hayek and the edge of libertarian reason
I recently had the opportunity to read a whole boat load of F.A. Hayek. Constitution of Liberty; The Use of Knowledge in Society; Law, Legislation and Liberty; and more. This in depth rereading of Hayek helped me resolve a certain sociological puzzle concerning the Austrian economist’s reputation. How could he be the patron saint of laissez-faire while saying very nice things about welfare states and attracting positive commentary from a range of liberal and radical thinkers, such as Foucault?
Here is my answer: I think Hayek’s work resides on a boundary between libertarian social theory and modern liberalism. I’m going to argue that Hayek is the least libertarian you can be and still be, sort of, a libertarian. Because he is not a libertarian in the modern sense of grounding things strongly in terms of individual rights, it’s easy for non-libertarians to find a connection.
Exhibit A: Hayek never lays out a theory of freedom based on individual rights the way many libertarians do. For example, in Constitution of Liberty, he doesn’t start with natural rights and he doesn’t start with a utilitarian justification of freedom. Rather, for him, freedom is about autonomy. Given certain choices, does someone have a sphere of independent judgment free from coercion from others? Thus, this version of freedom is compatible with state policies that try to increase this private sphere of judgment. Also, he frequently emphasizes equality under the law and rule of law as prime virtues, even if they don’t enhance freedom in the everyday sense of the word.
Exhibit B: The Road to Serfdom. It’s a text that is more talked about than read. But if you read it, you discover that it is not an argument against every single form of state intervention. Rather, it’s mainly an argument against Soviet style command economies and Westerners who want to nationalize various industries in the name of equality. Secondarily, he also wants to reign in state regulators who wish to wish to coerce people for their own bureaucratically determined goals.
Exhibit C: In other writings, he endorsed a basic income. And he does argue for the legitimacy of taxation. See Matt Zwolinski’s essay on this topic. He argues that these policies were likely justified for Hayek because they increase personal autonomy (see Exhibit A) and I think they were ok in Hayek’s view because they were less about top down ordering of the economy or administrative tyranny and more about allocating resources to everyone in ways that could help them expand their freedom (Exhibit B).
Exhibit D: Spontaneous order theory. Basically, a whole lot of Hayek’s later social theory is about arguing why social structures can still work and are desirable if they are not top down command structures. That doesn’t lead immediately to libertarianism because you can have spontaneous order that has nothing to do with freedom in either Hayek’s view or the more modern libertarian view. For example, systems of race relations are not top down structures, but they often restrain people in cruel ways.
Taken together, Exhibits A, B, C and D paint an intellectual who has the following traits: (a) Very, very anti-socialist; (b) has a version of freedom that is very agnostic with respect to the wide range of policies that are not socialist; (c) provides grounds for both conservative and liberal policies via a respect for tradition/spontaneous order and freedom/autonomy expansion. It’s a very modest form of libertarianism that gives away a lot of ground to other philosophies.
Does that mean that we’ve all misunderstood Hayek? It depends. If you think that Hayek was this evil economist who advocated the most strict version of libertarianism, then that’s probably mistaken. But if you think of Hayek as a very mellow form of libertarianism that has overlap with other political traditions, you’re probably on target.