The Light “Between the Lines” Is Doing All the Work: A Response to Prof. Klein

I hope my critique of Hayek’s notion of spontaneous order and of his attempts to draw normative conclusions from it are not taken as a complete rejection of Hayek’s work, or of the important insights he had. I don’t think any argument for economic liberty is complete without “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” And I find some of his arguments eloquent and powerful — I love his discussion of labor unions in The Constitution of Liberty, for instance, and his critique of the notion of “social justice” is excellent.

But Caesar had his Brutus, Linus Pauling had Vitamin C, and Friedrich Hayek had “spontaneous order.” His experiences in Europe go far, no doubt, to explain his anti-rationalism, and maybe he wrote as he did in an effort to appeal to the moderate left. But whatever his reasons for advancing the arguments he did, they just don’t work as a normative critique of economic or legal planning. It’s true that order can emerge, unplanned, from dynamic processes — but this is practically useless in advising any political leader or any voter or any consumer about any course of action. Worse, it is all too likely to become a rationalization for passively shrugging at injustice.

I agree with Professor Klein that in post-World War II Europe, intellectuals overwhelmingly believed economic planning to be the rational path to peace and plenty, and Hayek’s critique of planning addressed many of the sloppy fallacies in their arguments — that economic planning was more efficient and scientific, and so forth. But I disagree with his claim that Hayek was “significantly out of step with the modernists.” Hayek responded to economic planning by trying to formulate a self-contained argument that was rooted, not in ethical principles, but in system as such — and this was actually quintessentially modern. In fact, it is typical of Pragmatism to try to evade the conflicts between fundamentally incompatible ethical perspectives by reaching for some meta- level (“practical” or “realistic”) common ground. But this attempt invariably falls apart, if for no other reason, because that common ground turns out to represent very type of normative commitment that the Pragmatist set out to avoid. In other words, if you endeavor to formulate an “anti-ideology” (as some conservatives are fond of labeling their creed) you eventually discover that what you have is an ideology. At that point, you have a choice: either you can admit that you do have an ideological commitment after all, and account for that commitment — or you can embrace paradox and mystique, and camouflage the resulting injustices as social harmonies.

It’s this latter route that most anti-rationalists take; that’s why anti-rationalism and Romanticism are so often found together. And that’s the source of the haunting similarities between Hayek’s “reverence for tradition” and the cruel hierarchical politics exemplified by, for example, D.H. Lawrence’s infamous defense of the flogging of Sam in Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast. In his Studies in Classical American Literature, Lawrence described a scene from that book in which a sailor named Sam is flogged, much to Dana’s horror. But, Lawrence argued that “it is good for Sam to be flogged,” and that Dana’s indignation represents a constructed, rationalistic interference with the tradition of flogging that had grown up over generations in the Navy — a tradition Dana’s vulgar rationalism hadn’t the grace to comprehend:

Dana, as an idealist, refusing the blood-contact of life, leaned over the side of the ship powerless, and vomited: or wanted to… Sam was justly whipped. It was a passional justice… Mechanical justice even is a foul thing. For true justice makes the heart’s fibres quiver. You can’t be cold in a matter of real justice… Sam got no more than he asked for. It was a natural event. All would have been well, save for the moral verdict. And this came from theoretic idealists like Dana… rather than from the sailors themselves. The sailors understood spontaneous passional morality, not the artificial ethical.

I’m not saying Hayek favored brutality — obviously not — but the framework he provides is entirely in line with Lawrence’s position: that a rationalistic, artificial critique of the mistreatment of sailors is a foolish, hubristic interference with the spontaneous, anti-rational dynamic of naval discipline. Dana, like me, is a rational constructivist.

Hayek was nowhere near as sanguinary as Lawrence, but consider an example from the opening pages of The Constitution of Liberty. Hayek tells us that general rules “allow for gradual and experimental change. The existence of individuals and groups simultaneously observing partially different rules provides the opportunity for the selection of the more effective ones.” And then, in the next sentence, he advocates “submission to undesigned rules and conventions whose significance and importance we largely do not understand, this reverence for the traditional,” which is central to the process of social evolution.

By these precepts, I would imagine a Hayekian world to be like those cities with walled housing developments, each one of which is dominated by some religious or ethnic group, each observing partially different social rules: some beat their children, some abuse women, some oppress racial minorities, some flog sailors… Now, maybe in the end, this will all result in the selection of better social rules, but only if everyone has the right to exit the walled communities if they want to. It’s only the freedom of choice that makes competition work. But what do you do when a walled community refuses to allow its citizens to exit? If you require all these communities to let people exit, then you have committed yourself to a universal principle of justice. And where does that principle come from? It comes from normative concepts that do not arise spontaneously from the interaction of groups, and are not merely traditional or generated by the system itself. In other words, it means we must not just submit to undesigned rules and conventions whose importance and significance we largely do not understand!

This is why I don’t go after Hayek, as Prof. Caldwell suggests, for offering an ideal constitution in Law, Legislation, And Liberty. Of course he resorted to constructivism — it’s impossible not to, unless you conclude that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

No, Hayek was (fortunately) not willing to go completely wertfrei — the most worthless kind of freedom in the world. But he tried to have it both ways: to make arguments for freedom as a good — while simultaneously, and very modernly, trying to avoid contentious moral claims by arguing that the normative values came from the system itself.

And here’s where it gets dangerous. If you believe that values come from the system itself, then it’s very easy to fall into the argument that valuers, too, come from the system itself: that is, that moral truths are socially constructed — that their truth value is a function of history, rather than anything in the statements themselves. And if you make that argument, you end up, in all places, in the realm of historicism.

Now, it may seem odd to accuse Hayek of historicism, but I think there’s reason for it. Linda Raeder describes Hayek’s position as “value-centered historicism,” noting that his “passionate evocation of the transcendent significance of the person is starkly incongruous with his naturalistic-evolutionary justification of liberal values and principles.” Because he tries to anchor that significance in an historical account of values, Hayek ends up with the idea that the moral worth of human beings, and all other concepts of “good,” are just products of historical and social circumstance — that is, that we are valuable only insofar as society says we are. Indeed, Hayek goes far in this direction when he says:

The mind is embedded in a traditional impersonal structure of learnt rules, and its capacity to order experience is an acquired replica of cultural patterns which every individual mind finds given… [M]ind can exist only as part of another independently existing distinct structure or order, though that order persists and can develop only because millions of minds constantly absorb or modify parts of it.

Now, if individual personality, values, and patterns of thought are produced by the spontaneous order, so that they cannot stand outside the system and criticize it, but can only offer an “immanent” critique of the system in which they are embedded, then where does the individual get the ability to reach out for other kinds of values? Where do we get any universal pre-political standard of justice? Add to this Hayek’s argument that coercion is only bad because it means the individual is not as useful to society as he might be, and you’ve got serious trouble on the individualism front. Hayek — like his friend, Karl Popper — critically weakens his attack on historicism when he argues that individuals and their values are socially or culturally determined.

Be that as it may, my point here has only been to argue that there is no conceptual distinction between spontaneous and constructed orders such that constructed orders are bad and spontaneous orders good. As a descriptive matter, I think it’s unassailable that there can be orders that are the product of human action but not of human design. But that tells us nothing about whether we ought to change the orders that so arise.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Four Problems with Spontaneous Order by Timothy Sandefur

    In his lead essay, lawyer and legal theorist Timothy Sandefur proposes that Friedrich Hayek’s understanding of law and justice is flawed: Spontaneous order may be a descriptively accurate concept, but it has little or no effective normative content. Depending on how one chooses to focus, those who wish to reform a spontaneous order are either constructive rationalists – thus, outside the order, and presumptively bad – or they are manifestations of the spontaneous order itself, which changes over time. He suggests that the Hayekian approach to legal reform is simply “be careful,” and that this is not terribly helpful advice.

Response Essays

  • Four Solutions to Sandefur’s Problems by John Hasnas

    In his response essay, John Hasnas offers solutions to Sandefur’s problems. He suggests that genuine spontaneous orders can be recognized as having no final decision makers, and hence as recognizing a multitude of individual choices. Constructed orders have a final decision maker, and do not respect individual choice. The normative benefits of a spontaneous order are therefore clear: It offers a greater scope for peaceful cooperation, while tending to reduce coercion incrementally. Still, Hasnas admits, spontaneous orders will always be “riddled with injustice,” in part owing to our own limited knowledge and virtue. He suggests that one key missing insight helps rescue much of Hayekian legal thought: the notion that laws, too, respond to market forces.

  • Liberty between the Lines in a Modernist Age by Daniel B. Klein

    Daniel Klein argues that much of the fuzziness in Hayek’s writing was strategic – designed to bring lapsed liberals back into the fold, or to appeal to people who would never accept an unvarnished liberalism. Still, Klein finds great value in Hayek’s work. He argues that, while out of fashion at the time, Hayek’s own willingness to be indeterminate, and to embrace indeterminateness, was both consistent with the Smithian understanding of the social order – and predictive of some of the best work being done today in economics and in other social sciences.

  • Making Sense of Hayek on Spontaneous Order by Bruce Caldwell

    Bruce Caldwell proposes two solutions to Sandefur’s problems. The first is to acknowledge that Hayek was a rule utilitarian, albeit one who recognized that the rules we have inherited are the products of a spontaneous order. The second is to claim that Hayek wasn’t proposing any normative conclusions at all – he was simply making observations in a value-neutral way, as might befit a member of the Austrian School, which was deeply influenced by Max Weber’s ideal of a value-neutral social science. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, Caldwell admits, yet in the end he cannot accept Sandefur’s claim that there is no meaningful distinction between spontaneous and designed orders. Although the difference can be difficult to put into words, we know them when we see them.

The Conversation