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  1. Liberalism, Conservatism, and Hayek's Idea of Spontaneous Order
  2. The Limits of Spontaneous Order
  3. One Comment
  4. What can the left learn from Friedrich Hayek?

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Liberalism, Conservatism, and Hayek's Idea of Spontaneous Order

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Now at this point it is likely that a charge of ethical relativism or evolutionism will at once be levelled against Hayek, but there is little substance to such criticisms. He has gone out of his way to distinguish his standpoint from any sort of evolutionary ethics. As he put it in his Constitution of Liberty:. It is a fact which we must recognize that even what we regard as good or beautiful is changeable—if not in any recognizable manner that would entitle us to take a relativistic position, then in the sense that in many respects we do not know what will appear as good or beautiful to another generation… It is not only in his knowledge, but also in his aims and values, that man is the creature of his civilization; in the last resort, it is the relevance of these individual wishes to the perpetuation of the group or the species that will determine whether they persist or change.

It is, of course, a mistake to believe that we can draw conclusions about what our values ought to be simply because we realize that they are a product of evolution. But we cannot reasonably doubt that these values are created and altered by the same evolutionary forces that have produced our intelligence. Admittedly, inasmuch as nothing in the detailed content of our moral conventions is unchanging or unalterable, this means that we are compelled to abandon the idea that they have about them any character of universality or fixity, but this is a long way from any doctrine of moral relativism.

As Hayek observes in his remarks on the ambiguity of relativism:. We have no more ground to ascribe to them eternal existence than to the human race itself.

There is thus one possible sense in which we may legitimately regard human values as relative and speak of the probability of their further evolution. But it is a far cry from this general insight to the claims of the ethical, cultural or historical relativists or of evolutionary ethics. To put it crudely, while we know that all these values are relative to something, we do not know to what they are relative. We may be able to indicate the general class of circumstances which have made them what they are, but we do not know the particular conditions to which the values we hold are due, or what our values would be if those circumstances had been different.

Most of the illegitimate conclusions are the result of erroneous interpretation of the theory of evolution as the empirical establishment of a trend. Once we recognize that it gives us no more than a scheme of explanation which might be sufficient to explain particular phenomena if we knew all the facts which have operated in the course of history, it becomes evident that the claims of the various kinds of relativists and of evolutionary ethics are unfounded. Hayek follows Hume in supposing that, in virtue of certain general facts about the human predicament, the moral conventions which spring up spontaneously among men all have certain features in common or in other words exhibit some shared principles.

Nor is the expression improper to call them Laws of Nature; if by natural we understand what is common to any species, or even if we confine it to mean what is inseparable from the species. They frame what the distinguished Oxford jurist, H. There is in Hayek as in Hume, accordingly, a fundamental utilitarian commitment in their theories of morality. It is a very indirect utilitarianism that they espouse, however, more akin to that of the late nineteenth-century Cambridge moralist Henry Sidgwick [72] than it is to Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill.

That code can, in turn, Hayek believes, never properly be the subject of a rationalist reconstruction in Benthamite fashion, but only reformed piecemeal and slowly.

The Limits of Spontaneous Order

In repudiating the claims that utilitarian principles can govern specific actions and that utility may yield new social rules, Hayek shows himself to be an indirect or system utilitarian, for whom the proper role of utility is not prescriptive or practical but rather as a standard of evaluation for the assessment of whole systems of rules. Just how are we to assess different systems of rules in regard to their welfare-promoting effects?

It will be seen that this is a maximizing conception, but not one that represents utility as a sort of neutral stuff, a container of intrinsic value whose magnitude may vary. Several observations are apposite here. First, Hayek undoubtedly follows Hume in believing that, because they constitute an indispensable condition for the promotion of general welfare, the rules of justice are bound to take priority over any specific claim to welfare. Finally, Hayek argues forcefully that, if individuals are to be free to use their own knowledge and resources to best advantage, they must do so in a context of known and predictable rules governed by law.

It is in a framework of liberty under the rule of law, Hayek contends, that justice and general welfare are both served.

One Comment

Indeed, under the rule of law, justice and the general welfare are convergent and not conflicting goals or values. Common to all criticisms of it is the objection that Hayek expects too much of the rule of law itself, which is only one of the virtues a legal order may display, and a rather abstract notion at that. Among classical liberals and libertarians, this objection has acquired a more specific character.

It has been argued [76] that upholding the rule of law cannot by itself protect liberty or secure justice, for these values will be promoted only if the individual rights are respected. The upshot of this criticism is that, in virtue of the absence in his theory of any strong conception of moral rights, Hayek is constrained to demand more of the largely formal test of universalizability than it can possibly deliver, and so to conflate the ideal of the rule of law with other political goods and virtues.

It embodies the error that, in Hayek or indeed in Kant, universalizability is a wholly formal test. It is sometimes suggested that Kant developed his theory of the Rechtstaat by applying to public affairs his conception of the categorical imperative. It was probably the other way round, and Kant developed his theory of the categorical imperative by applying to morals the concept of the rule of law which he found ready made in the writings of Hume.

Thus Raz quotes Hayek as follows:. It is because the judge who applies them has no choice in drawing the conclusions that follow from the existing body of rules and the particular facts of the case, that it can be said that laws and not men rule… As a true law should not name any particulars, so it should especially not single out any specific persons or group of persons.

That no proper name be mentioned in a law does not protect against particular persons or groups being either harassed by laws which discriminate against them or granted privileges denied the rest of the population. A prohibition of this sort on the form laws may take is a specious guarantee of legal equality, since it is always possible to contrive a set of descriptive terms which will apply exclusively to a person or group without recourse to proper names… [83]. We must first of all note that, even in Kant and in Kantian writers other than Hayek, such as R. Hare and John Rawls, the test of universalizability does far more than rule out reference to particular persons or special groups.

The test of universalizability does indeed, in the first instance, impose a demand of consistency as between similar cases, and in that sense imposes a merely formal requirement of non-discrimination.

What can the left learn from Friedrich Hayek?

This is the first stage or element of universalization, the irrelevance of numerical differences. And this element or implication of universalizability leads on to a third, that we be impartial as between the preferences of others, regardless of our own tastes or ideals of life—a requirement of moral neutrality. I do not need to ask here exactly how these elements of universalizability are related to one another, to ask most obviously if the second is entailed by the first in any logically inexorable way, or similarly the third by the second.

It is enough to note that there is a powerful Kantian tradition according to which strong implications do link the three phases of universalization, and that this is a tradition to which Hayek himself has always subscribed. Applying the full test of universalizability to the maxims that go towards making a legal order, we find that, not only are references to particulars ruled out, but the maxims must be impartial in respect of the interests of all concerned, and they must be neutral in respect of their tastes or ideals of life.

For, when construed in this fashion, the universalizability test will rule out for example most if not all policies of economic intervention as prejudicial to the interests of some and will fell all policies of legal moralism. Two large classes of liberal policy, supposedly allowable under an Hayekian rule of law, thus turn out to be prohibited by it. Hayek himself is explicit that the test of universalizability means more than the sheerly formal absence of reference to particulars.

As he puts it:.

Spontaneous Order vs. Centralized Control

What this amounts to is that in applying it to any concrete circumstances it will not conflict with any other accepted rules. The test is thus in the last resort one of the compatibility or non-contradictoriness of the whole system of rules, not merely in a logical sense but in the sense that the system of actions which the rules permit will not lead to conflict.

Again, the compatibility between the several rules is not one that holds in any possible world, but rather that which obtains in the world in which we live. Note again that, in Hume, as in Hayek, the laws of justice are commended as being the indispensable condition for the promotion of general welfare, i. But in order to achieve this result, neither Hayek nor Hume need offer any argument in favor of our adopting a Principle of Utility. Rather, very much in the spirit of R. A utilitarian concern for general welfare is yielded by the Kantian method itself and is not superadded to it afterwards.


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But, like Hare and Kant, he thinks concern for both justice and the general welfare to be dictated by universalizability itself. First, though he does not explicitly distinguish the three stages or phases of universalization I mentioned earlier, he is clear that the universalizability test is not only formal, and that it comprehends the requirement that the scheme of activities it permits in the real world would be conflict-free.

Third, in a society whose members lack common purposes or common concrete knowledge, only abstract rules conferring a protected domain on each can qualify as rules facilitating a conflict-free pattern of activities. This means that the conditions of our abstract or open society will themselves compel adoption of a rule conferring just claims to liberty and private property—which Hayek rightly sees as indissolubly linked—once these conditions are treated as the appropriate background for the Kantian test.

This pattern of argument is an important and striking one, worth examining in detail on its merits, and not capable of being dismissed as prima facie unworkable. One important point may be worth canvassing, however. Hayek argues that once the legal framework has been reformed in Kantian fashion, it must of necessity be one that maximizes liberty.

Hamowy goes so far as to assert that Hayek defines liberty as conformity with the rule of law. Rather, he takes such conformity to be a necessary condition of a free order. His thesis is that applying the Kantian test to the legal order will of itself yield a maxim according equal freedom to all men. If Hayek is right that his method shows the unacceptability of contemporary patterned conceptions of justice, for example, and if as I think, he has shown that only procedural justice can be squared with the liberal maxim demanding equal freedom of action, then we can begin to see the measure of his achievement.

In regard to his theory of justice, the criticisms we have surveyed appear to be premature, or at least inconclusive. As applied to the market economy, that which emerges is defined by its very emergence to be that which is efficient. And this result implies, in its turn, a policy of nonintervention, properly so. There is no need, indeed there is no possibility, of evaluating the efficiency of observed outcomes independently of the process; there exists no external criterion that allows efficiency to be defined in objectively measurable dimensions.

We might then be compelled to regard the growth of interventionism and of the welfare state, and even certain aspects of the functioning of totalitarian regimes, as exemplifying spontaneous order inasmuch as we might be able to explain these social phenomena as the unintended outcomes of human action.

If, on the other hand, spontaneous orders are taken as embodying positive moral values—if, that is to say, the idea of a maleficient or destructive spontaneous order is repudiated as incoherent—then it seems clear that Hayek requires a far bolder moral theory than any he has advanced thus far. In particular, such a moral theory would need to bridge the gap between evaluative and descriptive language which is a feature of modern moral philosophy, and in this and other respects it would need to come much closer to natural law ethics than Hayek has ever himself done. If we adopt the latter view of spontaneous order as a value-free explanatory idea, its uses in political argument depend upon two kinds of considerations.

More problematically, however, the use of an explanatory idea of spontaneous order in political argument presupposes that we have a genuine theoretical or synoptic knowledge of social life of just the sort that Hayek occasionally suggests is impossible. Like Hayek, then, Oakeshott maintains that all moral or political criticism must be immanent criticism, but, unlike Hayek, he denies that there is any inherent or evolutionary tendency for the development of traditional practices to converge on liberal institutions. For this reason Oakeshott would insist that his conception of civil association or nomocracy—upon which, as we have already seen, Hayek draws in his conception of the juridical framework of the liberal order—is a description of a strand of practice in the modern European state and has no necessary application beyond the cultural milieu in which it came to birth.

To some extent, of course, Hayek concedes that there cannot be universal scope for liberal principles when he allows that the Great or Open Society is itself an evolutionary emergence from rude beginnings. Where he differs from Oakeshott is in affirming that the Great or Open Society in which liberal principles are uniquely appropriate represents the future of all mankind.

See a Problem?

In this respect, Hayek continues to subscribe to an Enlightenment doctrine of universal human progress which Oakeshott has abandoned. I do not mean that Hayek has ever endorsed the belief that historical change is governed by a law of progressive development, but rather that he seems to take for granted what surely is most disputable that the unhampered natural selection of rival practices and traditions will result in a general convergence on liberal society.


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One central argument in contemporary neo-conservatism, after all, is in the claim that the stability of the free society depends upon its containing strong supportive traditions. A major difficulty in the neo-conservative analysis is the lack of any very convincing prognosis: if free markets have corrosive effects in respect of the moral traditions which support them, so that capitalism institutions contain cultural contradictions which make them over the long run self-destroying, what is to be done?