Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hayek on Freedom and Democracy

From The Road to Serfdom Chapter Five:
The fashionable concentration on democracy as the main value threatened is not without danger. It is largely responsible for the misleading and unfounded belief that, so long as the ultimate source of power is the will of the majority, the power cannot be arbitrary. The false assurance which many people derive from this belief is an important cause of the general unawareness of the dangers which we face. There is no justification for the belief that, so long as power is conferred by democratic procedure, it cannot be arbitrary; the contrast suggested by this statement is altogether false: it is not the source but the limitation of power which prevents it from being arbitrary. Democratic control may prevent power from becoming arbitrary, but it does not do so by its mere existence. If democracy resolves on a task which necessarily involves the use of power which cannot be guided by fixed rules, it must become arbitrary power.

In this chapter Hayek is discussing whether it is, in fact, possible to have a "planned economy" (i.e. a socialized economy) under a democracy. The crucial step in showing the inconsistency between democracy and socialism is to demonstrate the impossibility of a collective economic goal. At first this sounds hard to swallow. Can we not all agree on "the common good" or "the general welfare"? But these are vague, abstract ideas. In order to actually undertake the direction of an economy, we would soon find we need a precise system of evaluating every single human activity; and we simply don't have such a system.

The more "goal oriented" a society becomes, in terms of having collective goals, the more frustrated that society will become with its democratic institutions. As Hayek puts it,
Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective "talking shops," unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen. The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be "taken out of politics" and placed in the hands of experts--permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies.
It is worth considering our own relationship to our democratic institutions at the present time. I have no objection to being critical of our government institutions; in fact, this is a healthy thing. But there is reason to be concerned about the reasons why we are so frustrated with our government: people feel as if politicians have failed to deliver on some vaguely defined common good. There seems to be a high level of resentment toward politicians for not being able to "fix the economy" or "create more jobs." Many people just want someone to "do something." In short, I fear Americans are becoming more desirous of someone to exercise discretionary power over them, without working within the confines of the Rule of Law.

There is a fundamental difference between legal authority and the Rule of Law, as Hayek discusses in Chapter Six. The Rule of Law means the government must operate under a certain set of principles which are widely known enough to allow the average person to predict what the government will do in a given situation. It is not unlike the most effective parenting or teaching techniques: you set out rules at the beginning, and you faithfully enforce those rules.

The alternative to this is the exercise of discretionary power. This means that someone with authority has the freedom to judge situations "according to their merits." While we can imagine how this kind of judgment makes sense in our personal lives, it has disastrous consequences in the political realm. When decisions effecting the entire society are left up to the discretion of a governing body, invariably those in charge will have to make arbitrary judgments. It is crucial to recognize that this authority may be given lawfully through a democratic process, but that still doesn't make it the Rule of Law. To put it in stark terms, it is either the Rule of Law or the Rule of Men. The Rule of Law means there are principles with authority over the government; the Rule of Men means that there is no higher authority than those in power.

(In theological terms, the Rule of Law is the Sola Scriptura of politics, although the problem for the church is that the Bible is so difficult to interpret. Thus the Protestant church has always been somewhat lacking in principles that are sufficiently clear to all. Nevertheless, it makes sense that the basic impulse which started the Reformation would carry over to developing the concept of the Rule of Law, "a government of laws and not of men." One of the benefits of the American Constitution, in particular, is how short and plainly written it is. This makes it somewhat easier to interpret, and therefore quite useful in establishing the Rule of Law; although this has not prevented judges throughout our history from invoking its (pun intended) magisterial authority over it.)

We all wish to avoid this kind of authoritarian government, but we also desire greatly to unite society under common goals. How can we reconcile these conflicting desires? I think the key lies in realizing the limits of our knowledge. Hayek quite rightly notes that "it would be impossible for any mind to comprehend the infinite variety of different needs of different people which compete for the available resources and to attach a definite weight to each." Indeed, when I consider how limited I am even in understanding my own needs and desires, I find it astonishing to think that we could somehow find a way to systematically manage those of a whole society.

There is something even deeper going on here. I am reminded of an essay that Hayek wrote called "Individualism: True and False" at the end of which he remarks that "society is greater than the individual only in so far as it is free." That is a profound insight. When we consider vague and abstract goals--feeding the hungry, improving our education and health care, promoting the general welfare--they tend to take on the appearance of goals that unite society; but in reality, every human action must manifest a much more particular goal (i.e. feeding these people, spending extra time with these students, researching this kind of medicine). Individual human actions cannot, in themselves, manifest collective goals. The desire for our government to take action which manifests collective goals is a contradiction in terms. The government certainly has a particular role to play in society, and it can and should intervene in certain ways. However, it is not the role of the government to carry out the will of the people; that would be to reduce a large and complex society down to a few politicians.

I will have to deal with this concept some more, but let me just make one brief and perhaps cryptic comment: I do think that we as a society have something which might be called a collective "will." However, this will transcends any particular human will, and therefore it certainly cannot be carried out by a representative figure. Much the way a single cell or small clump of cells in the body cannot substitute for the entire body, so the whole society cannot be boiled down to a few representatives.

What, then, is the purpose of our democratic institutions? Quite simply, to establish laws. These laws are meant to communicate clear principles which can be made accessible to all. We should not be in the habit of changing our laws to suit a particular collective goal, but only to provide structure in which it becomes easier for people to work together toward the various goals they choose individually. The "collective will" of society, if it is comprehensible to us at all, will not be decidable in advance, but must be thought of as an emergent property of the system as it works out "from the ground up," as it were.

This is, of course, my own summary and interpretation of Hayek's ideas, and if I have not been totally faithful to him, I hope that will not hinder anyone reading this from considering these ideas for himself. Hayek is someone I think we need to continue taking seriously, for the good of our free society.

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