The truth in Hayek

(Washington, DC) You are reading English; I am writing it. English has elaborate rules and conventions. You can break the rules, but that has consequences beyond your control. Mess up your grammar in a job interview and you may not get the position. On the other hand, talk very formally in a dorm hallway and you may come across as a geek.

English also has many limitations. There are things for which we lack words. There are words without rhymes. There are words that sound awkward together. Using the language can be a struggle for people at any level of proficiency. It was a struggle for Shakespeare, as you can sense when you see him trying to convey ideas that had never been said before in his language.

Yet hardly anyone experiences the rules and limitations of English as an infringement on liberty. Why not?

  1. No individual or committee designed the language. Its limitations, therefore, are not the result of anyone’s will. Not being able to express something in English is like not being able to run at 60 miles/hour: a constraint, but not an example of coercion, because no one is coercing you.
  2. No one can change the language wholesale. We can work to change it, one piece at a time. In my lifetime, “man” has ceased to mean “human being.” That change is a result of deliberate argument and advocacy. But it’s a change of one word, and it required lots of voluntary agreement to become a new norm.
  3. Language is predicable. Within any linguistic context, the rules-in-use (not necessarily the official rules written down in grammar books) are quite stable. Change is gradual. Therefore, we can usually predict how a listener will understand a given phrase. Its predictability makes language a tool for intentional agents, something that we can plan to use for our own ends.

Friedrich von Hayek admires emergent systems. They are “complex and orderly and, in a very definite sense, purposive institutions [that] owe very little to design” (Constitution of Liberty, p. 58). Each system is a “self -maintaining whole which is kept going by forces which we cannot replace.” (p. 70). It is “not invented but arose from the actions of many men who did not know what they are doing.” (pp. 58-9). It demonstrates “organic, slow, half-conscious growth” versus “intelligent men coming together for deliberation about how to make the world anew” (pp. 56-7).

Hayek sees an intrinsic link between emergent systems and liberty, for the three reasons numbered above. Another advantage of emergent systems is that they avoid human cognitive limitations. They create complexity without relying on anyone’s brainpower to design the whole system well.

Hayek thinks of markets as emergent systems, and that is why he is associated with the political right. He opposes the idea of “social justice” (p. 65), arguing that to assess a complex system according to your own idea of justice is actually antisocial. You are substituting your opinion for what a whole society has created through emergent processes, such as market exchange.

I disagree with this important strand in Hayek. I view markets as substantially the products of political power and intentional design, in the form of laws that create and structure economic activity. I also view modern markets as the domain of large corporations that are run by (more or less) “intelligent men coming together for deliberation.” For instance, the online marketplace is not just an emergent system but an archipelago of designed islands (Amazon, Google, Facebook, the App Store). Finally, I don’t think that liberty, in Hayek’s sense, is the only important good. So even when markets do meet Hayek’s criteria of emergence and thus generate liberty (in his sense), I’m not satisfied if they are also deeply unequal, destructive, or inhumane. Note that Hayek may agree on this point (p. 18).

Having noted my disagreement with Hayek on the question of markets, I would like to underline the value of his overall view. Even with respect to economics, it is important to recognize the link between markets and liberty in the specifically Hayekian sense. His argument is not that markets offer negative liberty (freedom to do what you want), nor that they guarantee happiness or prosperity. His argument is that markets allow you to form and implement your own plans, which is a form of liberty. There is considerable truth to this position.

Besides, markets are not the only examples of emergent systems, and not the purest or best ones. Consider indigenous human cultures that are deeply embedded in natural ecosystems. The people who admire such examples and want to conserve them against the imperialistic forces of science and the state are typically on the left. Here I am not only talking about hunter-gatherer societies in distant rainforests. Plenty of leftish Americans will regard an elaborate but fragile community, like Boston’s Chinatown, as a valuable emergent system and will strongly oppose planning that disrupts it. So you can be a left-Hayekian.

Another example is the Internet. Today it is dominated by such large designed platforms as Amazon. But I remember when it emerged with very simple, very stable protocols that allowed maximum scope for creativity. The result was beautifully Hayekian, in contrast to the planned network of the telephone company. The fact that it has evolved to be dominated by multi-billion-dollar companies with centrally planned algorithms is an argument against Hayek’s pro-market complacency. The market has undermined Hayekian values. Still, the best response is to make the Internet more of an emergent system through rules like net-neutrality—not to try to design the content of the World Wide Web.

Finally, I tend to agree with Hayek’s view of ethics. Moral rules are, “next to language … the most important instance of an undesigned growth.” We observe them because of their consequences even though we do not know what their consequences will be (p. 67). That makes sense given human fallibility. Hayek rejects the Socratic ideal of questioning everything. “This givenness of the value framework implies that, although we must always strive to improve our institutions, we can never aim to remake them as a whole and that, in our efforts to improve them, we must take for granted much that we do not understand” (p. 63). Habermas uses the word “givenness” in exactly the same way when he also argues for criticizing values one at a time, never wholesale. Here the Austrian School and the Frankfurt School coincide.

[See also:  Lifeworld and System: a primerit’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedFoucault and neoliberalism]

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.