra,” said then his animals, “to those who think like us, all things are exchanged: they come and hold out the hand and haggle and refuse — and return.

Everything selleth, everything buyeth; eternally rolleth the wheel of market. Businesses dieth, economy blossometh forth again; eternally runneth on the financial year.

Every business model is broken, everything is integrated anew; eternally buildeth itself the same house of commerce. All things are bought out, broken up and sold off for scrap; all scraps are combined again; eternally true to itself remaineth the ring of market.

And if the entrepreneur-hermit had then said ‘Are you crazy? That’s awful!’ … And then he realizes, among other things, that he was a hypocrite. He only retreated into Zarathustra’s Gulch because he thought that the masses outside were animated by low motives – resentment! And yet he, Zarathustra, then took his ball and went home … out of resentment. And so he goes forth and he meets a parade of horribles in a dying world. The Last Central Planner, The Moocher, the Seeker After Social Justice, the Expert. And Zarathustra gradually comes to realize that, if he is going to affirm his philosophy, positively, he can’t just kick against these pricks. He has to figure our what he really values and …

Well, I don’t want to tell Hayek what to conclude. That would be presumptuous. Telling him how to write his book.

Getting (finally!) back to Corey and his article: likewise, I can’t tell him what to argue or conclude but I do think that, if he’s saying what I’m saying – and I think he (mostly) is – then he’s right!

I expect that the Hayekian response to this will be: fine, you want to play it that way, we’ll play it that way. The only reason that Rawls wants so-called ‘fairness’ is that he wants to boss everyone around. He’s a liberal fascist control freak! Prove he’s not! This sort of response seems to me to miss the point. There aren’t, so far as I can see, pieces of the Rawlsian puzzle that don’t fit together, but would fit together if Rawls were sort of divided against himself: democratic benevolence punctuated by bouts of aristocratic nausea at the state of the modern world. (I’ve said that I think it makes perfect sense to read Mill, against the grain, as a crypto-virtue ethicist. If you think Rawls works like that, too – or whomever – then, by all means, make your case.)

Asking whether Hayek is Nietzschean is not – should not be – just an ‘are you still beating your wife?’ rhetorical trick. It’s an admittedly highly provocative way of asking what Hayek values, in light of the genuinely unclear things he says. What are the values of his values (as Nietzsche would say)? Also, it is important that Hayek is not just a technical influence on people but a philosophical hero. His writings have metaphysical pathos. It’s not fair to reduce his philosophy to his popularity, but it’s not fair to attribute his popularity to his technical utilitarianism.

When people dream a Hayekian dream, what sort of dream is it?



MDH 05.20.13 at 4:12 am

Every Holbo post is itself a master class in metaphysical poetry. I come for the insights and stay for the aesthetics. What is the value of that value? Isn’t art just artfulness? Slowing down? Apperceiving new details? It is literally of no matter; my brain turns on and I feel flushed with creative energy. Indeed John, you know your Nietzsche well.


William Timberman 05.20.13 at 4:50 am

Did Nietzsche put a question mark after the Enlightenment, or a period? (For the time being, never mind that he wasn’t the only one looking to punctuate it in one way or the other.) We don’t really know, do we? What we do know is that careful reasoning about Reason is as slippery as it is seductive. Anyone who pursues it far enough is likely to feel either exhausted or betrayed. The proposed Hayek/Nietzsche axis is loads of fun, but it wobbles when it’s turned, largely because Hayek is just, you know, not commensurate with Nietzsche, not without a lot of jiggery-pokery, anyway. Or so I think….


John Holbo 05.20.13 at 5:26 am

“Every Holbo post is itself a master class in metaphysical poetry.”

Thank you so very kindly.

“The proposed Hayek/Nietzsche axis is loads of fun, but it wobbles when it’s turned, largely because Hayek is just, you know, not commensurate with Nietzsche, not without a lot of jiggery-pokery, anyway.”

I agree. The healthiest way to think about it is very loosely: is there a point to constructing a hypothetically Nietzschean Hayek, to bring into sharp focus some stress lines in his thought? I think so. But you have to be careful.


Doug 05.20.13 at 7:54 am

“all of Nietzsche’s philosophy amounts to the thought that the vision of the first passage is attractively glorious but monstrous and, ultimately, in peril of tipping in to nihilism, due to highly equivocal elements introduced by the second passage”

With every passing post this blog looks more and more like something out of the Sokal Affair


John Holbo 05.20.13 at 9:20 am

“With every passing post this blog looks more and more like something out of the Sokal Affair…”

Sorry, are you saying that the bit you quote is literally just gibberish?


michael roberts 05.20.13 at 10:31 am

It seems that this view of Hayek puts him pretty close to Ayn Rand’s ideas. Probably true.


Phil 05.20.13 at 12:08 pm

I can’t look at “O upright judge” without thinking it’s a really poor anagram which is about to be followed by an even poorer one, probably using the word “Oh”. Possibly “OH MEDIEVAL SCALDING!”.

(I hate it when somebody blows in to CT comments out of nowhere and makes a fatuous joke. Sorry.)


Lurker 05.20.13 at 12:15 pm

You can put that quoted thing in a more simple way:

Nietzsche gives the average man a goal: he is a failed experiment of nature. He is not the great man that was attempted. Yet, he should strive to ensure that in future, great men can emerge. This is because great men are the Purpose of Life. This view is pessimistic, but it has certain beauty and meaning.

On the other hand, Nietzsche considers great men futile. They will not be understood by the masses and their lives will be miserable. So, the Purpose of Life is to produce wretches who are useless for the public and for themselves, but metaphysically valuable. This is nihilism bordering on madness.

The original author wrote it much more poetically but Orwell would have preferred the latter version.


Andrew F. 05.20.13 at 1:07 pm

Actually I think the Hayekian response would be to deny the conclusion you’re drawing from the one-in-a-million (OIAM) quote.

What’s Hayek’s point in the OIAM passage? It’s not that freedom is only important insofar as it enables that unlikely innovation to emerge unexpectedly from the crowd’s blind spot. Rather, it’s a warning: be careful not to value only freedoms that are common to every type of life, because certain freedoms that may be exercised in only one type of life or another might be of great benefit to you. Moreover, your immersion in your particular type of life may make appreciation of the importance of certain freedoms difficult – even when those certain freedoms, by the effects of their exercise by others, are actually of great significance to your own life.

That does not imply that the freedoms common to all are unimportant; it’s that the freedoms common to all are not the ONLY ones that are important.

Indeed, Hayek consistently values different types of freedom, and repeatedly emphasizes that one’s immersion in one’s particular life can make it difficult to understand the value of freedom in other types of life. In his view the employed make a legitimate, informed choice that gains them security and predictability of return at the cost of foreclosing riskier, but potentially more lucrative, endeavors. This is an important choice, and a valid choice; and its existence depends, in his view, on the presence of a variety of employers offering compensation. Yet the nature of the employed life may make appreciation of the freedoms important to employers difficult.

In turn entrepreneurs and business owners generally may find it difficult to appreciate the importance of artistic and political innovation, obviously and especially when those are exercised in a way that seems without value to, or contrary to, commercial enterprises and virtues.

Hayek notes the importance of the wisdom of the purchasing manager in the factory as well as the unappreciated artist, as well as the employee who works in the factory, as well as the political activist campaigning for the unpopular cause.

The hero in Hayek isn’t any romantic wanderer confronting the mists and chaos of possibility and by sheer strength and brilliance forging a new world. In Hayek, we’re all limited, all dependent on society for our liberty, our prosperity, our lives. Rather, the hero in Hayek – if there is one – is the system. For although the individual’s view is limited and her imagination constrained, a system of liberty enables the coalescence of the disparate choices, talents, skills, dreams, and work of individuals into a unified reality that benefits us all. It’s a system – in Hayek’s view – that allows the individual to create her own life, and exercise her moral capacity for choice; that coordinates the resources of society with an efficiency that no central planner could match; that recognizes our limitations and preserves the possibility of innovation and progress (political, artistic, industrial, etc.) from surprising and unexpected sources.

In my reading, the central tension in Hayek is created by his insistent recognition of our individual limits, and his forays into grander social theory. But this is a tension that Learned Hand, appropriately, called the spirit of liberty, the continuing awareness of uncertainty and skepticism – even while arguing vigorously for a system in which the choices of all deserve respect and protection, where, as Hand put it, “the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”


Jacob T. Levy 05.20.13 at 1:09 pm

John, I think that what you’re suggesting is only *kind of* mostly what Corey was saying. “Therefore Pinochet” would seem like a serious non-sequitor at the end of your story.

The question– or a question, at least– is how to balance the one-in-a-million thought with the we-can’t-know thought as a matter of what animates Hayek. Maybe you’re right that the one-in-a-million figure, who gets approximately two moments in the spotlight, is nonetheless the character who really makes the whole drama go. Maybe there’s a Randian spark that fires the whole Hayekian engine. These things happen.

But against that possibility, I think we need to weigh the fact that we-can’t-know is such a central defining idea for Hayek’s whole corpus. CL follows in time both Uses of Knowledge in Society and Sensory Order; after CL he turns to the firs volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, which is all about taking *really really seriously* the idea that the rule of law requires anonymous rules rather than personalized administration, and treats the rule of law in that sense as the central good a political order can produce. (And, incidentally, includes his denunciation of utilitarianism as such.) Decades later he’s writing about the blind forces of cultural evolution. In other words, it seems to me that there’s a very strong prima facie case that the one-in-a-million character is only setup for what really gets Hayek out of bed in the mornings: a deep fascination with “we can’t know and therefore need anonymous rules and institutions.”

In Knowledge in Society the capitalist has no privileged information. (Indeed one of the knocks on that piece has traditionally been just how implausibly informationally passive it makes producers and sellers, as if they aren’t in the business of trying to get a jump on the competition by anticipating a rise in the price of copper the day before it happens. ) The producer isn’t smarter or more knowledgeable; the producer knows not what he does, and it’s his ignorance that necessitates the anonymizing market process. If he *did* know what he did, a good enough planner would be able to just *ask all the producers what they knew.*

The main actor in the drama isn’t one. It’s the anonymous and anonymizing price system, *not* the individual producer who experiences it as a set of external constraints and forces beyond his ability to understand or control. This, I think, is part of Hayek’s argument with Schumpeter. Schumpeter sees the capitalist managerial class as capable of gathering the sort of knowledge which they can then transfer to (or which will allow them to become) the socialist planning class. Hayek thinks this is nonsense. And as for Schumpeter’s (arguably heroic) entrepreneur, he makes no appearance in Knowledge, except in the mocking characterization of the “desire, constantly voiced by producers and engineers, to be allowed to proceed untrammeled by considerations of money costs.” Of course the R&D department wants to be able to just keep making cool stuff, regardless of the cost of the inputs. And of course that’s not how it works.

The discussions of language as an analogy to markets, from Knowledge onward, are similar. It’s language evolution without Shakespeare or King James or l’Academie: entirely anonymous and built on countless small interactions. Again, this is a traditional knock on his account, but he stuck by it; he thought that the nameable persons were pretty much epiphenomenal in the story of language.

Knowledge in Society was, I think and I think Hayek thought, his central, most important insight– it was the beginning of his real scholarly mission, and why he takes the apparent detour into Sensory Order before (re)turning to political-social theory. And it’s *entirely* anonymizing. Then The Sensory Order moves in the direction of making the limits on knowledge and self-knowledge deep inescapable facts about how we know. “Our brains couldn’t conceivably understand complex systems in their entireties and so we need to just let the systems unfold” is not the direction someone takes who is leaving ubermensch loopholes.

For CL to emerge out of that period in Hayek’s work– and not directly out of 1920 Austria– seems to me relevant in thinking about whether we should read him as excited about the one-in-a-million man or as excited about the “can’t know” part. And the fact that it’s followed by a book (LLL v1) about abstract rules as the centerpiece of civilization– a book for which he regretted not having reserved the title “Constitution of Liberty”– seems to me confirmatory.

If the Nietzschean-Randian hero-producer were really the spark that made the whole engine go, I think that would look like a very strange trajectory.

I don’t at all deny that Hayek had an elitist streak. But I think that the case you’re making here, the analogy to Mill (whose late period of work just keeps returning to his weird kind of heroic figure– Representative Government at least as much as On Liberty, and the writings on India, intervention, centralization, etc sometimes even more), really does fail. The elitism really is tangential, and Hayek is centrally committed to its being tangential.

Supposing– for which we don’t really have textual evidence– that the one-in-a-million man is an economic producer, we get no account of what makes that producer superior to any other producers. It’s not purity of creative vision; that way lies the desire to keep making stuff regardless of the cost of inputs. It’s very likely to be very accidental. No only can’t *we* know who that one in a million might turn out to be; he can’t know himself, on the model of Knowledge in Society and Sensory Order. And I don’t think the desire to remake Hayek as an esoteric Randian can really survive once we realize that even John Galt can’t know who John Galt is.


Cheryl Rofer 05.20.13 at 1:49 pm

George Packer (of all people) has a column on celebrities in the New York Times that strongly resembles this discussion of very special people.


Peter Whiteford 05.20.13 at 1:51 pm

I enjoyed this so much that I tweeted it!

But why do we take Hayek so seriously?


Lurker 05.20.13 at 1:54 pm

In his view the employed make a legitimate, informed choice that gains them security and predictability of return at the cost of foreclosing riskier, but potentially more lucrative, endeavors. This is an important choice, and a valid choice; and its existence depends, in his view, on the presence of a variety of employers offering compensation.
Here we see at its best the eternal question of liberty: “Liberty, but for whom? for what? and against whom?”

If you consider the “liberties of entrepreneurs” and “liberties of employees” as liberties of individuals, you have a gilded age model of society. The most important liberty of the employees as employees is the liberty to form unions, bargain collectively and, if necessary, strike. This is liberty against employers. Similarly, the employers have (and, IRL, make use of) the liberty of collaborating to suppress wages and working conditions. Liberty against employees. If you try to discuss these social phenomena only as liberties of an individual, you end up in a system where employees don’t really have any rights that could be meaningfully used.

Similarly, the liberty of the entrepreneur to design her products overrides the liberty of the individual consumer to have a safe life. Without state intervention and setting of safety and environmental standards, market logic forces a race to the bottom, endangering everyone’s health and safety. Thus, to maximise the liberty of the average individual, you must constrain the economic liberty of the entrepreneurs and corporations.

These expressions of collective liberty were exactly what Hayek was fighting against in his “Road to Serfdom”, yet they are the liberties that are most important for average individuals. I’d say that Hayek is an aristocrat by his mindset.


John Holbo 05.20.13 at 2:06 pm

Jacob and Andrew make excellent points.

“Rather, the hero in Hayek – if there is one – is the system.”

I think that is the alternative to what I’m saying. I see that my view has problems, that this alternative doesn’t, but I think this alternative has problems that mine doesn’t.

Jacob write: “The main actor in the drama isn’t one. It’s the anonymous and anonymizing price system, *not* the individual producer who experiences it as a set of external constraints and forces beyond his ability to understand or control.”

This is something I wanted to write more about because it seems to me, in a way, the source of further odd parallels. Nietzsche’s point about Will strikes me as very analogous. Nietzsche doesn’t believe in freedom. He’s a fatalist. It’s the fact that he sees his main actor dissolving into an kind of system – eternal recurrence – that disturbs him.

I didn’t write this, however, because I do feel that at some point you’ve got to call it quits. Nietzsche is, properly, a provocation, to help ask: what if Hayek is something really strange? For that purpose, piling on the Nietzsche doesn’t help. A little Nietzsche to get your thinking kindled is all you need. Then it’s a matter of reading Hayek, not bringing up eternal recurrence again and again.

“And I don’t think the desire to remake Hayek as an esoteric Randian can really survive once we realize that even John Galt can’t know who John Galt is.”

But one of the things about Nietzsche’s John Galt is that he doesn’t know he’s John Galt either. The Overman isn’t a knower but, as per that second passage, a kind of crazy blind arrow shot.

More later. (Too much typing already today, getting this post up!)


Anderson 05.20.13 at 2:15 pm

“This is why the thought of Eternal Recurrence – Nietzsche’s central teaching, he says – is so awful. So abyssmal. What good are Great Men if they aren’t great for the not-great man?”

I think that gives N. too much credit. I think he accepted that the vast majority would be not-great, and had no anxiety on their part. His fear, as stated in BG&E — and I admit finding the works from “Daybreak” on, and especially post-TSZ, more representative of “Nietzsche” than his early purple-passage works that you’ve quoted — was that the last men, Christian-socialist nihilism, etc., would so dominate that great men would destroy themselves (literally or effectively) out of shame and guilt over the very qualities that to N. made them great.

The eternal recurrence is a terrible thought precisely *because* the last men recur, there is no progress, no teleology. Great men don’t build anything lasting. They have to be appreciated for their own works. This was a painful and difficult thought for N., who exalted value-creators, builders (see his remarks on architecture in “Twilight of the Idols,” which aren’t really about architecture). I’m not sure he entirely reconciled himself to it (see the silly musings in his notebooks about whether eternal recurrence might be actually true, not just a metaphor).


Lee A. Arnold 05.20.13 at 3:10 pm

Well John since you put it that way, I think the difference between Nietzsche and Hayek is this: Nietzsche’s hierarchy is something like, “cultural superman VS. the common person”. Hayek demotes the whole hierarchy downward, to something like, “business success stories in the spontaneous order VS. dropouts and parasites”. (“Alienation, Dropouts, and the Claims of Parasites” is the title of appendix D of The Fatal Conceit, Hayek’s last book, 1988).


Josh G. 05.20.13 at 3:32 pm

Sounds like Hayek was basically Ayn Rand with fancier words and a veneer of intellectual respectability. Guess it’s easier to be taken seriously in academia if you’re a bespectacled aristocrat from Vienna rather than a dumpy petit-bourgeoisie Jewish woman from Russia.


PGD 05.20.13 at 4:24 pm

Wow, is that Harry Potter article terrible. Hard to believe it was published in a major law review…is there any job cushier than ‘law professor’?

Holbo is being polite, and saying that ‘Nietzsche is properly a provocation’ @14 is a way of implying politely that seriously trying to view Hayek as a ‘Nietzschean’ in a serious way simply does not hold water and is an intellectual distraction. What you are really asking is whether Hayek is an inegalitarian/aristocratic romantic and using Nietzsche as your all-purpose stand in for such a figure. Since it is quite reductionist to view Nietzsche as simply a replacement-level 19th century romanto-aristocratic intellectual you are much better off simply identifying common tendency in 19th century thought and examining Hayek directly. In general, this whole effort to do intellectual history by assigning thinkers positions on Team Conservative and Team Liberal is going to reduce them to bumper stickers at best.

Now note: if you read ‘great man’ as ‘capitalist entrepreneur’ in the first passage, then you get a weirdly lurid ‘who is John Galt?’ fantasy. If you read ‘nature’ as ‘market’ and ‘artist’ as ‘capitalist entrepreneur’ in the second passage,

Yeah, but you really can’t do that, because they aren’t. It’s like saying, ‘if you read ‘Zarathustra’ as ‘Jack Welch’ you find that Nietzsche considers employee downsizing the true destiny of the Ubermensch’. Ummm, OK, I guess so…


Anderson 05.20.13 at 4:44 pm

If you read ‘nature’ as ‘market’ and ‘artist’ as ‘capitalist entrepreneur’

Or “artist” as “Renaissance tyrant.” See Burckhardt on “The State as a Work of Art.” The Galts and Rockefellers seem more likely to fit in The Civilization of Italy in the Renaissance than in Nietzsche.


Sebastian H 05.20.13 at 4:49 pm

“To grant no more freedom than all can exercise would be to misconceive its function completely. The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use”

You seem to be misunderstanding this quote. Everyone eats. So one form of freedom is to let/help people eat what they want. Not everyone is a chemical engineer who would discover amazing battery technology if given/allowed the freedom to explore rather than being born into a subsistence farming family in India, but helping out his freedom may be more important to society than making sure everyone has lots of food choices.

Which still might work into your discussion, but doesn’t make Hayek look particularly silly.


TheSophist 05.20.13 at 5:10 pm

A few thoughts:

1. Damn that was good! I especially liked the Harry Potter bit – I expect that the set of x’s for which “x is libertarian! No, libertarianism is a children’s story” is non-trivial, and that attempting to assemble it might be fun.

2. Regarding the Randian relevance – was it here at CT that I read, many years ago, that Rand was but Nietzsche with everything original, important, or funny taken out?

3. Wandering into an area where my knowledge is distinctly limited, is there something almost evental (in the Badiouan sense) about Hayek’s millionth man – that he (and it must be a he, surely) is the one capable of seeing “outside the state of the situation”, or some such Badiouan formulation. (I know there’s the chapter in Ethics where AB disposes of things that seem like they might be events but aren’t really (which I’ve always thought is suspiciously similar to the set of things that would be awkward for AB if they actually were events) and I’m quite sure that he would throw anything entrepreneurial in there, but nonetheless I think that the overarching framework is similar.


cgweeks 05.20.13 at 5:29 pm

“A nation is a detour of nature to arrive at six or seven great men.—Yes, and then to get round them.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 126)

I have for the longest time mulled over this statement because, like much in his writing, it doesn’t offer up an “easy solution.” Given the attention to the metaphor of nature in the above post and the attention to what I think may be a false “problem” being asked (because Hayek seems to point toward that problem), I think this slight statement from BG&E might fit peculiarly into the discussion.

Most recently I have been looking at the issue of elites vs. masses, an important contemporary political debate, through various lenses, and was led to consider a type of historical pendulum movement similar to the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” in evolution—the idea that significant change comes in fits and starts rather than being gradual—which returned me to a reconsideration of Nietzsche’s statement quoted above. So-called great persons come in fits (nature gets lucky); they cause significant change; but as Nietzsche’s influence Emerson said, every great man at last becomes a bore, and nature causes the nation to get round him.

Of course, getting round those great men may have been a sarcastic evaluation of nations and nature rather than a positive valuation, depending upon your interpretation. Either way, a certain ephemerality is suggested for great persons.

Nietzsche was quite specific in stating his mistrust of systematizers. My own impression is that he would have been nauseated by a) any followers (directly descended or “marginal children”) who attempted to formulate a model or formula for societies to follow based upon his words, and b) those studying him and others who attempted to systematize some relation between them and him. There may be a fine line of course, since Nietzsche obviously did not skirt broad categorization of philosophers himself. But narrowing with precision bits and pieces of Nietzsche in another also was un-Nietzschean, given that he did not want to be mistaken for someone he wasn’t and that he specifically noted that bad readers of his work would take out of it only bits and parts that suited them.


Lee A. Arnold 05.20.13 at 5:42 pm

The hero in Hayek is not just any system, however. Socialism is ruled out. The hero is the “spontaneous order” or “extended order”: self-organization via market exchange. The market order is the new superman (Supermarket!) To give it a sort of foundational claim to justice, Hayek studies freedoms and intentionalities. He adopts the “positive/negative liberties” distinction, and then distinguishes “coercion” from the “physical circumstances” of life or the market: If person A hurts person B, that is bad. But, if A hurts B without directly willing it or even knowing about it, through the medium of the institutional arrangements of the market, that is a rather grayer area. Hayek wasn’t insensitive to that, though the intellectual considerations would start to undermine his preferred spontaneous order. He would have to allow that there are different spontaneous orders. He might have to rule socialism back in. I think he made the mistake of many earlier systems theorists, who wrote as if these new ideas (self-organization, etc.) are dependable deductions, instead of a grammar of patterns.


Wonks Anonymous 05.20.13 at 6:06 pm

This from a few years back seems relevant on Rand’s John Galt and Hayek’s story of the market process:


Lee A. Arnold 05.20.13 at 6:08 pm

I am interested to know if Schumpeter wrote about Nietzsche, (and I will not have time to read all the other comment threads) so if anyone has a citation or link, please repeat it.

I think it is possible that Schumpeter, had he lived, would have found the later Hayek to have begun to misfire, intellectually. Schumpeter always seems to have promoted observation and science, and bracketed his own beliefs.


Jacob McM 05.20.13 at 8:20 pm

Joseph de Maistre said something to the effect of “the Gospels, read without the instruction of the Church, are poison.” The “Catholicism emptied of Christianity” tendency in France became more explicit under Charles Maurras, who, unlike de Maistre, was frank about his personal atheism. Here are his thoughts:

With some spare time, what a Treatise there would be to write on the intellectual decadence wrought by, first, the Christian spirit of mind that brought about the collapse of the Roman Empire; secondly, the Christian spirit of mind that in the sixteenth century disrupted Catholic civilization through the reading of the Bible in the vernacular tongue; thirdly, the Christian spirit of mind that drove on Rousseau, that encouraged the Revolution, and that elevated morality to the dignity of a super-science and a super-politics, equally metaphysical; and, lastly, the Christian spirit of mind that gives us, today, a theology of the individual, a theory of pure anarchy.


Consumatopia 05.20.13 at 8:22 pm

I don’t see what makes the market more anonymous or abstract than lots of other systems for allocating resources or power–say, lotteries, elections, or civil service exams. All of them make some person into an administrator–the winner of the lottery or election, the one who does best on the test, or whosever name is on the deed for the factory.

Also, while I admit that I haven’t read Constitution of Liberty, I did look up the context (Ch. 8, section 6) for the quote Robin supplied about “The grosser pleasures in which the newly rich often indulge have usually no attraction for those who have inherited wealth”. This is given as the reason for preferring to distribute concentrations of wealth by inheritance rather than by lottery (since concentrations of wealth freeing a minority from the need to earn a living had previously been established as a good thing). That’s doubly weird, because A) the typical libertarian defense of inherited wealth is on behalf of the dead wealth-creator who built it in the first place (and would not have done so if they could not pass it on), not the heir themselves and B) from what standpoint are we supposed to judge one pleasure grosser than another? B seems like a problem for the “system as hero” interpretation.

Immediately following that is an even stranger paragraph, emphasis added:

The point that is so frequently overlooked in this connection is that action by collective agreement is limited to instances where previous efforts have already created a common view, where opinion about what is desirable has become settled, and where the problem is that of choosing between possibilities already gener-
ally recognized, not that of discovering new possibilities. Public opinion, however, cannot decide in what direction efforts should be made to arouse-public opinion , and neither government nor other existing organized groups should have the exclusive power to do so. But organized efforts have to be set in motion by a few individuals who possess the necessary resources themselves or who win the support of those that do; without such men, what are now the views of only a small minority may never have a chance of being adopted by the majority. What little leadership can be expected from the majority is shown by their inadequate support of the arts wherever they have replaced the wealthy patron. And this is even more true of those philanthropic or idealistic movements by which the moral values of the majority are changed.

Why cannot the public itself decide in which direction public opinion should move? Why can’t the public make up its own mind? Note that this goes further than how some defenses have characterized Hayek’s views on inequality–he is not saying that rich people consuming luxuries will put those luxuries in the hands of all in the future, he is not merely saying that innovators of value (product designers, ad executives) will come up with new kinds of values for which consumers will vote with their wallets. He is saying, quite simply, that the masses have inferior goals (both aesthetically and morally!) and we need rich people to spend money to transform the masses. Neither the public nor public opinion is a thing with agency of its own–it can only be changed by governments or organizations, not by citizens making up their own minds. Evidence for this is the public’s “inadequate support of the arts”, but if the system is the hero, who decides what’s adequate?

The point is not that libertarians can’t find non-elitist defenses for eliminating inheritance taxes or for Citizens United. But the particular defenses Hayek chose seem very elitist, to say the least. Whether that elitism runs throughout Hayek’s throught or Hayek was just thinking strangely that day, I can’t say.


Jacob McM 05.20.13 at 8:23 pm

Boy, I feel like a putz. Anyway, I wanted to bring attention to my long post here


for those contemplating the links between Christianity and liberalism and radicalism, and just why people like Nietzsche and other reactionaries considered Christianity a subversive force.


Gianattasio 05.20.13 at 11:08 pm

@ Jacob McM 28

Your post seems to be lumping together a number of distinct worldviews which are on closer inspection quite distinct. Certainly, they all identify as Christian, but, then, so have countless other traditions and political forces which were working in direct opposition to the course that you chart in your post.

But my real concern is your implication at the end that because we had Christianity on the one had, and ended up with liberalism now, that there is some sort of inherent connection between the two. I mean, just on its surface, this begs the question of why it took almost 2000 years for this supposedly liberal intellectual force to make good on its promise? There are so many intervening variables here that I just don’t think the logic is sound. If anything, it appears to me that the enlightenment values which underpin liberal democratic societies emerged within the shell of Christianity, which was all pervasive at the time, and in many of these instances they emerged in spite of the accepted views of what constituted Christian. Eventually, these values learned how to exist wholly independently from their Christian shell, revealing that they were not rooted in that worldview ideologically, only historically.

Some of the references to Christianity that you point to are not evidence to your argument. In some cases, the authors of those positions were making reference to Christianity because it served as a common intellectual touchstone for so many, not because Christian ideas were the genesis of their insights. Think how the edifice of Christianity was marshaled into support for the crusades, or the metaphysics of the great chain of being which rationalized feudalism. There are countless examples.


Lee A. Arnold 05.21.13 at 1:35 am

“The Golem” (1920) Some may have not seen Paul Wegener’s silent film, enjoyable for all sorts of reasons. In the final act, the golem is enlisted to fight a lover’s quarrel. A double plot. Go to about 1 hour 2 minutes — 1:02:00, or near there…

The final act title-card in green, a warning from astrologic alchemy: “If you have brought an inanimate being to life through magic, beware of your creation.”

I have not read original golem stories, and I don’t know whether the filmmakers consciously adopted Shelley to their task, but vaguely Frankensteinish events, images ensue. I think some of the oldstyle eye-acting is really good.


John Holbo 05.21.13 at 2:02 am

I think you may have intended this comment for the other thread, Lee. However, ““If you have brought an inanimate being to life through magic, beware of your creation,” might have been an interesting, alternate epigraph for Hayek, “Uses of Knowledge”. A bit against the grain. Maybe it’s more Schumpeterian.


Joseph Swetnam 05.21.13 at 2:15 am

Since we’re interchanging heros, replace the one-in-a-million man with a scientist.

A lab in Berkeley that works on photovoltaic cells finds that by tweaking the structure of an existing nanomaterial through a novel process, they can increase the efficiency of the cells by 1%. Marginally useful, but not particularly heroic.

A few months later, a cancer researcher happens to read this paper, and realizes that she can tweak some nanomaterial that she works with by the same process, helping to make an alternative treatment to chemotherapy viable and thus improving the quality of life of cancer patients. She’s not exactly a hero, either, since she borrowed the idea from someone else—and again the idea itself wasn’t all that interesting in its original context.

My understanding of science is that it often works this way: progress comes in marginal improvements in highly specialized areas, each of which are not only often modest but also sometimes accidental, and each of which often leads to advancements beyond the imagination of those who did the original work. The original idea, however, was still one in a million.

The ratio is mathematically true (at least ballpark) not only because for every innovation that turns out to be useful there are many futile projects, but also because within a given project the researchers end up going back to the drawing board many times before getting it right. It’s also figuratively true in the sense that the ideas often seem to come clear out of the blue—who would have thought that research on solar cells would help improve cancer treatment?

Returning to Hayek, the fact that the one-in-a-million man does more to benefit his fellows than most others do does not give us any basis to assume either a) that there is anything particularly special about this man, or even b) that there is anything particularly special about whatever it is that he does.

In that light, here’s another way of interpreting liberty-maximization-for-the-one-in-a-million. It’s not that we let all the stupid scientists putz around in the hopes that a smart one will come along, but that the very nature of scientific advancement requires a lot of ideas to be tried out, and that this process requires freedom. This is true even—or especially—if we presume that all scientists are equally intelligent.

I don’t think it’s fair to imbue Hayek’s one-in-a-million man with any superhuman qualities that Hayek didn’t articulate. Within the context of the rest of Hayek’s thought, as Jacob Levy suggests, it’s more likely that Hayek didn’t think there was anything particularly special about the man. He may have stumbled upon something that anyone else could have stumbled upon, but even if his accomplishment is accidental or unwitting, it still may be important. Freedom is therefore not squandered on the rest of us, for we all have the potential to be one-in-a-million men. It is precisely because the one-in-a-million man is not distinguished by superhuman qualities that we can never know when or by whom the next useful thing will be stumbled upon, and thus that freedom must be maximized for all, even if in practice not all make as beneficial a use of it as others.

A final thought: as science and the tools it uses advance, the pace of progress increases. Individual scientists are more productive today than ever before, and more likely to be one-in-a-millions. Which means that the ratio itself varies as liberty and the progress it begets. Even if a small group makes the best use of maximal liberty at first, the ratio of those who contribute improves over time as a function of that same liberty. I interpret Hayek as meaning not that this progress is led by superior individuals, but that it occurs in marginal advancements by many individuals in unforeseeable ways, and that limiting liberty to a few necessarily constrains this process (even, I believe Hayek would say, if we could identify the “best” among us and limit it to them).


Lee A. Arnold 05.21.13 at 2:32 am

Plainly the spontaneous order will NOT always connect all information to its most efficient uses.


Lee A. Arnold 05.21.13 at 3:41 am

@ Joseph Swetnam #32 — Does Hayek ever write about how the market may sometimes inhibit the process, and how to measure that tradeoff?


Bruce Wilder 05.21.13 at 5:30 am

Joseph Swetnam @ 32

Here’s the thing: Hayek doesn’t like rules. His hero doesn’t need no freakin’ rules.

Your scientist working on photovoltaic cells, follows rules. The paper he publishes follows rules. The scientist working on cancer follows rules.

None of us know enough that we don’t have to follow rules, which rules we do not fully understand or appreciate. This bothers Hayek, who fears that having rules and following rules, promulgated by public authority, ruins us.

Let’s imagine that your scientist is a genius chemist. He discovers a cheap way to improve the efficiency with which gasoline burns in an automobile engine: he adds a tiny bit of lead. It’s cheap. His genius, though, doesn’t let him anticipate that the lead will enter the atmosphere, and poison millions of children, retarding their intelligence and contributing to a massive crime wave. The capitalist entrepreneurs, who make use of his discovery to increase profits, don’t really care that millions of poor kids are poisoned; the poisoning is diffuse and theoretical to them; the effect on gasoline, obvious and profitable. The same genius chemist discovers a wonderful compound to be used as a refrigerant and a propellant in spray cans. Once again, it doesn’t occur to him that it will enter the atmosphere, punch a hole in the ozone and threaten all life on earth. It is immediately profitable, and the consequence, though terrible, seems remote and theoretical, until it isn’t.

Rules to undo the work of this genius chemist is not the work of some lone hero. Great mass movements have to be organized. Campaigns by hundreds of scientists and thousands upon thousands of activists are necessary to motivate the political action by states to make and enforce rules, which ameliorate the consequences of his genius.

So, thus we have the freedom of the one-in-a-million to poison us all, and we have the millions, who must work in cooperation, to undo the work of the genius. And, the latter is a terrible impingement on freedom, and there really ought to be a constitution of liberty to inhibit such statist activity, or so argues Hayek.


Lurker 05.21.13 at 5:55 am

the very nature of scientific advancement requires a lot of ideas to be tried out, and that this process requires freedom.

This process requires freedom, true, but that freedom is quite different from the type of freedom a normal person experiences. It requires academic freedom, which is easy to grant. Especially in the realm of pure science, academic freedom can coexist with a terribly oppressive political climate.

To take a real-life example, consider the Soviet Union. Research in pure sciences was very free and scientists could pursue extremely blue-sky concepts with little economic or political hindrance. (In applied sciences, e.g. engineering, political considerations were more important and often prevented progress.) As long as a scientist paid formal allegiance to the state, he had a complete freedom of thought in his own field. And Soviet Union excelled in these fields. The same applies to imperial Germany of the late 19th century: a politically unfree regime with a thriving research community. (Or Bush administration USA: a militaristic, war-mongering country with streamlined media, ruthless security apparatus and a very vibrant research community.)


Rob 05.21.13 at 7:33 am

Hayek fails to see that he [Hayek himself] is not actually interested in maximizing freedom because, actually, he thinks that some people’s freedom is a lot more valuable than other people’s freedom.

I think this misreads Hayek a bit. He goes on to say that only some people will really make use of their freedom in a way that benefits society as a whole and, therefore, that if we had some way of knowing who these people would be, we could set them free and limit the freedom of the rest. (I think this is basically where Tony Blair was coming from with ASBOs, but that’s another story). However, Hayek then goes on to say that there’s no way of knowing which people will use their freedom in beneficial ways, and we must therefore favour maximum freedom for all. This “knowledge problem” is entirely central to Hayek’s thought, so he is effectively arguing that freedom is necessary for everyone because the only circumstance in which it would not be so is one which Hayek believes to be impossible.


Rakesh Bhandari 05.21.13 at 8:18 am

I am sorry. It is late, and I can’t read the entire post, much less the commentary.
Of course the philosophical right has always prized the freedom of the entrepreneur above the freedom of anyone else; the entrepreneur unleashes the creative destruction on which continuous growth and thus opportunity for capital investment depend. The entrepreneur must have the freedom to challenge the extant elites. This is the freedom that matters for dynamic capitalism, conceived in Schumpeterian terms. That is, a stationary capitalism is a contradiction in terms., and the lifeblood of dynamic capitalism is freedom for entrepreneurs specifically, under the rule of law.

Perhaps the best selling work in social science in the last several years–Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail–is a paean to such entrepreneurial freedom as the pivot of the inclusive institutions on which successful nations must be built.

That said, two points:

1. Why link Nietzsche’s philosophy of the overman to the entrepreneur?

2. Even if Hayek is pulling a Straussian trick by trying to present his vision of a free society in which only those few elites who actually do burn for freedom will benefit as a universally desirable one, Hayek still seems to be committed to the universal principle of the freedom to contract (PFC) for all individuals and the PFC would seem to be essential for all possible Pareto improvements to be made. Perhaps one can expose Hayek’s Straussian elitism, but the real task of arguing under what conditions it can be justified to violate or restrict the Principle of Free Contract remains. Can it be shown for example that at a certain point what would be a series of Pareto-improving exchanges, under the Principle of Free Contract, yields a Pareto inferior state. This is what Kaushik Basu tries to demonstrate.


Bruce Wilder 05.21.13 at 8:21 am

Hayek does not acknowledge that his “knowledge problem” requires that people follow rules. If he does, his entire libertarian program falls apart.


reason 05.21.13 at 8:43 am

Sebastian H. @20
An even better example might be a journalist.

Yes, in general the saying (poorly made – it doesn make him sound elitist) might be interpreted as saying simply that freedom is valuable even when not used. (Like having a escape route is an encourage to undertake risky endevours. But isn’t this an argument for the social state?)

But if that was his view, what is his view of intellectual property rights?


reason 05.21.13 at 8:45 am

“doesn” should be “does” and “encourage” should be encouragement


Tim Wilkinson 05.21.13 at 1:08 pm

Yes, Hayek believes that society can only make progress if we have a hereditary upper class to perform the selective function in [insert one of a clutch of halfbaked evolutionary schemata trotted out by H in the particular hackfest under discussion].

At one point he seems explicitly to suggest that this is a universal law of progress, rather than just sticking to the usual “assume capitalism. Now see that capitalist phenomenon a has coincided with phenomenon b, which is better than sitting in a bush eating grubs, QED” kind of argument:

Most of what we strive for are things we want because others already have them. Yet a progressive society, while it relies on this process of learning and imitation, recognizes the desires it creates only as a spur to further effort. It does not guarantee the results to everyone. It disregards the pain of unfulfilled desire aroused by the example of others. It appears cruel because it increases the desire of all in proportion as it increases its gifts to some. Yet so long as it remains a progressive society, some must lead, and the rest must follow. The contention that in any phase of progress the rich, by experimenting with new styles of living not yet accessible to the poor, perform a necessary service without which the advance of the poor would be very much slower will appear to some as a piece of far-fetched and cynical apologetics. Yet a little reflection will show that it is fully valid and that a socialist society would in this respect have to imitate a free society. It would be necessary in a planned economy (unless it could simply imitate the example of other more advanced societies) to designate individuals whose duty it would be to try out the latest advances long before they were made available to the rest. There is no way of making generally accessible new and still expensive ways of living except by their being initially practiced by some. It would not be enough if individuals were allowed to try out particular new things. These have their proper use and value only as an integral part of the general advance in which they are the next thing desired. In order to know which of the various new possibilities should be developed at each stage, how and when particular improvements ought to be fitted into the general advance, a planned society would have to provide for a whole class, or even a hierarchy of classes, which would always move some steps ahead of the rest.

There is quite a bit I could say about this, but for now just notice that there is a bit of equivocal approval of a perfectionist rather than ‘trickle down’ approach to progress (call it Neitzsche or maximax as preferred).


Tim Wilkinson 05.21.13 at 1:09 pm

But that is only the selection bit: the random mutation bit is provided by the market, or course. Hayek, in TCoL, waffles on at great length about how ‘freedom’ is necessary for this random mutation to be maximised. But there is scarcely anything about what exactly happens when ‘freedom’ generates new products. In fact the ‘freedom’ under discussion is so abstract as to be stripped of all useful content. There’s endless waffle about the relation of freedom to various other highly abstracted things, but the indispensable role of the capitalist entrepreneur and bourgeois property rights in the process is scarcely mentioned. Instead there’s just loads of stuff like this:

The undesigned novelties that constantly emerge in the process of adaptation will consist, first, of new arrangements or patterns in which the efforts of different individuals are coordinated and of new constellations in the use of resources, which will be in their nature as temporary as the particular conditions that have evoked them. There will be, second, modifications of tools and institutions adapted to the new circumstances. Some of these will also be merely temporary adaptations to the conditions of the moment, while others will be improvements that increase the versatility of the existing tools and usages and will therefore be retained. These latter will constitute a better adaptation not merely to the particular circumstances of time and place but to some permanent feature of our environment. In such spontaneous “formations” is embodied a perception of the general laws that govern nature. With this cumulative embodiment of experience in tools and forms of action will emerge a growth of explicit knowledge, of formulated generic rules that can be communicated by language from person to person…While we are sometimes able to trace the intellectual processes that have led to a new idea, we can scarcely ever reconstruct the sequence and combination of those contributions that have not led to the acquisition of explicit knowledge; we can scarcely ever reconstruct the favorable habits and skills employed, the facilities and opportunities used, and the particular environment of the main actors that has favored the result. Our efforts toward understanding this part of the process can go little further than to show on simplified models the kind of forces at work and to point to the general principle rather than the specific character of the influences that operate.

Yeah yeah, ‘I, Pencil’. The last sentence is not elaborated on so far as I can see, but we all know the kind of thing. The problem (one problem) is that however plausible sounding all this stuff may be, it doesn’t actually mention anything about the ‘free market’, or the specific kinds of freedom that Hayek is concerned to peddle – the freedom of (only!) those who can afford it to put inventions into production (so that the avant garde of aristos can decide whether they like it or not). BTW, none of this has much to do with freedom of contract, contra Rakesh Bhandari @38.

Yes, sure, ad hoc and even accidental discoveries should be elicited and harnessed – but we are given no reason to suppose that Hayek’s system with its ineluctable (and approved) concentration of wealth is going to be especially good at doing this.

Or maybe that doesn’t matter, because it’s not ‘government coercion’ that stifles potential new ideas but only the natural circumstances of the Market. (But of course this focus of Hayek’s on agent-centred considerations is tendentious at the best of times and clearly inapt when we are talking social welfare, as here.)

In the end the argument doesn’t really comes to much more than the second half of:

One may share to the full the distaste for the ostentation, the bad taste, and the wastefulness of many of the new rich and yet recognize that, if we were to prevent all that we disliked, the unforeseen good things that might be thus prevented would probably outweigh the bad.

Hayek of course proposes to prevent a very great deal that he dislikes, officially on the basis of some specious pseudo-jurisprudence about the rule of law. But what about the unforeseen good things that are thereby prevented? Hayek’s very particular conception of freedom, once fleshed out, it just one means of generating these quasi-random mutations (actually filtered by those who choose whether to implement them) that will then compete in the court of elite consumer opinion.


Jerry Vinokurov 05.21.13 at 1:46 pm

A final thought: as science and the tools it uses advance, the pace of progress increases. Individual scientists are more productive today than ever before, and more likely to be one-in-a-millions.

Lots of other people have already pointed out the problems with this analogy, but it’s worth noting that this is a very inaccurate model of actual scientific progress. In particular, arguing that “the pace of progress increases” and that “individual scientists are more productive today than ever before” means you need to put a metric on “pace” and “productivity.” How is that going to be measured? Is it the number of publications? Lines of code written? “Fundamental” advances made? What counts as fundamental?

In fact, scientific progress is wildly heterogenous, both across disciplines and within the same discipline across time periods. Just to give one example, the era lasting from roughly 1945 to, oh, about 1995 (give or take), was a wildly productive era in particle physics. But towards the end of that era, discoveries started coming less and less frequently; consider how much time passes between the early discoveries of the various light mesons, leptons, and quarks, and how long it took to get the top quark (hence by date of 1995). A lot of that is simply a function of getting the low-hanging fruit first. In the case of particle physics, the low-hanging fruit is lower energies, as the time necessary to conduct the next-highest energy experiment scales nonlinearly with the energy. In other fields, the situation is somewhat reversed; for example, computational biology wasn’t even a field in a strict sense until about 25 years ago, because the technology required to do truly intensive big data computations didn’t exist. How the progress of that particular field will evolve is something we don’t really know. As usual, the easier problems will be solved first, just because they can be solved, but the question of whether the harder problems will be tractable, or whether the resources required to solve them will scale favorably with their difficulty, is an open question (although if I were laying a bet, I’d bet that they won’t; there are precious few examples of such scalings historically).

All this means that you can’t just rely on a simplistic model of scientific progress to bail you out sometime down the line. Moore’s law is a thing, but not a thing that can just be invoked at will as a deus ex machina a la Ray Kurzweil. Scientific productivity is a tough thing to measure, and it’s dangerous to generalize from relatively short-term trends to a larger picture.


Jacob T. Levy 05.21.13 at 2:18 pm

39: Bruce Wilder 05.21.13 at 8:21 am

‘Hayek does not acknowledge that his “knowledge problem” requires that people follow rules. If he does, his entire libertarian program falls apart.’

You’re attributing a generalized “libertarian program” to Hayek that isn’t his. Rule-following is a central part of his thought.


Sebastian H 05.21.13 at 2:39 pm

“Eventually, these values learned how to exist wholly independently from their Christian shell, revealing that they were not rooted in that worldview ideologically, only historically.”

I’m not a Christian anymore, but I still wonder if this is true. I grew up in a VERY Christian household, and it still surprises me how often anti religious westerners lean on strongly Christian background assumptions. The idea of egalitarianism is a good example. It is an important premise for all sorts of Western political thought, and a key arguing point even for those who disagree with it. ( and opposing it as seen here is used as a multi-purpose condemnation). But it is an axiom that isn’t shared by all sorts of other cultures/religions, which is very grounded in Christian thought. We act as if it is an obvious principle, but in fact it was a rather radical feature of Christianity(historically) and it isn’t obvious how easy it is to maintain outside of a culture which is still deeply steeped in Christian background (to speak to current ideology).

I’m not really saying you’re wrong. I’m just saying that it isn’t particularly obvious that you’re right.


Joseph Swetnam 05.21.13 at 3:48 pm

@45, I was thinking the same thing. Wouldn’t Hayek approve of an anonymous rule that, say, prohibits putting dangerous substances into the atmosphere?

@36, “[Academic] freedom is quite different from the type of freedom a normal person experiences.” You go on to observe that there have been societies where academic freedom was granted but not other kinds of freedom. But that doesn’t prove that it’s “quite different” from the other kinds. Yes, maybe it’s “eas[ier] to grant” than other freedoms to the extent that it doesn’t threaten the ruling party’s power, but that’s beyond the scope of my analogy.

@44, I did oversimplify. However, it is true that today science is less driven by heroic individuals like Newton, and more by many obscure individuals making small but important contributions. In my view, this is better for the progress of science. The point of my analogy was that the same happens in wider society, or in the economy, in a process that could be described as democratizing. Think how the internet has made us all authors and musicians, how 3D printing can make us all manufacturers. It was my mistake to frame that in terms of increasing productivity.


Wonks Anonymous 05.21.13 at 4:07 pm

Bruce Wilder, Hayek is greatly in favor of rules. “Laws” even. Of course, he distinguishes between “law” (which can emerge from decentralized decisions of judges, as the common law is supposed to have evolved) and “legislation” (hence “Law, Legislation and Liberty”). I think he favored plenty of legislation as well, “Road to Serfdom” endorsed a welfare state with environmental regulation. I haven’t actually read his books to find out what his criterion for acceptability is, he has a reputation as an unclear and inconsistent writer.


Consumatopia 05.21.13 at 4:10 pm

Is it a problem for the ‘elective affinity’ argument if tCoL is not Hayek’s most popular book? Or maybe it just means that Hayek himself has elective-affinity for Nietzsche, but his followers don’t necessarily? Even among people who have read it, it doesn’t seem like the parts of it that stick out most to egalitarian critics are the same as the parts that resonate with Hayek sympathizers (to the point that some sympathizers accuse some critics of quoting out of context, but I think the critics are right–the objectionable stuff is in the text, it’s just not what the sympathizers found most interesting as they were reading it.)

As an example, some of the sympathetic reconstructions of the One-in-a-Million argument apply just as strongly to positive liberty as negative liberty. But if you look at Ch. 5, Sec 2 where that quote comes from, the whole argument doesn’t make sense anymore once you think about it in terms of weighing one kind of liberty against another.

(Also, I think the One-in-a-Million argument is missing the possibility of negative signs, e.g. should we let anybody experiment with nuclear fission or synthesizing microbes.)


PGlenn 05.21.13 at 4:19 pm

Andrew F., Professor Levy, and Rob make the key point(s) above: that Hayek was especially concerned with epistemological questions. His most important insights were attuned to “Knowledge in Society” problems and human ignorance (especially among elites) and that “what really gets Hayek out of bed in the mornings: a deep fascination with ‘we can’t know . . .” As Rob points out, Hayek apparently offered the one-in-a-million example as part of an epistemological “thought exercise,” not as a serious foray into a theory of freedom.

For purposes of argument, let’s assume that we could actually ascertain what were Hayek’s deep underlying conceptions of the “real value of his values.” Hayek would have been the first to respond: “How would I (or anyone else) know how to promote such values in the first place?”

Unlike Professor Levy, I’m nothing like an expert on Hayek, but I’m guessing that inasmuch as Hayek addressed values and the philosophy of freedom, etc., probably mostly indirectly in pursuance of his major interests, he was weaker in these areas. Fair enough. But so, if we were going to turn around your style of critique on the great political theorist Rawls, it wouldn’t be to suggest that Rawls was secretly “a liberal fascist control freak!” but to concentrate on Rawls’ lack of serious attention to epistemological questions and/or his ignorance of real-world economics. In other words, we’d project our concerns unto Rawls . . .


Rakesh Bhandari 05.21.13 at 5:56 pm

For Hayek, the entrepreneur and his freedom are the pivot of his economic theory.

He argues that central planning is incompatible with the process of entrepreneurial discovery through which the knowledge it (CP) must have is generated, no?

While Boltanski and Chiapello argue provocatively and brilliantly that the new spirit of capitalism is defined around the network, one could still argue that neo-liberalism defines the spirit of capitalism today.

It has three features:

1. The privileging of entrepreneurial freedom and the freedom to contract above all other freedoms and values (even the freedom to move).

2. The marginal theory of distribution as an explanation, if not justification, for the distribution of income.

3. A social Darwinist metaphysics in the face of the suffering resulting from the abandonment of Keynesian full-employment policies.

I don’t see Nietzsche’s imprint here. Even Lukacs/Losurdo’s Nietzsche is too grand a counter-revolutionary to capture the the slow, uneventful passing of social democracy and New Dealism.


Hazel Meade 05.21.13 at 7:35 pm

In general, this whole effort to do intellectual history by assigning thinkers positions on Team Conservative and Team Liberal is going to reduce them to bumper stickers at best.

Maybe that’s the idea. He’s not trying to educate. He’s trying to beat a marching drum.


jonnybutter2 05.21.13 at 9:40 pm

In general, this whole effort to do intellectual history by assigning thinkers positions on Team Conservative and Team Liberal is going to reduce them to bumper stickers at best.

If that were what he was doing, you probably wouldn’t be here reading and neither would I. (and ‘Liberal’ is the wrong word here, my friend).

The implication is that it’s always obvious how to cleanly label what is Left and what is Right, when in fact it’s often not obvious at all. That’s a primary reason FN is interesting politically, to me anyway, because he has the guts to plant a flag for his age.


Dave Maier 05.22.13 at 12:15 am

True story: I was at a lecture by Manuel DeLanda a while back in which he was hitting the Deleuzian rhizome/Niezschean will-to-power angle pretty hard, and I said that bit sounded a lot like a Hayekian catallaxy, which was weird given that every other sentence in his lecture was about the significance of all this Deleuzian metaphysics for the left. (His response was to grant the point but to add that everyone makes a big mistake thinking of Hayek as a right-winger, for that very reason.) So there’s another link from Nietzsche to Hayek, albeit a) through Deleuze, and b) metaphysical rather than political or economic (and (c) kind of sketchy and metaphorical). Not sure what that’s worth, but there it is.


J.A. Mark 05.22.13 at 12:34 am

Hey Check out Eugene Holland’s “Nomad Citizenship” for a recent detailed treatment of the Hayek-Deleuze connection… Meanwhile, here is what I think bout the piece in the Nation re: Nietzsche/Hayek being discussed here: This is a miserably overdramatic and farcical introduction to Austrian economics. Preaching to the choir of Leftists who have already rejected the names of Menger, Schumpeter, and Hayek out of hand, the author chooses personalities over ideas at every turn. Any concrete link between the insights of Nietzsche and those of the Austrians is obscured by a mirage of pseudo-historical -isms and quasi-geographical anecdote. He writes, “Yet whose voice has been more listened to, across decades and continents, than Hayek’s? ” But have Hayek’s strongest points really been listened to or have we just been watching the unfolding exploitation of his saddest compromises by powerful lobbyists and policymakers? Well, one wouldn’t know from reading this article because this kind of puffery–longwinded, trite, and partisan– tracks namedropping ONLY and is incapable of even beginning to discern where arguments have been faithfully applied from where they have been applied in a corrupted or distorted form. The writer made his choice before he even sat down at his Macbook: politics before philosophy. (No wonder he’s an employed “political scientist”!)


john c. halasz 05.22.13 at 12:52 am


Actually, in his last years, Foucault was said to be reading von Hayek and recommending him. Presumably the common thread (or obsession) is a libertarian conception of freedom (and perhaps a denial of any institutional basis for “freedom”). I myself found that recommendation a bit, er, perverse. But I’m not surprised that “Po-mo” would be susceptible to the sorts of currents that lead to neo-liberal capture.


J.A. Mark 05.22.13 at 1:44 am

In the 1978-79 lectures (Birth of Biopolitics) Foucault questioned the ready-made meaning of the term “neo-liberalism” as shock-doctrine-gulag-capitalism. Foucault didn’t deny that this latter phenomenon existed, he just said that the theoretical concerns in the earliest and most eloquent formulations that spawned the movement of neo-liberalism were something distinct. (Don’t Leftists do the same thing when they try to dissociate Marx’s insights from the failures of Soviet Communism?) Well, what was this more original meaning of neoliberalism that the Right has ostensibly corrupted and that the Left virtually refuses to acknowledge? That there are limits to what leaders can know and no matter whether they are elected representatives, military dictators (or practically appointed by the power of well-monied lobbies)–when political force is deployed in ignorance of these limits, problems get worse, not better. How to prevent the discretionary use of government force and regulation? This, admittedly, is the million dollar question that “free marketeers” never had any success in anwering. That failure, however, doesn’t diminish the basic admonition about the dangers of capricious use of force and fraud to which governments throughout history have fallen prey (and that Robins’s article all but totally ignores). There’s a reason for that: almost all of the highly visible people who cite Hayek et al. are disengenuous. But reactionary leftists let them get away with it.


Lawrence Stuart 05.22.13 at 3:42 am

From the OP: “He made economics exciting by painting its petit bourgeois portrait as secretly sublime – a romantic landscape of mysterious heights and depths. In this landscape a hero makes his lonely way, his high fate unknown even to himself. He stands alone, against great odds.”

Cf. the role of the sublime in Kant, where the experience of the sublime is the goad that, in the encounter with the abyssal and incomprehensible, causes the imagination to submit to the legislative authority of conceptual understanding. The sublime instigates the sacrifice of the imagination to reason. This sacrifice bridges the gulf between pure and practical reason, and affirms man as lord of nature.

It is a journey through a Dionysian adventure back to an Apollonian triumph. The romantic hero has seen the horror, and recoiled from it, a sadder and wiser man. But a man committed to reason, and to mastery of nature, and keenly aware of the value of the necessary sacrifice.

And it is this notion of sacrifice that seems to play such an important role in neo-liberal economic doctrine. One (the rational subject who understands) might imagine a better world, a world of greater liberty, equality, and fraternity. But one must confront the abyssal mysteries at the heart of nature and humanity that preclude such happy outcomes. One must be ‘realistic,’ one must temper ones dreams with a knowledge of the sublime indifference of nature and the sublime inscrutability of the human heart.

Contrasted to Nietzsche’s valourization of Dionysian ecstasy, the contrast between the loquaciously reasonable neo-liberal hero and Zarathustrian rational silence become very stark.


Rakesh Bhandari 05.22.13 at 4:07 am

I think the more interesting connection is not Hayek and Nietzsche or Foucault (for one, I thought the Birth of Biopolitics was not only mis-titled but surprisingly unremarkable aside from the analysis of human capital theory and some interesting criticism of Marx) but Hayek and James Scott, as Brad DeLong and others have pointed out.


Lee A. Arnold 05.22.13 at 5:18 am

One last word on Schumpeter, I know you are all bored by it, but everybody seems to me to get him wrong.

I tend to doubt that Schumpeter would have considered himself a member of the Austrian school. Yes, he was from Austria. Yes, he preferred dynamic over static discussions (which, Schumpeter wrote, was first pointed to by Marshall, not the Austrians), and he brought forward the role of the entrepreneur (again he found bare bones of it in Marshall) and he may have been the first to say that the methods of mathematical physics were misapplied in economics (though rather like a famous point by Marshall about the use of math…), but there the similarity to the AUSTRIANS ends.

Schumpeter loved theory, but distrusted it when removed too long from reality. In his History of Economic Analysis, he sometimes takes aim at the Austrians, politely. For example, he writes of a theory of Menger that it was “not only far removed from any actual mental processes that may be credited to any deciding agents –this does not greatly matter considering the ‘as if’ that enters this, as it does so many other scientific constructions — but also unnecessary.” A judicious, amusing, quite damning smackdown. (Here we may also have a damning source for Friedman’s so-called new ideas on “positive economics”, coming three years after this book was published).

And, on the other hand, since Schumpeter believed that Marx was right that capitalism would transform itself into socialism (although he thought that some of Marx’s reasoning was wrong), I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that, in turn, the Austrian school was rather wary of his superior intellect.

I wonder whether Hayek’s later writing might have been partly a response to Schumpeter, without quite saying so: in order to counteract possible arguments that a reader might make out of Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. (We already know that Hayek had taken a cue for some of his endeavors from Keynes’ public promotion skills.)

In that book Schumpeter pointed-out many of the problems that the coming socialism will have — although, good scientist that he was, he was careful also to point out that centralized socialism had never really been tried in all its possible forms (he specifically excludes smaller forms like guild socialism), and so he even admits that his analysis is crude and provisional, and not like his analysis of capitalism, which flaws were evident. But he thought some form of socialism could probably work, and that for all its flaws, it might have its own small virtues.

I have a hunch that this might have alarmed Hayek, and so he set out to try (unsuccessfully) to prove it wrong. But Schumpeter had the far greater intellect, and he is the one still standing.

In the History of Economic Analysis, he wrote of Keynes, “Keynes was Ricardo’s peer in the highest sense of the phrase.” Schumpeter didn’t build a system, but I think he was up there, too.


Chris Mealy 05.22.13 at 6:15 am

There’s this Hayek quote I like to throw at people:

We need only turn to the problems which arise in connection with land, particularly with regard to urban land in modern large towns, in order to realize that a conception of property which is based on the assumption that the use of a particular item of property affects only the interests of its owner breaks down. There can be no doubt that a good many, at least, of the problems with which the modern town planner is concerned are genuine problems with which governments or local authorities are bound to concern themselves. Unless we can provide some guidance in fields like this about what are legitimate or necessary government activities and what are its limits, we must not complain if our views are not taken seriously when we oppose other kinds of less justified “planning.”

I read the chapter the quote’s from so I wouldn’t look dumb if somebody called me on it. It’s in “Individualism and Economic Order,” adapted from a talk Hayek gave at the first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society. It’s really tame stuff. He’s against corporate personhood, skeptical about patents and copyright, and for urban planning, unemployment benefits, public health, socialized medicine, and inheritance taxes. And he leaves the door wide open with this:

while our main concern must be to make the market work wherever it can work, we must, of course, not forget that there are in a modern community a considerable number of services which are needed, such as sanitary and health measures, and which could not possibly be provided by the market for the obvious reason that no price can be charged to the beneficiaries or, rather, that it is not possible to confine the benefits to those who are willing or able to pay for them.

I don’t bring this up to defend him. He’s still a right-wing creep (he starts the chapter fearing the “aspirations and prejudices of the great masses” and later dumps on unions). This is just one little chapter out of zillion books he wrote, but from what I’ve picked up from skimming his other books is that he’s wishy-washy as hell. It seems like what gets him really riled up is setting prices for cucumbers or state-owned hat factories.


Rakesh Bhandari 05.22.13 at 6:32 am

Schumpeter’s review of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (JPE, 1946) suffers from a calculated vagueness. He writes:

“But the author [Hayek] deals with ideas and princi- ples as if they floated in the air. If he had gone into the historical conditions from which the ideas arose which he dislikes so much, he could not have helped discovering that they are the products of the social system which he does like. The principles of individual initiative and self-reliance are the principles of a very limited class. They mean nothing to the mass of people
who —no matter for what reason-are not up to
the standard they imply. It is this majority that the economic achievement and the liberal policy of the capitalist age have invested with domi- nant power. Excepting intellectuals and politi- cians, nobody has changed his ideas. It is the people whose ideas count politically that have changed. This is why the old road has been abandoned. And in this situation there is no point in appealing to Cicero or Pericles, whose individualism blossomed in societies whose very basis was slavery, or to Benjamin Franklin (p.
133), who spoke for a small body of hardy pioneers every one of whom cheerfully faced the alternative of getting on or perishing and some of whom did not scorn a profitable deal in slaves.”

Schumpeter finds anachronistic Hayek’s reactionary appeals to Manchester Liberalism. Mass society has arrived, a theme in Lederer and Arendt. If ones reads the whole review, I think it will be clear that JAS is saying that the only way that a premature socialization of bourgeois civilization can be prevented, at this point, is through the kinds of pseudo-socialist measures undertaken by the Nazi regime. Schumpeter is indirectly saying that there must be some combination of social programs for the lesser men whose dignity is not tied up with self-reliance and anti-union violence. He may actually think Hayek’s pride that his class has not lost respect for self-reliance and individualism and thus remains a moral beacon may well provoke even more fierce class resentments and endanger civilization (as its bourgeois form is called) itself.


William Berry 05.22.13 at 7:48 am

@Lawrence Stuart, 58:

“And it is this notion of sacrifice that seems to play such an important role in neo-liberal economic doctrine. One (the rational subject who understands) might imagine a better world, a world of greater liberty, equality, and fraternity. But one must confront the abyssal mysteries at the heart of nature and humanity that preclude such happy outcomes. One must be ‘realistic,’ . . .”

Given that neo-liberals of any influence tend to be well-paid professionals (economists, pundits, politicians, bankers, et al), and the recommended sacrifice is to be made by others, pardon me if I don’t get a lump in my throat.


Tim Wilkinson 05.22.13 at 9:10 am

Consumatopia – Is it a problem for the ‘elective affinity’ argument if tCoL is not Hayek’s most popular book? Or maybe it just means that Hayek himself has elective-affinity for Nietzsche, but his followers don’t necessarily? Even among people who have read it, it doesn’t seem like the parts of it that stick out most to egalitarian critics are the same as the parts that resonate with Hayek sympathizers

Well, leaving aside the bravura quasi-contrarianism of the Nietzsche connection, ask whether the defence of plutocratic elitism is essential to Hayek’s position. I don’t care about Hayek’s affinities. I don’t care if Hayek at times retained enough grip on reality to accept the need for a ‘safety net’ and collective funding of some public goods. I don’t care if Hayek’s followers, apologists, and exploiters (and Foucault in the late 70s – cf. Nozick) choose to focus only on the know-nothing economics and the denunciation of arbitrary (government) power (of course they do).

The point is that the proprietarian right from welfare state liberals to self-styled anarchocapitalists largely tend to ignore (I do not say overlook) the two simple and obvious refutatory (ra-FYUT-a-tree) arguments against their position:

1. In a modern industrial setup, with all its material advantages, we are going to have large and powerful organisations which co-ordinate with each other, and not only by the mythical ‘price signals’ – co-operation is useful everywhere, in service of any goal, and whether via Acts of Parliament and civil service memos or the Britich Bankers’ Association and Smith’s golf-course conspiracies, it will happen. The primary choice in the absence of a detailed third alternative is whether power is going to be concentrated in the (somewhat – let’s hope increasingly) democratic state, or in openly and incorrigibly self-serving organisations like, say, large capitalist corporations and super-rich individuals. Which latter gets us to:

2. Unless intentionally confiscatory taxation or some other deliberate measure is used to prevent it, a proprietarian system rapidly leads to concentration of wealth and thus power, giving rise to a de facto (generally hereditary) ruling class.

The second is the more relevant of the two (they are of course interrelated). Possible answers are: 1. claim that commutative justice must be done though the heavens fall 2. simply deny it (probably claiming that it’s all the fault of government cronyism – whereas in fact it’s government capture) or 3. claim that it’s not a problem in welfare terms. The first two of these have obvious problems; the third would seem to require backing from some substantive empirical thesis; Hayekian elitism at least purports to offer such a thesis. That’s why this stuff is not just some idiosyncratic and severable aberration on Hayek’s part, but an integral part of his argument (such as it is).

The neoliberal establishment were and are well aware of this. That’s why (per the recently much-reprised anecdote) Thatcher banged a copy of TCoL down on the table and announced ‘this is what we believe’. Not Anarchy, State, and Utopia which of course never gets anywhere near addressing the reality I’ve sketched. And – lo! – these same kinds of arguments were a standard part of Reaganomics’s ‘supply side’ propaganda. Even today, this combination of aristocratic/elitist themes with free market radicalism is much closer to the views of actual right-wingers in and around government and the ruling classes than is a more Californian style of libertarianism.


Anderson 05.22.13 at 12:48 pm

62: “is through the kinds of pseudo-socialist measures undertaken by the Nazi regime”

Yow! That’s, uh, rather a big jump.


jonnybutter2 05.22.13 at 1:41 pm

Just to take a quick reality-check, Robin’s project (& not only his) is alarming to some establishment libertario-liberals because it might lead to talking about actual current/recent politics, the *last* thing they want (politics, not the daily back and forth). ‘Let’s detour, as we always do – let’s keep the discussion about ‘demonizing’ (or not) Hayak or Nietzche themselves as persons.’ It’s the ideas that matter, no?

Let’s talk about the pudding itself, the situation we all like to pretend we aren’t in (we’re observers and have no influence on what we observe!). What makes Prof Robin’s essay provoking is that, as is his wont, he comes right out and says that which must not be said: we have an economizing way of formulating practically ALL our values now. More, everything is now thought of in market terms, including spirituality, emotions, creativity…every decision is, in a sense, an ROI decision [btw It’s a perfect set-up for reactionary politics, since (see also: abortion), ‘culture’ issues are the gift that keeps on giving; the very strong incentive is to make sure it keeps on giving]. I don’t think it’s going to be so easy to defend this point of view (neoliberalism) going forward. It is vulgar and disastrous to an extent that its intellectual fathers themselves possibly wouldn’t have approved of. Anyway, identifying it is half the battle.

The swiftest libertarian answer to Robin’s essay made a point to scoff at Robin’s identification of a paradox (Robin is just rationalizing a conflict, said the libertarian). That moment stuck with me. Libertarian/neo-liberalism is *made* of paradox. Freedom is constraint!

That dismissal of paradox gave him away. Paradox is very powerful!


Rakesh Bhandari 05.22.13 at 2:00 pm

re 65 I jumped only because I read Robert Loring Allen’s and Richard Swedberg’s biographies twenty or so years ago. The former makes the jump himself; the latter does not despite uncovering his very disturbing diary entries. On Schumpeter I found George Catephores’ essay in the New Left Review quite good.


Anderson 05.22.13 at 2:03 pm

What “pseudo-socialist measures” did the Nazis take beyond the welfare state as they found it? Strength-Through-Joy cruises?


Corey Robin 05.22.13 at 2:06 pm

Sorry, I haven’t been able to participate in all the back and forth. As I said on my blog, I will be responding in time to several of the critiques, but I have a bunch of end-of-semester grading and responsibilities and we’re also moving, so it will have to wait a few weeks. In the meantime, just to chime in quickly in support of John’s OP re metaphysical pathos and his focus on the emotive appeal of these arguments. Hayek himself was very explicit that not only did he wish to offer a theory that was engagé (the introduction to Constitution of Liberty makes this very clear, as does the intro to Road to Serfdom), but that it had to be a theory that appealed to the gut: “I do not think the cause of liberty will prevail unless our emotions our aroused” (CL, 52). It seems like a perfectly legitimate activity, then, to interpret the text in those terms: to see the arousal of political passions as one of Hayek’s intentions (and in the writing of CL, as opposed to some of his other more technical works, one of his key intentions), and more important to see what is in the text that is doing the work of arousing those political passions.


Corey Robin 05.22.13 at 2:12 pm

Sorry, that quote from CL should have read: ““I do not think the cause of liberty will prevail unless our emotions are aroused.”


LFC 05.22.13 at 3:01 pm

R Bhandari @59
I think the more interesting connection is not Hayek and Nietzsche or Foucault (for one, I thought the Birth of Biopolitics was not only mis-titled but…

I have no particular interest in defending Foucault but would note that The Birth of Biopolitics is not, I think, his title: the book is in the series of his C. de France lectures published well after his death (his courses of lectures had titles, but I think the editors substituted their own shorter titles when the bks were published, first in Fr then in English).


Wonks Anonymous 05.22.13 at 3:16 pm

Anderson, Mark Blyth has some interesting bits in his contribution to the Sheri Berman book forum that Henry Farrell organized here:


Anderson 05.22.13 at 3:27 pm

72: thanks for the link, but not seeing much there, other than relatively high taxes on industry, which from Adam Tooze I recall is a complicated subject.

I guess my point is that the Nazis broke no particularly novel ground in social welfare as compared to, say, Sweden. Perhaps I am mistaken.


Rakesh Bhandari 05.22.13 at 5:23 pm

The best antidote to calculating grades (for three courses in my case, without teaching assistants, but such is the life of a lecturer) is an occasional post here and there.

I am bit skeptical of taking the fashionable affective turn in regards to Hayek, though there is the old stand-by that he understood (though perhaps not explicitly) the morality of the masses in terms of a caricatured Nietzschean theory of ressentiment. The expression of such class bias by Peter Sloterdijk was greeted a few years back by Axel Honneth in a devastating criticism.

The best work that I have read on the emotions and class inequality is by Andrew Sayer.

All that said, it seems to me that Hayek feared emotion more than he appealed to it. He found threatening the raw emotional need for anti-individualistic collectivity that he probably thought was rooted biologically in our deep ethnological past.

He wanted to restrain emotion just as he much as he wanted to cast doubt on the kind of Enlightenment reason that James Scott sees as work in high modernism.

It would seem that the working of common law steers a path between raw emotion and Enlightenment reason, between lawlessness and revolutionary statutory law. The common law is his ideal.

Also interesting is Hayek’s critique of underconsumptionism as the basis of his anti-Keynesianism, but this is for another discussion. He certainly did not think that the brightening of investment prospects depended on the strengthening of final demand in a downturn. But this was actually not a political or Nietzschean argument against economic populism but a properly economically theoretical one.


Rakesh Bhandari 05.22.13 at 5:28 pm

At his excellent website Daniel Little recently wrote in a reflection on Albert Hirschman:

“The central problem, according to Hirschman, was how to control the passions in action. Some theorists came to believe that the only way to control the passions was through the workings of other passions. Here is Spinoza on this idea:

An affect cannot be restrained nor removed unless by an opposed and stronger affect. (kl 294)”


john c. halasz 05.22.13 at 5:41 pm

@ 66:

” Freedom is constraint! ”

But of course, that is not paradoxical, but simply true. “Freedom”, i.e. human agency, is a matter of structured, rule-governed behavior, (since to follow a rule is precisely not to be causally determined). The cross-secting structure of rules do not just constrain or limit, but by the very same token, they render possible. And finitude is an essential mark of all human agency. (The basic model is natural language, which is marvelously flexible, but involves rule-governed constraints to be at all intelligible. Cf. Wittgenstein). “Freedom” is anything but the unfettered absence of constraint. (Libertarians of whatever stripe, take note).


Rakesh Bhandari 05.22.13 at 5:57 pm

Honneth on Sloterdijk’s Nietzscheanism:

He wants to get at something more important, something that shakes our contemporary sense of ourselves to its foundations. What we learn next is that the opposite of the pride that superior beings have at their disposal in the “battle for recognition” is the ressentiment of those who cannot but occupy a subordinate position in the social hierarchy. To rid themselves of the shame of this subordination, the moral values of self-limitation and equal treatment are brought into the world from below. In their light, the members of the successful strata appear as the real failures. To that extent the history of civilisation, as this bald repetition of Nietzsche has it, consists in nothing more than an ever-constant confrontation between life-affirming and life-denying groups, between associations of human beings who enjoy life proudly and those who try to spoil the latter’s vitality.

The single original twist that Sloterdijk gives this well-known doctrine follows from a thought that is actually directed against Nietzsche – the argument that over the past 200 years Christian morality couldn’t have provided the weak with an instrument of ressentiment in their campaign for revenge, since the values and norms that come down to us from early Christianity were, according to Sloterdijk, so “other-worldly in their humanitarianism” that they could never have supplied the starting-point for a spiritual attack on the affluent and privileged. On Sloterdijk’s picture, “philosophical reflection has to begin at a deeper level” if it is to succeed in extracting from the dark haze of historical conflict the values that might actually have served the resentment movements of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries as instruments of artful revenge – you already sense that now the magic formula that Sloterdijk’s meaning-hungry followers have been awaiting for so long is not too far off.

To keep it short: in Sloterdijk’s view, equity and social justice are the moral values and norms that fanatics of equality of the most various colours have inscribed on their banners with the aim of moving the masses to an attack on existing conditions. What we’re supposed to understand here by demands for equality by and large remains vague – what Sloterdijk has in mind however are both the “nationalist” and “internationalist movements” in modern history, the former having sued for social equality exclusively for their respective national populations, the latter attempting to lay claim to it for all the citizens of the globe. From this point, it’s not far to the claim that the world-historical catastrophes of the twentieth century were initiated by the revolts of two “associations of the aggrieved”, with intellectuals playing the part of the new “ministers of world-spiritual hatred”, their knowledge enabling them to use the slogans of a moralistic humanism and organise the product of humiliation and disdain, the spleen of the masses, against the elites. Somehow you feel you’ve already heard all this – you might well think you’re being presented with an amalgam of Gehlen and Ernst Nolte, except that the equation of fascism and socialism and their common derivation from motives of ressentiment and thirst for power comes across here as showier and more slapdash.


Jacob McM 05.22.13 at 7:02 pm

@Gianattasio in 29

this begs the question of why it took almost 2000 years for this supposedly liberal intellectual force to make good on its promise?

I haven’t had time to read all the subsequent responses in this thread, and I’ll address the other points you made later, but I do want to respond to this now because it’s a common objection.

I touched upon this in my original post, though perhaps I should’ve been more clear: the fact that the Church held a near monopoly on the exchange of information until the 16th century meant that it could ensure only interpretations favorable to the status quo became widespread. Once that monopoly is broken, by the printing press and the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, you DO start seeing various liberal, proto-liberal and proto-radical movements appearing on the scene in less than a half century! The “why did take 2000 years to reach this point?” argument doesn’t hold up, and also contains a modern conceit that moral progress and philosophical/intellectual revolutions are things that happens relatively quickly when history demonstrates otherwise.’ Whether moral or scientific, our greatest discoveries and advances are often the by-product of centuries of labor.


Lee A. Arnold 05.22.13 at 7:15 pm

I have to get back to work too, but my comment was not about Hayek’s theory of emotion. It was that he explicitly credited Keynes as the example he followed, in writing popular polemics to sway the mass audience. Milton Friedman said the same thing. In fact I think both of them say so in short interviews that are now on YouTube.

The issue here is about the transmutation of the idea of the Nietzschean Superperson through the last 150 years, and the Hayekian sort of conclusion is that the “spontaneous order” will be the best aid to his/her emergence, in one field or another (or else, that the market system will be the least inhibitory of that emergence). But to me the general conversation (i.e. outside of this comments thread) of the Hayekian ideas should be further along than this.

From the libertarians, we get declarations that the European social democracies will not work in the end, and their “low rates of growth” and elderly demographics will soon give proof of this (and the U.S. etc. are following shortly thereafter). The elites will flee to other shores where they are taxed less, leaving those old countries in even worse shape. Sadly, the EU “austerians” appear to have taken this argument to heart.

Well, there will then be what we might call Galt’s Big Future Problem, of how many shores will remain to flee to. That itself will cause a psychological change, but let’s stick with what is happening now.

The “spontaneous order” is showing a few different problems, itself. The first two are well-anticipated in Schumpeter and K. Polanyi:

1) A big one is that the elites are not always the best and the brightest: far from it. Speak to almost any big Wall Street investor for about an hour and you will find that out. Yes they are good at numerical figures, but otherwise, forget it. A lot of the people who make most of the money in society are NOT Superpeople. These are positional gains, and in the case of finance, which has received around 40% of the total income gain in the last 2o-30 years, it is not even clear that the service provided has led to additional real economic growth for the rest of us. Far from it! So the spontaneous order can reward undeserving people, in any Nietzschean/Hayekian sense of the deserving ones.

2) Another big problem is that we are seeing increased inequality in the developed countries. Yes, capitalism (or just about any economic growth) brings people OUT of poverty in undeveloped countries, but the next trend is that in developed countries, the distribution is becoming more unequal again.

Now there are lots of different possible reasons why inequality is increasing, and they may be concurrent and intermingling: the blanketing of most of our basic needs by mass production technology under small private ownership; the concrescence of modern life into certain physical path dependencies and not others; the aforementioned financialization of the economy; the contingencies of aging demographics + the medical cost curve; etc. etc.

Whatever the reasons, increasing inequality will have two effects: a) it decreases the emergence of the best and the brightest; e.g. a child doesn’t find his/her true calling, or doesn’t get medical treatment in time, or can’t find a good teacher, or is lost in some other way. This is a sort of market systems-failure; a massive “spontaneous order” failure.

And b) developed inequality results in an enormous pressure in favor of the welfare state that is NOT ABOUT to be abated. This remains a major socialist foot-in-the-door, to changes in the social preference. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” It’s a battle-cry like, “Remember the Alamo!”

3) And a new, big, last problem that Schumpeter could not have foreseen is the environmental. Yes we are doing well on some indicators that we were worried about, but there are a few looming large, which, so far, are outpacing social responses, and so may require enormous (and unhappy) state action: climate change, bad crop years, fresh water availability, protection of biodiversity if only for ecosystem services.

I put Hayek aside long ago. He latched onto some early ideas in cybernetics and used them to try to support his previous opinions. Newbies today who start to play with these ideas sometimes latch onto Hayek first, and think they have found the cat’s pajamas.

What we are heading towards instead are polycentric, overlapping institutions, allowing varying degrees of liberty. They target specific problems–i.e. whether large problems (e.g. climate) or small, the focus upon them must be in a sense be narrow–and they must remain flexible and open to change. This understanding requires the definition of institutions from Ronald Coase, and the delineation of the functions and maintenance of institutions from Elinor Ostrom.


Bruce Wilder 05.22.13 at 8:18 pm

Jacob McM @ 78

Why attribute the emergence of an antithesis to the qualities of the thesis, as if the thesis was the antithesis all along?


Bruce Wilder 05.22.13 at 8:25 pm

Hayek’s “spontaneous order”, despite his fog of equivocation and occasional concessions to common sense, is clearly meant to contrast sharply with public “planning”, as if politics, somehow, doesn’t belong to the “spontaneous order”, just as much as private economic activity. The framework is meant to de-legitimize public purposes and deliberate and substantive intent in building public institutions. There are first principles, which can be applied, to disallow deliberate and substantive intent, without the political inconvenience of opposing the substantive public purposes or revealing reprehensible selfishness.


Bruce Wilder 05.22.13 at 8:53 pm

The “increased inequality” meme, in its vaporous abstractness, hides one of the most profound deficiencies in the conservative use of Hayek’s vision.

The issue of income and wealth distribution is, or should be, two-fold: fairness and insurance, not some abstract equality of opportunity or result. The way it is frequently framed on the left is as a personal preference for greater equality, and in this form invites reductio as the absurdity of absolute equality.

Conservative economists won the methodological debate on concepts of fairness, by cramming a combination of pareto optimality and profit maximization under complete information down our throats. A more realistic vision would be parasitic unfairness as the normal outcome of “spontaneous order”. The entrepreneur cannot distinguish profit derived from delivering value from profit from oppressive extraction — it’s all the same. So, we hear about how capitalism is raising living standards in third world countries, and how a building housing sweatshops collapsing killing hundreds, and we’re not supposed to make a connection.

In the conservative vision, the capitalist entrepreneur is a far-sighted captain of commerce or industry, concerned to preserve reputation and in it for the long-run. We can trust Jamie Dimon to run an out-sized bank, because he’s a smart, profit-maximizer, who can be trusted to know all that can be known and use excellent judgment. If there’s a problem, it is because government is offering small depositers, insurance — a guarantee, which “distorts” the incentives of the great profit-maximizing capitalists. A dramatic narrative spins out, in which gov’t and ill-conceived public purposes and public planning makes things worse, from a baseline of spontaneous goodness.

Ultimately, there’s no other use for purely financial wealth than as insurance, and the primary ways to increase the profitability of insurance are predatory: increase the buffeting of risk, by adding financial risk to the ordinary risks of life. Medical insurance without medical bankruptcy is no fun! Banking without bank failures is no way to strip the middle class of their savings! Stock bubbles, where the smart money exits to short positions in a timely fashion is a hedge fund’s dream; if the short position is structured to draw more of the rubes into losses, so much the better!

But, any policy intervention is going to be pareto-suboptimal, threatening “innovation”! The “real” problem is regulation and the effect of government policy is subsidizing TBTF.

And, all these arguments that make it so difficult to escape neoliberalism start with Hayek and Friedman. OK, they don’t start there, but they become really potent, with the polemics of Hayek and, then, Friedman.


jonnybutter2 05.22.13 at 9:49 pm


” Freedom is constraint! “

But of course, that is not paradoxical, but simply true. “Freedom”, i.e. human agency, is a matter of structured, rule-governed behavior, (since to follow a rule is precisely not to be causally determined).

Your faith is built on a mighty rock, sir. Some of us would not accept some of your premises, which you are of course welcome to having. But you aren’t deducing anything.

The short rebuttal is: no, the statement, surely, is not simply true, any more than ‘slavery is a lack of constraint’ is simply true.

BTW, I don’t believe I said that “‘(F)reedom’ is anything but the unfettered absence of constraint.” Structure can enable, of course (I’m a composer, and know that very well – you understand rules and structure as well as you are able so you can break them). But structure is not the thing (freedom) itself. Correlation vs causation. Structure can disable too.


jonnybutter2 05.22.13 at 9:51 pm

arg. messed up the italics. My statement begins with ‘Your faith…’


john c. halasz 05.23.13 at 12:36 am

@ 83:


I used to like to pose to right-libertarians, (“properitarians”), the question: how is human agency, a.k.a. “freedom”, possible in a causally determined world? It’s a nice crux with which to purge magical thinking and “metaphysical” impossibilities on the matter. (As if “freedom” were a spirit-ditty that descends from the heavens and somehow infuses one’s interiority).

You can choose to attempt an answer to that question as you please, and you don’t have to accept the sort of account that I would give, but you do have to honestly address rather than evade the question.

Of course, there are some caveats. 1) One could attempt the trick of re-defining the expanandum to suit one’s preferred explanans. So specifying the markers of human agency as a real phenomenon, by which it is to be delimited and identified, is part of the problem. But appeals to noumenal “realities” don’t qualify. and 2) the first person solipsistic perspective is wholly inadequate for addressing the question. (The ambiguity of Kantian appeals to “spontaneity” is a case in point).

And one should distinguish between two distinct propositions: A) norms and values can not be predicated of beings or agents who are not in some sense, however notionally, “free”; and B) “freedom” is the supreme good or value, sine qua non, which grounds or derives all other goods or values. The former indicates why “freedom” might have some especial value. The latter, aside from being question-begging or requiring further justificatory burdens, tends to be on a slippery slope toward…

But I never said that constraints can’t be excessive and oppressive, just as well as deficient and impoverished. “Freedom” would be a more-or-less local optimum between the two. And the rules in question are not only complexly inter-meshed, but are floppy rubber ruler sorts of rules, not iron straight-edge ruler rules, since otherwise they would lack the flexibility/adaptability to do their job. (Natural language here is the “model” partly by direct overlap, partly by analogy). Intentions, in turn, can be understood as a kind of nodal gathering of the underlying systems of (micro-)rules, with the latter at once more extensive, but more impoverished than the former. But where do those rules comes from and how are they acquired, however unconsciously? Ultimately they must be generated by communicative interaction across the world by organisms with sufficient equipped brains.

But you’ve also confused the issue of constraints with the issue of coercion. Hence the bog standard evocation of slavery. Though I think, given that we are embodied and bodily beings, the notion that coercion can be entirely eliminated from human relations is questionable. (But that doesn’t mean that coercion = violence = an intolerable violation of “free will” as right-libertarians would have it. In fact, I think that such-like are not really motivated by any concern for “freedom”, but rather, via their hyperbolic account of it, by a desire to impose “discipline” on others).

Rules are made to be broken, as the saying goes. And structures break down and re-form. That recurrence is a prime “mechanism” of socio-cultural development, which increases the scope of interpretive capacities. Though matters that were once intelligible/possible become no longer so, even as matters that are inconceivable/impossible might become possible/intelligible. There are no meta-rules governing that process.

Since you’re a musician, I’ll put it this way. Schoenberg, following what he perceived to by an immanent musical “logic” pushed into atonality. And then what? He felt constrained to devise a set of rules to conserve his “discovery”. Though, pace Nietzsche, I don’t think that artistic creativity is the best way to address these issues.


LFC 05.23.13 at 1:12 am

I used to like to pose to right-libertarians, (“properitarians”), the question: how is human agency, a.k.a. “freedom”, possible in a causally determined world?

And the right-libertarian could reply, presumably, that s/he doesn’t think the world is “causally determined.” And that wd be that.


john c. halasz 05.23.13 at 2:15 am


Yeah, that’s another parameter of the “crux”: what conception of causality are you using? Deterministic or stochastic? I myself lean toward stochastic accounts, (especially when it comes to brain processes), but in no case is it a question of an absence of physical causality. In which case such a right-libertarian response would be right up there with “creation science”. Which was my point: dumb-asses!


UserGoogol 05.23.13 at 2:29 am

I don’t understand how following a rule makes you not causally determined. The rule is just another cause thrown onto the pile of factors which causes my meatbag body to do whatever it is it does. I tend to think of freedom as the ability to do what you want. I am free to do something if, had I wanted to do it, then I would do it. Good old compatibilism extended into the social realm. You need some sort of cognitive structure to give people enough of a psychology to have desires in the first place, (and you can split hairs quite a lot over what exactly we mean by what “I” want, since the self is somewhat of a blurrily defined entity) but I don’t see why people would need to follow structured rule-governed behavior on top of that.

Of course, this conception of freedom is extremely different from the traditional libertarian formulation, since many things I’d like to do but find myself incapable of doing are not because of any active coercion.


john c. halasz 05.23.13 at 5:44 am


Well, at least it’s good to know that your cellular differentiation has not evolved past the level of meat.


mittelwerk 05.23.13 at 6:54 am

nature is not a market, anymore than evolution is progressive. if this error is being made here, it’s being made on marx’s account.

far less is nietzsche’s concept of nature a market. markets are purely quantitative. to austrians they mean: price determination. that’s it. this, out of its own logic, is said to generate greater efficiencies and growth and hence net benefit for all, as contained in the concept of utility. already, as should be apparent, we are very far from nietzsche. the “best” is never said, in hayek, to triumph as a result of market forces. that is not the point. results are based on economics and hence chance — not natural gradation in ability, reflected by cultural rank.

strauss hews to nietzsche, not hayek. it is nature that produces philosophers and artists — nature which can produce mutants and monstrosities (by design). markets only produces quantitatively demanded philosophy and art, almost the definition of what nietzsche would call degraded philosophy and art.

even any vague comparo of the notion of authoritarian rule between the two doesn’t pan out. hayek promotes anti-democracy to preserve economic liberalism, a weird negative of the schmittean state. one cannot even conceive of what would constitute the complementary nietzschean argument: a defense of political power on behalf of the powerless.

a philosophic reading of hayek sans a complementary economic reading of nietzsche. typical. amazes me why anyone takes robin’s cheap shots at “reactionary” thinkers seriously.


Tim Wilkinson 05.23.13 at 10:31 am

jch – What is under discussion is not the metaphysics of freewill but freedom – as in the thing of which Berlin tried and failed to distinguish ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ varieties.

A bit more of von H’s gibberish on the latter topic:

The importance of freedom, therefore, does not depend on the elevated character of the activities it makes possible. Freedom of action, even in humble things, is as important as freedom of thought. It has become a common practice to disparage freedom of action by calling it “economic liberty.”17 But the concept of freedom of action is much wider than that of economic liberty, which it includes; and, what is more important, it is very questionable whether there are any actions which can be called merely “economic” and whether any restrictions on liberty can be confined to what are called merely “economic” aspects. Economic considerations are merely those by which we reconcile and adjust our different purposes, none of which, in the last resort, are economic (excepting those of the miser or the man for whom making money has become an end in itself).18

This is the closest Hayek seems to get to actually thrashing out what is entailed by ‘freedom’ in this context. (Most of the time in this section he is happy to use the term as though it meant ‘lots of people doing lots of different stuff’ as his argument requires, but of course the general plan is to palm us off with a load of private property rights as the vehicle of ‘freedom’.) So on the key question of wtf he is talking about when he says ‘freedom’, and how if at all this is related to private property rights and all that jazz, we get 2/3rds of a paragraph. It is hard to overstate just how shite this is, in a book which is purportedly a scholarly work of political and legal philosophy.

As for the content, it is so bad it’s incredibly hard to criticise – the phrase ‘not even wrong’ is pretty apt here. The passage starts by setting up a spurious ultra-stoical opponent who believes only in ‘freedom of thought’, with no concern for freedom of action. What on earth is he going on about?

It has become a common practice to disparage freedom of action by calling it “economic liberty.”

That’s what. But those who ‘disparage’ so-called ‘economic liberty’ do not do so because what they really want to attack is freedom of action. Von H concedes this by immediately pointing out that freedom of action comprehends things other than ‘economic liberty’. What, I should think, these unnamed disparagers were actually doing was attacking what only von H and his ilk call ‘economic liberty’, which is actually a matter of property rules and the incidents of a contingent institution of ownership – the right to the income, all that – and not liberty at all.

But the concept of freedom of action is much wider than that of economic liberty, which it includes

Well, as above, and remembering to scare-quote ‘economic liberty’, we can agree with what this, via Leibnitz’s law, implies: that the two are not identical. I very much doubt that anyone, least of all von H’s unnamed opponents, would have claimed they are. Comparisons of ‘wideness’ are a bit tricky and of little interest, though, since, also as above, ‘economic liberty’ is not in fact included in freedom of action.

(Just out of interest, cf. a later bit of Hayek’s excruciating excursus into political/legal philosophy, with added historical pretensions: during the classical period of Roman law it was fully understood that there is no conflict between law and freedom and that freedom is dependent upon certain attributes of the law, its generality and certainty, and the restrictions it places on the discretion of authority. This classical period was also a period of complete economic freedom, to which Rome largely owed its prosperity and power. – So ‘no conflict between law and freedom’, and ‘complete economic freedom’, but also slavery.)


Tim Wilkinson 05.23.13 at 10:31 am

Back to the passage from TCoL:
it is very questionable whether there are any actions which can be called merely “economic” and whether any restrictions on liberty can be confined to what are called merely “economic” aspects. This is, I suppose, just about capable of being made consistent with the idea that ‘econ. lib.’ is ‘included’ in, and narrower than, freedom of action. But this continues to pretend that what capitalists get up to, or waged employees for that matter, is specifiable just in terms of ordinary actions without legal ramification. It’s the usual conservative-romantic idea that capitalist ‘economic activity’ is continuous with homely actions such as sowing some seeds on a conveniently ‘unowned’ bit of wasteland, or playing basketball, or what-have-you. The “selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property”, to coin a phrase. (cf. the propensity to truck and barter, etc.)

Economic considerations are merely those by which we reconcile and adjust our different purposes, none of which, in the last resort, are economic (excepting those of the miser or the man for whom making money has become an end in itself). – But ‘economic liberty’ not being a species of freedom of action at all, it is not really a matter of identifying certain actions as ‘merely’ economic, and certainly not of banning certain kinds of actions as always purely economic. Though it is in fact possible to identify certain actions as carried out for purely economic purposes – those which are performed in pursuit of profit rather than for their own sake. The fact that money is usually desired instrumentally doesn’t make any difference – though of course the super-rich class of ‘gentlemen of independent means’ are the most likely to end up pursuing pecuniary profit for no further reason, which imparts quite a bit of irony to von H’s throwaway caveat at the end.

And of course there is no question of needing to actively prohibit such ‘economic activities’ – altering the legal framework so that they are no longer profitable removes the motivation to perform them – if and insofar as they are purely economic in this sense. And actually, this would seem to be exactly what Hayek would want to argue against under the rubric of defending economic liberty – but he is now basically saying there’s no such thing as ‘economic liberty’, only undifferentiated ‘freedom of action’ – which just happens to be the freedom of action of those who have the resources and proclivities requisite for engagement in capitalist ventures. In reality, iof the aim is to stimulate new developments by increased activity using scarce resources, one might well suppopse that distributing those resources far more widely would be the way to go, rather than leaving it all to a hereditary class of aristocrats (inbreeding, in the literal sense, is a known problem in small hereditary elites; it would certainly seem to apply in metaphorical ‘memetic’ terms.)

The idiocy does not end with this failure to acknowledge the enabling – indeed constitutive – role of property rights etc. in the ‘actions’ involved in commercial enterprises. Nowhere here is there any recognition of the fact that freedom of action is rivalrous, and that laws governing it so as to minimise conflict involve substantive choices privileging some kinds of action over others. Still less is there any acknowledgement that this rivalry is especially pronounced where actions involve extensive use of resources. We just have this generic ‘freedom of action’ and a claim that all sorts of other stuff falling under the rubric of ‘economic activity’ is a kind of freedom of action, and so commingled with non-economic activity that we couldn’t separate them if we tried.

This hasn’t really got us past “if we were to prevent all that we disliked, the unforeseen good things that might be thus prevented would probably outweigh the bad.” And it’s worse – since we are talking about welfare consequences, it’s not a matter of ‘preventing’ in any strong sense, but of precluding. Hayek wants maximal doing of stuff – action – to furnish us with the mutations from which the elite can select (see my ##42-3 above). So we shouldn’t preclude the doing of stuff by anyone, by for example failing to preclude the doing of rivalrous stuff by someone else. But of course that’s stupid.

The fact is that Hayek assumes that the doing of lots of stuff is going to occur primarily in the course of business activity by ‘gentlemen of independent means’ – the elite – and this is supposedly enough, though we are given no good reason to suppose so, to satisfy the imperative to ‘freedom’ provided by the Iron Law of The Good Probably Outweighing the Bad.

And on top of all that, and just to reconnect with the Nietzschian analogy (though I personally think this is a distraction and an easy target for counterargument), such a process of mutation and selection is of course, like biological evolution, endless and aimless – called ‘progress’ only by stipulation. (see again ##42-3: a progressive society, while it relies on this process of learning and imitation, recognizes the desires it creates only as a spur to further effort. It does not guarantee the results to everyone.) maybe not the will to power exactly, but certainly a kindred fetishisation of means.


Tim Wilkinson 05.23.13 at 10:37 am

Just to refer back to the evo-bollocks ref’d in my ##42-3, recall von H seemed to want to claim that memetic mutations in the practical or technical realm arise primarily from the (studiedly underspecified) ‘spontaneous order’ which as Bruce points out is meant to mean ‘market’ activity. In the paragraph before the one I’ve just discussed, von H also seems to claim that ‘mutations’ in the theoretical realm also arise primarily from this source (though he placates objectors at the end with a judicious correctio, as if all he is really saying is that there needs to be some freedom of action rather than merely stoical freedom of thought).

The manner in which we have learned to order our day, to dress, to eat, to arrange our houses, to speak and write, and to use the countless other tools and implements of civilization, no less than [sic] the “know-how” of production and trade, furnishes us constantly with the foundations on which our own contributions to the process of civilization must be based. And it is in the new use and improvement of whatever the facilities of civilization offer us that the new ideas arise that are ultimately handled in the intellectual sphere. Though the conscious manipulation of abstract thought, once it has been set in train, has in some measure a life of its own, it would not long continue and develop without the constant challenges that arise from the ability of people to act in a new manner, to try new ways of doing things, and to alter the whole structure of civilization in adaptation to change. The intellectual process is in effect only a process of elaboration, selection, and elimination of ideas already formed. And the flow of new ideas, to a great extent, springs from the sphere in which action, often non-rational action, and material events impinge upon each other. It would dry up if freedom were confined to the intellectual sphere.

And as already pointed out, von H has in mind the same rich, leisured elite for the role of selective breeder in both cases, too:

However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of a free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs. There is something seriously lacking in a society in which all the intellectual, moral, and artistic leaders belong to the employed class, especially if most of them are in the employment of the government. Yet we are moving everywhere toward such a position. Though the freelance writer and artist and the professions of law and medicine still provide some independent leaders of opinion, the great majority of those who ought to provide such a lead-the learned
in the sciences and humanities-are today in employed positions, in most countries in the employment of the state. 8 There has been a great change in this respect since the nineteenth century, when gentlemen-scholars [etc]…

…A wealthy class that is in part a leisured class will be interspersed with more than the average proportion of scholars and statesmen, literary figures and artists. It was through their intercourse in their own circle with such men who shared their style of life, that in the past the wealthy men of affairs were able to take part in the movement of ideas and in the discussions that shaped opinion. To the European observer, who cannot help being struck by the apparent helplessness of what in America is still sometimes regarded as its ruling class, it would seem that this is largely due to the fact that its traditions have prevented the growth of a leisured group within it, of a group that uses the independence which wealth gives for purposes other than those vulgarly called economic. This lack of a cultural elite within the propertied class, however, is also now apparent in Europe, where the combined effects of inflation and taxation have mostly destroyed the old and prevented the rise of a new leisured group.


Andrew F. 05.23.13 at 11:29 am

Consum way back @29:

Hayek’s point is that, often, before a new political idea is adopted by the public, that idea is promulgated and advocated by a committed minority. The public decides, but obviously the public cannot know before the efforts of that minority which new political ideas ought be adopted; if the public did, it would already have adopted them. In other words, political progress often depends on the existence of a small group of determined individuals who are willing to make their case again and again to the larger society, who in turn may at first reject them. Very Margaret Mead of Hayek, really.

Bruce @ 81 writes: Hayek’s “spontaneous order”, despite his fog of equivocation and occasional concessions to common sense, is clearly meant to contrast sharply with public “planning”, as if politics, somehow, doesn’t belong to the “spontaneous order”, just as much as private economic activity.

Worth quoting John Gray’s essay for a different emphasis:

In Hayek’s conception, we are not bound to accept the historical body of social rules just as we find it: it may be reformed in order to improve the chances of the unknown man’s achieving his goals. It will be seen that this is a maximizing conception, but not one that represents utility as a sort of neutral stuff, a container of intrinsic value whose magnitude may vary. Indeed, in taking as the point of comparison an hypothesized unknown individual, Hayek’s conception (as he recognizes[75]) parallels John Rawls’ model of rational choice behind a veil of ignorance as presented in Rawls’ Theory of Justice.


jonnybutter2 05.23.13 at 1:50 pm

I used to like to pose to right-libertarians, (“properitarians”), the question: how is human agency, a.k.a. “freedom”, possible in a causally determined world?

You are an fun guy, obviously!

Thanks for your response.

It is not clear to me, nor to others probably, precisely what is meant by ‘causally determined’, and it doesn’t matter if you ‘tend to lean towards stochastic accounts’. It’s not a settled issue. I am not evading the question, I just don’t have the answer. In a paradox, terms conflict in some sense. You said the phrase ‘freedom is constraint’ is not a paradox but simply true. You didn’t say that constraint can foster human agency, or even that constraint is necessary but not sufficient for freedom or agency; you didn’t say that freedom is a ‘balance’. What you said was: freedom = human agency, and human agency = constraint. You haven’t shown that and I don’t think you can show it.

I only complain about this because of all the post-modern, authoritarianism-justifying silliness in this vein, on both the (putative) left and the right. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree vis a vis you, but I think it’s worth being vigilant about the lingering trend of turning human agency into a Groucho Marx joke.

I certainly believe that my original point is worth making: paradox is very powerful, and the libero-authoritarian project is practically *made* of it.


Bruce Wilder 05.23.13 at 6:07 pm

“Causal determinism is, roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature. . . . The roots of the notion of determinism surely lie in a very common philosophical idea: the idea that everything can, in principle, be explained, or that everything that is, has a sufficient reason for being and being as it is, and not otherwise.” Carl Hoefer, Causal Determinism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, with its discovery of so-called physical laws, exemplified by Newton’s Laws, gave a great impetus to the idea of determinism, and to what has to be among the most sterile debates in philosophy, free will v. determinism. Newton’s model of the solar system, governed by calculable gravity and inertia, inspired the fanciful notion of a clockwork universe — a favorite of the Deists — but scientific analysis also facilitated the replacement of esoteric craft knowledge with technological innovation. Human power was amplified by analytic understanding and the “obedience” of human machines to the Laws of Nature. The constraints represented by Newton’s principles — conservation of energy, mass and momentum — could, for example, allow you to derive by analysis the laws of aerodynamics, and you could build a machine that made appropriate use of those constraints, which would give to humans the power, and freedom, to fly.

The paradox of constraint as the means of freedom — if it be a paradox — is as old as Archimedes recognizing that the power of his machine, his lever, required a place to stand. But, the scientific revolution prompted a wholesale replacement of symbolic storytelling with functional analysis. It was, as Nietzsche recognized, as momentous a spiritual development as the birth of tragedy, when men first began to recognize that their fates were in their own palsied hands, and not the whims of unseen gods and demons — that character was destiny, as Oedipus showed and could not face. Notions like the Will to Power and Eternal Recurrence are part of Nietzsche’s meditation on the consequences of this new and further disenchantment, this Death of God, which lay as the foundation of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Knowledge of Fact and Value, in this disenchanted world, is made deeply problematic by the intrusion of the pragmatic standards of science qua technology. If you don’t know what you are doing, the consequences of what you do are, essentially, random. Random is what you don’t know and cannot control, the new Terra Incognita, the tragic accident marking the limits of hubris.

If you meet the constraints of nature, accept nature’s implacable, indifferent determinacy, in lieu of trying to please or placate non-existent gods with sacrifice, you have power.


Anderson 05.23.13 at 7:42 pm

“If you meet the constraints of nature, accept nature’s implacable, indifferent determinacy, in lieu of trying to please or placate non-existent gods with sacrifice, you have power.”

Thus Spake Spinoza.


Niall McAuley 05.23.13 at 8:19 pm

“If you meet the constraints of nature” on the road, kill them!


Harold 05.23.13 at 8:55 pm

They will most likely kill you and you will qualify for a Darwin award!


GiT 05.23.13 at 9:13 pm

” during the classical period of Roman law it was fully understood that there is no conflict between law and freedom and that freedom is dependent upon certain attributes of the law, its generality and certainty, and the restrictions it places on the discretion of authority. This classical period was also a period of complete economic freedom”

Thanks for that quote TW, it’s quite funny! (I remark in earnest). How pompous and overreaching. The period had complete freedom! Everyone knew this! Obviously!


Consumatopia 05.23.13 at 9:38 pm

I did misunderstand Hayek’s point about public opinion, as Andrew F. points out, but I’ve still got a problem with his defense of inherited wealth. He assumes the strongest challenges to majority consensus will come from an idle class that inherited its wealth. He even goes so far as to argue that if such a class didn’t already exist, we should select people at random and and give them enough money to create such a class.

I don’t find this at all plausible–my suspicion is that stronger challenges would come from giving the underprivileged enough resources to find a voice and build movements for themselves. The strongest challenges to the status quo would come from those least satisfied with it, those who had the least opportunity to shape it in the first place.


Bruce Wilder 05.23.13 at 10:02 pm

Anderson @ 97

One of these days, I’ll get wound up about reflexive overdetermination in social causality, and things really will get confused. ;-)


Tim Wilkinson 05.23.13 at 10:16 pm

But Consumatopia, what about art? Without wealthy men of affairs indulging in intercourse in their own circle with such men who shared their style of life, where would the artists come from? Not to mention the scholars, statesmen and literary figures. Philistine!


john c. halasz 05.23.13 at 10:16 pm


“, precisely what is meant by ‘causally determined’,”

What? Causality is a schema by which we order the understanding of events, regardless if we know the specific causes in operation or not. But the operation of physical causes is understood to be pervasive in the world, no? It’s only a question of whether “meaning” itself can be meaningfully reduced to causal terms, but not a question of their being ever an absence of a substrate of physical causes.

You do understand that natural language operates through a pervasive structure of rules, even as those rules are largely inaccessible to conscious reflection, that one can say a great deal in such a language, but only by following out the constraints o such rules, because at bottom those rules are constitutive and not merely regulatory, (i.e. no such rules, no such language), eh? Of course, mis-fires and mis-cues occur all the time in human communicative interaction, by they are due precisely to failure in the operation of those rules.

So what the connection between language and agency. Animal organism are self-regulating causal organizations that delimit themselves from an environment and on the basis of that relative closure, intervene causally in environmental state-of-affairs/chains-of-events, with whatever senses and appendages they are endowed with. But that’s not agency, “freedom”, merely animal motility, and the case there is the same for you as for your cat. And animals can only react to environmental events/affairs or cycles thereof. It’s only when there is natural language and the symbolic thinking to enables and carries, that environmental events/affairs can be interpreted against a horizon of counter-factual possibilities and one such possibility can be deliberate selected and implemented. Which is the root of the phenomenon we call “human agency”, a.k.a. “freedom”. Now the exercise of agency involves the acquisition of skills and know-hows that are not reducible to the structured rule-systems involved in speaking and understanding a language. By my claim is that such additional capacities are just as much a matter of internally structured rule-systems analogous to those involved in linguistic behavior and that to exercise agency is to act on the basis of some sort of understanding: hence it’s partly a matter of direct overlap and partly an matter of analogous structure. (It doesn’t matter in the first instance whether the interpretive understanding of an agent is a particularly good or accurate one: in some cultures, sacrificing children to appease the gods could be considered a “free” act. Nor is there ever any ultimate guarantee that our interpretive understandings exactly correspond to whatever would be the case in the independent external world. Though most of our interpretations and their background assumptions would have a t least a well-worn pragmatic adequacy).

One further implication needs to be emphasized. Language always and everywhere, directly or indirectly, involves a relation to an other, as that which is invoked and addressed. So likewise, human agency is always bound up in relations with others. So it is as much a collective as an individual matter. Which is one reason that questions about “freedom” are not well addressed by starting from the first-person solipsistic perspective and its alleged self-evidence.

Tim Wilkinson @ 91:

Sorry. I don’t mean to derail the thread. I was just tempted to respond to a silly comment someone made. I don’t know why.

Still, providing a realistic non-reductive, non-metaphysical account of human agency as a limited, finite phenomenon is of some usefulness when confronting and dealing with either hyperbolic, (e.g. self-creation), or excessively individualistic conceptions of “freedom”. (Of course, “free will” is an archaic metaphysical conception and there is no need to understand matters of human agency in such terms, even if it might still have currency with some people).

I prefer to talk simply in terms of human agency rather than “freedom” because “freedom” is an abstraction that can be attached to a bewildering variety of entities, (states, corporations, works of art, or whatnot), generally for ideological purposes. And “freedom” is assumed to be self-evidently tantamount to the good, even the one supreme good. Who after all does not want to be “free” and “liberated”? But to my mind, human agency, like human equality, is more of a fact than a value. Or, at least, that is how I would construe the justificatory burdens.


john c. halasz 05.23.13 at 10:19 pm

GIT @100:

David Graeber discussed how the conception of “liberty” as unrestrained “negative” freedom goes back to the institution of slave-holding in Roman law.


Wonks Anonymous 05.24.13 at 4:36 pm

“He even goes so far as to argue that if such a class didn’t already exist, we should select people at random and and give them enough money to create such a class.”
That’s very funny. It almost makes me want to reconsider my decision not to read Hayek in the original.
Did Hayek ever write anything about lotteries? What would he think of the “Lotto Lout” “King of Chavs”?


Anderson 05.24.13 at 4:52 pm

“we should select people at random and and give them enough money to create such a class”

Highly-targeted helicopter cash drops?


Bruce Wilder 05.25.13 at 1:00 am

we should also select people at random, and destroy their lives, to encourage the rest, as they say.

(Oh wait, we already do that!)


LFC 05.25.13 at 6:04 am

This is way off-topic, but it just struck me that I don’t think I’ve ever seen Roberto Unger’s name mentioned on CT, either in a post or in comments — but I’m not taking the time to check via the search box. A bit odd, perhaps, given the interests and political orientations of some CT’ers.


Bruce Wilder 05.25.13 at 9:02 am

I wielded Google site search and got 24 hits, going back to 2004.


engels 05.25.13 at 10:27 am

This is way off-topic, but it just struck me that I don’t think I’ve ever seen Roberto Unger’s name mentioned on CT, either in a post or in comments — but I’m not taking the time to check via the search box. A bit odd, perhaps, given the interests and political orientations of some CT’ers.

Even more OT but surely the time needed to do that is less than the time it took to type your comment?


John Quiggin 05.25.13 at 12:49 pm

Actually, I think most of those searches are finding “hunger”.


Substance McGravitas 05.25.13 at 3:17 pm


Rakesh Bhandari 05.25.13 at 4:16 pm

Unger’s writing and video talks are available at his website. Found provocative his critique of Keynesians for responding to the 2008 crisis with only conventional fiscal and monetary tools while the ending of the Great Depression showed that deeper institutional reforms were necessary. Perhaps he had Galbraith’s experience with war-time planning in mind, but there was no real specificity on what more radical institutional reforms he had in mind, as I recall the talk.
On another point: it does not follow that institutional arrangements, even if they are not grounded in nature or God, do not pose objective constraints on the possibility of action. I don’t doubt that Unger understands this well, but sometimes his writings give me the impression that all he thinks that really stands in the way of the radical institutional experimentalism for which he calling is ignorance of his activist or pragmatic philosophy which strips away our belief in the fixity of our characters and the necessity of our institutions. That is, Unger seems overly idealistic to me at times, but he writes boldly, and I never finish a piece of his without having been provoked into thought.


Bruce Wilder 05.26.13 at 6:23 pm

On economics, Unger seems to me to be entirely conventional in his critiques. It may be that Unger gains the confidence to boldly cast his views into declarative sentences, by relying on such conventional and widely repeated, widely accepted critiques, but I don’t see the revolutionary fervor, that might make something of them.

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