5 thoughts on “Is It Ayn’s Tea Party?”

  1. I wouldn’t celebrate Hayek excessively; reading Oakeshott’s critique of him is probably worth the time.

  2. Still and all, if you are going to focus on one economic and social thinker, Hayek is probably the best bet. Rand was very right about a couple of very important things but comes with a large amount of baggage. And she and her followers both work on an all-or-nothing basis. Sorry, Rachmaninoff’s Second is not the greatest piece of music of all time.

    (Although I remember it fondly because if you were dating a female student of objectivism and you went back to her place, and she put it on to play, it usually meant good things were about to happen.)

  3. Like what, Jane? I confess to being initially skeptical that a philosopher should have anything practically useful to say about a theory of government rooted in economics. Criticism along the lines of that’s not theoretically sound or in the Ideal World we would do it thus instead of so is the kind of pointless froth we empiricists encounter, and ignore, all the time.

    Is there a practical criticism of Hayek offered by Oakeshott you can recommend?

    I certainly agree with Rand’s point, that Hayek is a much more reasonable patron saint than…er…Rand, meaning the other one, the Russian. Rand’s concretization of the failure of collectivism is stereotypically Russian — apocalyptic, unrealistic — and no one really believes Atlas would shrug. Hayek, by contrast, pointed to a much more believable endpoint (national socialism).

  4. The problem with Hayek, according to Oakeshott (at least the way I understood him in Rationalism in Politics and other essays) is that, mesmerized by the advantages of the free market, Hayek celebrates it as a system with its own rules and its own rationale, not connected to any real world response to a specific political situation or problem. It becomes, in itself, an ideology, and an ideology in a pragmatist’s view, is only useful to the extent it helps you solve problems. It’s a little more subtle than “That won’t work in the real world” and the similar empirical critique, it’s more along the lines of a pervasive confusion of the map (the ideology, the formal system) with the territory (the pragmatic situation, the natural system).

    Nowadays, I think that’s what you see on the right. They call it conservatism, but it’s not what Edmund Burke would have understood by the word. Today it seems to me the movement conservatives are all engaged in what they believe in, rather than what they doubt.

    I’m not going to speak ill of ideology generally. I have several that get me through the day (I’m a Reform Jew religiously, a reductionist technician surgically, a progressive liberal politically, and a diet/weightlifting/running advocate athletically), but however pretty the ideology you have to exit the formal system and come up for a look around at your surroundings. Rand didn’t do this, according to Oakeshott’s critique, Hayek didn’t either, and movement conservatives aren’t doing it now.

  5. Huh. Well, if you say so, but that’s just about the complete opposite of what I would have said about Hayek’s most popular work, for example (Road to Serfdom). It seemed to me a very empirical book indeed, in which he freely acknowledged the attraactiveness of a rational, planned economy, but sadly concluded on empirical grounds — based on the historical evidence primarily of Nazi Germany — that it was simply not realizable, at least not with H. sapiens as the building block.

    To take a surgical metaphor, he seemed to be saying that, however desirable it might be to reach into the complex organ of a large economy and directly correct and improve its behaviour, it’s the equivalent of doing brain surgery with kitchen knives to attempt to treat mood disorders and bad temperaments. You might, once in a billion times, do what you intend to do, and all will be well, but otherwise, and almost always, you’ll just make things worse, and usually destroy the patient’s mind. In our analogy that would mean destroying the very social good you are attempting to maximize, the feelings of liberty, both negative — no one’s trying to control me — and positive — I am free from want, or as free as justice and the wealth of society permits.

    I saw nothing that suggested an ideology of the free market, meaning a theory that precedes action, such as mercantilism or socialism, but rather the proposal of what you might call “natural laws” of markets and men: id est, this, empirically speaking, is how men behave. Not so well, typically. Therefore, it turns out that what we describe as a “free market” produces the most liveable society, with maximum possible liberty for the greatest number. We may freely imagine systems in which there is even greater liberty and freedom from want — but, sadly, not only has no such system ever proved to do what its designers intended it to do, but, even worse, the more complete and thorough an attempt is made, the more hideous the ultimate result. He asserted that the horrors of National Socialism were not the result of the powerful socialist currents in 1870s through 1930s Germany gone terribly awry, but in fact their logical and inevitable conclusion

    In short, in this work at least, he was not promoting a free market ideology per se so much as issuing baleful warnings about collectivism and central planning.

    I have no idea what you mean by “movement conservative,” but I will share with you a comment I read on the VC a while ago, which I thought astonishingly perceptive, and possible even true. This was in the thread debating whether conservatives could and should make common cause with libertarians. The commenter said he’d begun as a libertarian, but concluded that, sadly, the nature of people was such that most could not and would not willingly live in the libertarian’s paradise, with maximum self-determination and individual liberty. In essence, people strongly prefer to live in a milieu in which there are substantial constraints on behaviour. To be sure, they want those constraints to be those they most prefer, that is to have forbidden that which they themselves abhor. But, where the libertarian, forced to choose between a small percentage of social compulsion and the loneliness of zero social support, says I’ll take the latter, his observation was that most people say I’ll take the former. That is, people in general are happy to submit to a fairly substantial amount of compulsion, including compulsions they find onerous, in order to maintain a sense of strong social support.

    From that point of view, then, there must be a degree of social compulsion, and people will manufacture it if they don’t find it naturally. He concluded that every attempt at freeing people from the compulsion of church, neighborhood, family since the cornucopia of industrialism made it even plausible simply resulted in increased compulsion by government, law, bureaucracy. It’s like there was some kind of conservation law at work. If there were, then he rather preferred local compulsion, the old-fashioned kind of church and small-town gossiping community — because at least you could move away from it, look for a version that suited you better, whereas the one-size-fits-all compulsion from the center, from government, was inescable.

    Furthermore, when you have a million local centers of compulsion, people do respond to situations they don’t like mostly by moving away, or forming new communities along lines they prefer. The general philosophy is live and let live, at least between communities. But when there’s no escape, and only one source of power, everyone becomes fanatically committed to controlling it. Hence you get bitter and divisive fights to the death over political control, and stronger and stronger attempts by the party in (temporary) power to obliterate and delegitimize their opponents. Kind of like the whole history of the late 20th century, you might say.

    This is hardly a complete theory, just a sketch, and I personally don’t like its axiomatic basis. It is deeply depressing to contemplate the hypothesis that most of my fellow men prefer a leash, find the collar mostly a comfort, only rarely galling. But the distastefulness of the hypothesis is no argument against it. It may be true. From my own life experience, I’m hard pressed to say it’s obviously false.

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