Monday, November 8, 2010

Hayek on self-sacrifice

If I seem to be portraying Hayek's views in moral terms, this is because I want to make the point that the ideals of a free market economy are not simply ideals of efficiency, progress, and prosperity, but also of justice. Without this, there would be no point in defending the free market.

In the fourth chapter of The Road to Serfdom entitled, "The 'Inevitability' of Planning," one of the issues Hayek deals with is the sacrifices that must be made in order to preserve freedom. One of those sacrifices is one which the whole society must make. He willingly admits that sometimes it is possible that market competition can prevent a particular benefit from being afforded to society. He admits "that it is possible that, by compulsory standardization or the prohibition of variety beyond a certain degree, abundance might be increased in some fields more than sufficiently to compensate for the restriction of the choice of the consumer."

Yet this is not enough to justify such coercive measures.
Whether such instances are of any great or lasting importance, they are certainly not instances where it could be legitimately claimed that technical progress makes central direction inevitable. They would merely make it necessary to choose between gaining a particular advantage by compulsion and not obtaining it--or, in most instances, obtaining it a little later, when further technical advance has overcome the particular difficulties. It is true that in such situations we may have to sacrifice a possible immediate gain as the price of our freedom--but we avoid, on the other hand, the necessity of making future developments dependent upon the knowledge which particular people now possess. [emphasis added]
Two things are demanded here. One is a sort of patience on the part of those who strongly believe in something they believe could benefit all society. Another is humility, especially as it pertains to our level of knowledge. This leads to the second thing which must be sacrificed for the sake of freedom: personal interests.

On the one hand, Hayek seems to be consistently arguing that humans should all be allowed to freely pursue their own personal interests. So what do I mean when I say he asks us to give them up? I mean that he asks us to give up the desire to see our interests pursued by all of society. In particular, Hayek takes a little stab at the "technical experts," possibly having in mind his fellow academics (who to this day seem to have a great interest in the power of the State).
While there can thus be little doubt that the movement toward planning is the result of deliberate action and that there are no external necessities which force us to it, it is worth inquiring why so large a proportion of the technical experts should be found in the front rank of the planners. The explanation of this phenomenon is closely connected with an important fact which the critics of the planners should always keep in mind: that there is little question that almost every one of the technical ideals of our experts could be realized within a comparatively short time if to achieve them were made the sole aim of humanity. There is an infinite number of good things, which we all agree are highly desirable as well as possible, but of which we cannot hope to achieve more than a few within our lifetime, or which we can hope to achieve only very imperfectly. It is the frustration of his ambitions in his own field which makes the specialist revolt against the existing order. [emphasis added]
In other words, everyone assumes his own ideas about how to make the world a better place are the right ones, and should be put on the top of our list of priorities. Now it is, of course, the prerogative of every individual who is passionately dedicated to a certain goal to work hard at convincing other people to aid him in pursuit of that goal. But coercing others into pursuing that goal is a different matter entirely. As Hayek puts it, "From the saintly and single-minded idealist to the fanatic is often but a step." It is dangerous, then, to put coercive power even into the hands of well-intentioned people, provided they mean to use it to pursue goals which they have conceived out of their limited experience and knowledge. And it is worth reinforcing this key point: all human knowledge and experience is limited.

"Though it is the resentment of the frustrated specialist which gives the demand for planning its strongest impetus, there could hardly be a more unbearable--and more irrational--world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realization of their ideals." Hayek has once again touched on a particular moral theme that I find deeply important: even the best parts of ourselves can cause destruction, and we must therefore have the humility to say "no" even to those desires in us which are good.

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