Ideology and Social Evolution

In The Constitution of Liberty F.A. Hayek defends a version of what he calls "anti-rationalism." By this he means that for the purposes of any social reform, we have to take our society with all its laws and institutions and conventions as a given. We cannot decide to throw it all away and attempt to construct a more perfect system from the ground up. This task would be too big for any intellect, no matter how powerful. (Though Hayek is not saying that there is no place for human reason in understanding and improving society at all.)

In general, any engineer (including a "social" one) dealing with any entity must know three things: first, how a perfectly healthy or perfectly functioning system works; second, what can go wrong with it and for what reasons; third, how to fix or heal the system in order to restore it to an ideal. Hayek does not say that anyone who wants to be a doctor of society should not try to acquire expertise in these three types of knowledge. What he does say is that all improvements must be piecemeal; any progress due to a rational analysis of society must be step-by-step and must not try to redesign society wholesale:

... although we may always strive to improve our institutions, we can never aim to remake them as a whole and that, in our efforts to improve them, we must take for granted much that we do not understand.

The Hayekean reason is that in an advanced society morals, laws, institutions, etiquette, conventions, and so on become extremely sophisticated -- and for good reasons. As a result, no single human being can understand, let alone reconstruct them, based on his own instant jurisprudence.

Further, the very existence of these things is beneficial, whether they are perfect or not. (The standard example is on which side of the street we drive. The existence of this convention is good regardless of the actual choice -- left or right -- that we make in this matter.) That does not mean that an expert in ethics or law or any other social field is incapable of tracing the implications of particular morals or legislation and determining whether they are good or bad, and if bad, then how to make them better. It does mean for Hayek that the whole of society is beyond the grasp of a single human mind; and for a single scholar to daydream of sweeping social reforms would be a futile endeavor and almost certainly disastrous if implemented in practice.

"Instant jurisprudence." That was Henry Hazlitt's charge against Murray Rothbard's exposition of what he thought to be the correct principles of law in The Ethics of Liberty. Rothbard was undaunted and argued that the common law is inferior to his natural law-based system.

I think that this conflict was based on a misunderstanding. Rothbard wanted to lay out the general principles upon which all legislation ought to be based, such as the principle of self-ownership, the unlawfulness of aggression on person and property, the circumstances in which self-defense is justified, contracts as exchanges of property titles, "human rights as property rights," and suchlike. He then applied these regulative ideas to a few fairly simple cases, such as blackmail, boycotts, children, and so on, essentially to illustrate them.

At no time did Rothbard attempt to dispose of the subtleties of the common law. He described the foundation upon which all further evolution of laws should take place, and in his defense, if the natural-law foundation is crooked, then the common-law edifice on top of it will be ugly indeed.

As Hayek himself writes, for example:

Like all moral principles, [liberty] demands that it be accepted as a value in itself, as a principle that must be respected without our asking whether the consequences in the particular instance will be beneficial. ...

Where no such fundamental rule is stubbornly adhered to as an ultimate ideal about which there must be no compromise for the sake of material advantages -- as an ideal which, even though it may have to be temporarily infringed during a passing emergency, must form the basis of all permanent arrangements -- freedom is almost certain to be destroyed by piecemeal encroachments.

Even Hayek then believed that the evolution of social institutions must proceed within the limits imposed by certain political and moral principles.

Nevertheless, he did not, like Rothbard, consider liberty to be part of a rationally derived natural law. Originally, he writes, freedom within society

did not arise from design. The institutions of freedom, like everything else freedom has created, were not established because people foresaw the benefits they would bring.

But, once its advantages were recognized, men began to perfect and extend the reign of freedom and, for that purpose, to inquire how a free society worked.

This inquiry, however, ought properly to be "empirical and unsystematic... based on an interpretation of traditions and institutions which had spontaneously grown up and were but imperfectly understood." With Hayek, we always start with what we actually have, not with self-evident axioms or rationally deduced first principles. This must not be confused with any kind of undue attachment to the status quo. Hayek is not applying the economic Unanimity Principle to politics, such that only Pareto-optimal reforms are permissible. He is counseling us to take note that the process of social evolution through "human action not human design" both has led to successful solutions and is as a matter of fact irreplaceable. The value of freedom for Hayek then (or at least one kind of value) is precisely that freedom facilitates the quickest rate of both the evolution of rules, institutions, and the like, and economic progress. And he is being a proper utilitarian when he writes that "what is important is not what freedom I personally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things beneficial to society."

According to Hayek, most of our social practices have not been deliberately designed but rather evolved via a process that he never quite identifies. The pioneers must have tried a certain institution; it proved to be successful in some sense; and others have imitated it. It is unclear whether Hayek thought that social evolution was entirely blind and arbitrary, caused by something like natural selection among different communities, such that a random "mutation" in the legal system could just as well benefit a community as harm it, or whether even there the mutation would be chosen in a rational attempt to improve matters. If it is the latter, then Hayek's anti-rationalism becomes less tenable. For if we must find out whether a change A is better than the status quo S, then can we not imagine also changes B and C and D and compare all of them and decide which results in the best outcome? But then every institution can be held up to "the unsparing and unyielding light of reason."

No one is claiming that the whole structure of society is rotten and must be destroyed. Yet the reliance on the process of social evolution need not be total. It is one thing to be unable to predict how the Internet will "evolve." No one could foresee the current success of, not even the founders of this company themselves. But it seems to me that we can analyze and promote a legal framework in which companies like eBay could be created and thrive and consumers thereby served in the best way possible. The current set of laws need not be thrown out, only tweaked. The set of all the ideals about how a society should function in all of its aspects can be called an ideology. And that is by necessity rationalistic.

How do ideological influences co-exist with Hayek's social evolution? The former must be admitted if we agree that we know something. Hence what we know for sure to be as good as possible (such as the free market) can be ideologically enforced, whereas where the knowledge is lacking (such as the best means of resolving disputes, or of safeguarding social cooperation, or the proper ethics of dealing with the terminally ill), progress should be left to unplanned evolution whose solutions will surprise us. There is a difference then, between, for example, planning the economy in the manner of a socialist society, and planning economic legislation. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a planned economy ("Socialism cannot be realized because it is beyond human power to establish it as a social system," as Mises writes), but it is possible to determine through economic reasoning whether a given policy or institution (or indeed the absence of policy, i.e., freedom) will or will not be in the interest of the common good.

Hayek's warnings about the enormous complexity of society are well taken. In its study then there obviously needs to be an intellectual division of labor. But within that division of labor, reason is the only tool which can assist us in grasping the problems involved as best we can and in making the relatively small improvements that a scholar can at least propose and competently defend. Here is another caveat. Suppose, for example, that the economy of a certain nation is in deep crisis. Then an economist can recommend numerous and even radical reforms. Yet this is no counterexample to Hayek's thesis, because the economist, having mastered all the economic laws, remains within his area of expertise. The "pieces" of Hayek's piecemeal changes can therefore be more or less extensive, depending on the need.

Further, Hayek's admonitions for us to be humble apply especially to legislation produced by government. Rothbard's streamlining portions of the common law is beside the point. (Evolution, as biological evolutionists always tell us, is "sloppy." Perhaps so is social evolution.) Yet it is the government that invariably believes that the solution to all social problems is to regulate more. These regulations often have negative consequences that were never imagined by the legislators (besides, of course, those that were foreseen and desired despite their damage to the general interest). They could, for example, cause unseen losses to society, such that the wealth that could have been created in their absence is not, in fact, created. Further, instead of a gradual evolution of institutions in which some groups lead and others follow, we have top-down designs which all must obey. Hayek finds this problematic:

Such an evolution is possible only with rules which are neither coercive nor deliberately imposed -- rules which, though observing them is regarded as merit and though they will be observed by the majority, can be broken by individuals who feel that they have strong enough reasons to brave the censure of their fellows.

Unlike any deliberately imposed coercive rules, which can be changed only discontinuously and for all at the same time, rules of this kind 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.

Whether we take Hayek to mean that different sets of rules (of whatever type) will be operative in the same community for different people, or that there will be a variety of communities competing with each other for residents and businesses, we are led, according to the logic of his arguments, to endorse decentralization. (A free economy based on private property, the ultimate engine of unplanned economic progress, is, of course, assumed.)

In the United States this would most likely mean that the federal government ought to play a much smaller role in the lives of the member states and individuals. The same applies to the several states themselves. Would the competition between the 50 states be fierce enough without the feds interfering, or must they be further subdivided into yet smaller self-governing communities? Is some form of anarchism -- in which legislation, defense, and arbitration are at least to some extent private -- viable? Should the federal system, no matter how weak, be preserved to keep the peace and safeguard a continent-wide zone of free trade?

These are interesting and important questions, but they cannot even be approached under the Leviathan we have to endure today. I wonder if Hayek would indeed advocate scrapping the federal government altogether. Clearly, the cause of speedy social evolution which will benefit us all depends on it.

May 20, 2006

Back to Homepage