Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hayek on the need for self-examination

My next little reading project will be to blog through (maybe not so thoroughly as the Institutes) three classic works of F. A. Hayek: The Road to Serfdom, The Constitution of Liberty, and The Fatal Conceit. I've read a bit of Hayek's thought already, mostly through certain essays I was particularly interested in, and I've always found something incredibly attractive about his philosophy. If I could sum it up in one thought, it's that Hayek has a healthy fear of rationalism and presumption. Rationalism, on the one hand, is the desire to only accept those things which you can fully rationally justify to yourself; presumption here refers to the grandiose claim that everything worth accepting can indeed be rationally justified, and thus controlled by enlightened men.

It is my understanding that Hayek's very name causes visceral gut reactions from all kinds of well-meaning people. They are convinced his philosophy is nothing other than social Darwinism, and that understood in a particularly vicious sense. His economic ideas are commonly associated with unrestrained greed. Yet from reading even just a page of Hayek's works, it should be clear that nothing like that was ever the case. For me it is clear that Hayek's fundamental desire was to see society prosper in the very best sense. He deserves to be read now if for no other reason than that his ideas were extremely influential in the 20th century, but I would argue more than this: Hayek's ideas need to be reconsidered today as a sober reminder of the danger of some of our own political ideas.

The Road to Serfdom is to me a particularly compelling work to start with. In it Hayek deals with a possibility that is too easily ignored: that our own ideas, formed out of the best intentions, can be what drive our own society to destruction. It is telling that the word "Nazi" has become, in many ways, a joke in modern American culture. Godwin's law should tell us something about ourselves: we feel ourselves to be so distant from that kind of corruption which could cause such horrendous atrocities as the holocaust that we simply think it impossible that good ideas could end in that kind of disaster. It is for this reason that I find Hayek's words at the beginning of Chapter One so compelling:
"When the course of civilization takes an unexpected turn--when, instead of the continuous progress which we have come to expect, we find ourselves threatened by evils associated by us with past ages of barbarism--we naturally blame anything but ourselves. Have we not all striven according to our best lights, and have not many of our finest minds incessantly worked to make this a better world? Have not all our efforts and hopes been directed toward greater freedom, justice, and prosperity? If the outcome is so different from our aims--if, instead of freedom and prosperity, bondage and misery stare us in the face--is it not clear that sinister forces must have foiled our intentions, that we are the victims of some evil power which must be conquered before we can resume the road to better things? ... We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilization except one: that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our own part and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals has apparently produced results utterly different from those which we expect. [emphasis added]
Hayek was not a Christian, but an agnostic; yet it would appear he understood the human condition as well as any Christian possibly could. In his first chapter he has done something that many people of his time (he first published this in 1944) would not dare: he has acknowledged the common humanity, and therefore the common frailty, of both Axis powers and Allies, both Germans and English, both Hitler and the rest of us. This is an insight I find most crucial, but it is most difficult to actually accept. Even more compelling is the insight Hayek gives in this chapter that even the best parts of ourselves are potentially sources of corruption, rather than sources of prosperity.

Whatever else people think of Hayek, surely we can all hope this wisdom is not lost on future generations.

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