1 1/2 Cheers for Tim’s Impetus

Tim’s recent declarations for rationalism and idealism succinctly express his impetus against Hayek.

I think it’s misguided to think that there is Ethics, which tell us what is Right, and then there are “positive” understandings, to which we may then apply our ethical conclusions. I more see it as one big conversation, with ises and oughts naturally and tacitly interwoven and easily translated one into the other. So I can’t really enter in Tim’s mode of thought.

But in an important respect I second his stand for rationalism, and, correspondingly, some dissatisfaction with Hayek.

As I see it, we organize classical liberal thought as a web of statements. Those more central to the web may be called verities — important by-and-large truths.

The central verity of liberalism/libertarianism concerns the liberty principle, which says: In a choice between a dyad of policy reforms (one of which may be no reform at all), the reform that ranks higher in liberty is the more desirable.

The central verity of liberalism/libertarianism may be called the liberty maxim, which says: By and large, the liberty principle holds.

If Tim would drop the “by and large,” making the liberty principle the central verity of liberalism/libertarianism, then I think he’s mistaken.

But that aside, I, too, see the liberty principle as an analytic fulcrum and engine of inquiry. The liberty principle deserves the presumption, placing the burden of proof on the interventionists, even when they are defending the status quo. I favor that some — not all — liberals go on the offensive swinging the liberty principle at most anything standing in its way. I hazard to say that, in a significant way, Hayek thought so, too. He wasn’t one of those suited to proceeding in such fashion. But when Walter Block asked him to contribute a Foreword endorsing Block’s Defending the Undefendable, Hayek graciously did so and tipped his hat to Block’s regimen of “shock therapy.”

The approach — working off the liberty principle — is, however, often less patent and elementary than some think. In many areas of policy there are issues of disagreement between direct and overall liberty (for the distinction, see Klein and Clark, forthcoming). In those troublesome areas, if we define the liberty maxim in terms of direct liberty (which I think we usually do), the “by and large” qualification grows in significance. If we define it in terms of overall liberty, its application becomes much fuzzier. (Did bailing out the banks augment or reduce overall liberty? Did the United States pitching in against Hitler augment or reduce overall liberty?)



Klein, Daniel B. and Michael J. Clark. “Direct and Overall Liberty: Areas and Extent of Disagreement,” Mercatus Center Working Paper. Reason Papers, forthcoming.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.