Hayek was a John Stuart Mill classical liberal

This is an exceptionally interesting article, that needs to be considered among us on the right side of the political ledger: F.A. Hayek & Social Justice: A Missed Opportunity and a Challenge. They argue that Hayek’s views were left incomplete, but what’s worth, because they do not conform to some commonly accepted modern version of conservative thought, Hayek is being abandoned by those who ought to turn to him for sound advice. Start here which is where the authors start with a critique of Hayek by Professor Edward Feser:

Dr. Feser argues, of “economism”:

This subjectivism about value has great utility when our focus is merely on satisfying the material needs and wants people actually happen to have. Hayek’s purely procedural conception of just action, however, effectively treats value subjectivism as a completely general principle of social organization. The rules that govern capitalist societies must not treat any of the diverse ends people happen to have as objectively better or worse than any other. To acknowledge that there is some objective fact of the matter about what people ought to want, or some standard of value independent of the market, would open the door to justifying interference with the choices of economic actors, and thereby destroy the price mechanism.

This is the point that Professor Feser makes which I happen to agree with:

This subjectivism, Dr. Feser contends, is an acid that will eat away at capitalism itself: “If there is no standard of good apart from what people happen to want, how can Hayek complain if what they happen to want is an egalitarian redistribution of wealth, or freedom from religion and traditional family arrangements?”

But this was no more Hayek’s position than it was John Stuart Mill’s. It is the modern libertarian position as best I understand it, but it is not the view of we classical liberals. I think this is an absolutely valid criticism.

This is what they conclude from the book they are discussing:

Hayek does not have an “objective notion of the good as such” when it comes to the substance of a society (or at least a large and complex society). But it is not clear he was entirely subjective about justice or even that he would necessarily limit it to the personal sphere. Even with regard to the distribution of goods, he is not averse to the idea that there are “smaller scale orders in which it is possible to distribute goods on the basis of various interpretations of justice, taking into account effort and need.” They argue that Hayek did have a conception of an objective nature to justice in the personal and even business realm, explaining, for instance, how “an employer should determine employees’ wages according to known and intelligible rules and that it should be seen that all employees receive what is due to them.

That could just as easily have been said by Mill. There are no absolute criteria available from any source that will lay down what the answers to these issues is, but must emerge through a process of trial and error as events are examined over time and in different circumstances. Freedom sits at one pole and justice at the other, but these are only words until attempts are made to transform such ideas into practice. What the authors see as “the Great Forgetting” which they blame on Hayek’s “incompleteness” is their own failing because they see the answers in some libertarian set of principles which Hayek did not accept.

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