Why Doesn’t Hayek Answer the Questions That I Feel Are Important?

I have attended a lot of Liberty Fund meetings on Hayek and have noticed that as a rule economists tend to like Hayek’s ideas much more than political philosophers (whether housed in philosophy or political science departments) do. The fascinating and instructive exchange between Sandefur and Hasnas has helped me to understand why. Hayek doesn’t answer the questions they feel are important.

For economists the existence of spontaneous orders is obvious. I am writing from home so do not have the texts in front of me, but I believe that Hayek in his 1933 inaugural lecture said something like recognizing the existence of such an order (though I think the word that he used there was “organism”) was the beginning of economics as a discipline. That sounds about right. That a whole new field studying complex adaptive systems has emerged since Hayek first began writing about these issues suggests at a minimum that economists are not alone. Because such orders when humans are involved contain intentional action which gives rise to unintended orders does provide complications, but I think that Hasnas’ careful discussion in his second reply answers the questions that Sandefur raised.

In his latest post, Sandefur writes,

In Law, Legislation And Liberty and The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek is not writing simply as an economist: he’s writing as a lawyer, and he promises us a clear-cut conceptual distinction — he even comes up with Greek names (taxis and kosmos) and always speaks of spontaneous and constructed orders as though they are conceptually distinct; this distinction is crucial to his prescriptive sociology.

This gets at, I think, a key reason why he and I read Hayek so differently. I am not trained as a lawyer and I never thought of Hayek in either Law, Legislation and Liberty or Constitution of Liberty as writing as a lawyer. (I do not have either text at home with me, so cannot check whether he anywhere “promised us a clear-cut conceptual distinction,” but perhaps Sandefur has a particular passage in mind that he might provide.) More important, I don’t think Hayek saw himself as doing so, either. That may account for why he does not set his problem up in the way that Sandefur would prefer, or provide answers to questions he’d like to have answers to.

Economists sometimes feel a similar frustration. Hayek always wrote at a very abstract level. A lot of economists who hope to find in his writings direct answers to specific policy questions will not come away satisfied. I challenge our audience to tell me what Hayek thought about anti-trust policy. I think that he had good reasons to keep things vague — the Mont Pelerin Society had members from countries who defined a liberal society very differently, and he wanted to keep them talking to one another. But in the end it is also true that Hayek was no policy wonk, and those who are would probably do better reading either Milton Friedman or the Cato Handbook for Policymakers (the latest copy of which I would be delighted to receive from our good host as a belated Christmas present!) than him. [I’ll see to it. — Ed.]

I’d like briefly to defend Hayek’s recourse to evolutionary theory and in particular his claim that our morals are a product of evolution. Both Sandefur and Hasnas see this as a weakness, whereas I see it as a strength, at least for what I think Hayek was trying to do. I read Hayek as a scientist trying to explain how we moved from a hunter-gatherer society to what he termed “the great society,” and also to explain why humans so often hate markets, even though the evolution of a market society was fundamental in the movement to the great society. The evolution of our morals also played a fundamental role. In the end, Hayek was no foundationalist when it came to morals. This was the reason why Bill Bartley, the Popperian philosopher who was the first General Editor of Hayek’s Collected Works and who as a follower of Popper argued that Popper’s whole enterprise involved replacing the problem of justification with that of criticism, was so attracted to Hayek’s late work, what Bartley called his evolutionary epistemology and his evolutionary ethics.[1] Bartley was pleased with Hayek’s lack of foundations. And it is why people with specifically normative concerns, people like Hasnas and Sandefur who are seeking for that elusive “Archimedean fixed point,” find this aspect of Hayek’s work so unsatisfactory. Hasnas finds Hayek to be a bad moral philosopher. I think it is more accurate to say that he was a good scientist and social theorist, and not really a moral philosopher at all, at least not of the foundationalist variety.

I’ll close by saying that the Austrian wertfreiheit tradition which feels so comfortable to those trained as economists — we tell ourselves that our task is not to make judgments, but to evaluate whether a particular set of means will achieve the ends that people say they want to pursue — is probably also part of the “problem.”[2] We consider this stance a “virtue,” but that is as far as we feel comfortable to go normatively.


[1] For more on this see my paper “Clarifying Popper,” Journal of Economic Literature 29, March 1991, pp. 1–33, especially the section on “Popper on Critical Rationalism.”

[2]Although Robert Nelson is probably right that as the 20th century progressed the economics profession moved from “neutral policy experts” to advocates for efficiency in policymaking. See his “The Economics Profession and the Making of Public Policy,” Journal of Economic Literature 25, March 1987, pp. 49–91.

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.