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.

Hayek v. Mises

Sinclair’s post and the John Papola video on Mises v Marx was a really interesting but I doubt will have the same penetration as did his early video on Keynes v Hayek. This continues to provide some kind of ground for understanding the economic policies of our time, and the disasters of a demand-side approach to managing an economy. Central banks are now the major carriers of the disease.

As it happens I am in the last stages of completing my manuscript on Classical Economics and what is needed for a modern economist to follow the classics, which studying modern theory makes virtually impossible. This is the draft opening to the chapter on Austrian economic theory for your interest. Comments welcome.

Although Carl Menger initiated the Marginal Revolution with the intent to find a unified theory of value, the names now most closely associated with the Austrian School are Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. And while both are seen from a distance as almost one and the same, up close they were quite different from each other. There are many ways to highlight their differences, but here their approaches will be compared through their attitudes to John Stuart Mill, since both specifically identified themselves with the classical liberal tradition.

Where it matters is in the social aims an economist might hold. The essence of Mill’s approach to economic theory was to attempt to answer the question, what ought to be done to create the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people? Uppermost in his mind was the question of what can be done to raise the living standards and economic wellbeing of the individual members of the community. Yet while he called himself a “socialist”, it was the kind of socialism that by today’s standards would have had him grouped among the most market-oriented political theorists of the present day. In particular, he would find modern macroeconomic theory, and the policy matrix that accompanies its Keynesian basis, completely false. While he saw a definite role for government involvement in the economy, the basic framework was that everything that can be left to the market should be, while also understanding that not everything can be left to the market. He saw a clear but limited role for government regulation.

Hayek’s approach is similar to Mill’s (and I would say my own). Hayek discusses the economics prior to the publication of Menger’s Principles of Economics in 1871, noting that this was only “a mere twenty-three years since the great restatement of classical economics by John Stuart Mill (Hayek 1992: 96-97). He continues:

“It is important for proper appreciation of Menger, that we do not underestimate what had been achieved before. It is misleading to think of the preceding period, 1820-1870, as simply dominated by Ricardian orthodoxy. At least in the first generation after Ricardo there had been plenty of new ideas. Both within the body of classical economics as finally expounded by John Stuart Mill and even more outside it there had been accumulated an array of tools of analysis from which later generations were able to build an elaborate and coherent structure of theory after the concept of marginal utility provided the basis of the unification. If ever there was a time in which a quasi-Ricardian orthodoxy was dominant, it was after John Stuart Mill had so persuasively restated it. Yet even his Principles contain very important developments which go far beyond Ricardo. (ibid.: 97)

The point was that Mill had provided much of the raw material that the marginalists had been able to consolidate into a more unified whole. Hayek stops to state that

“It is indeed quite difficult to understand how a scholar of the penetration and transparent intellectual honesty of John Stuart Mill could have singled out what was so soon felt to be the weakest part of his system for the confident assertion that ‘there is nothing in the laws of value which remain for the present or any future writer to clear up; the theory of the subject is complete.” (ibid.: 98)

That Mill, the greatest utilitarian scholar of his generation, had no interest in making utility the core of his own theory of value may have been a conundrum to Hayek, although it might also have suggested that utility had been considered by Mill but then rejected. Yet the core point here is that there is no question that Hayek had a profound and extremely high regard for the economics of Mill, self-proclaimed “socialist” though he may have been. This is opposite to the attitude taken by Mises.

The economics of Mises is astonishingly detailed and profound. But what makes his approach so austere is its narrow focus on economic issues almost entirely outside the social and political arena. Hayek, like Mill, was continuously thinking through how economic conditions could be improved using as many arms as policy as possible, while always understanding the limits that are placed on the various possibilities available by the laws of gravity of economic theory which forbid various approaches to be adopted. Mises, on the other hand, thought that only an absolutely rigid adoption of market-based economic theory was acceptable. And unlike Mill, who even in 1848 could see how economic policies would be constrained by popular pressures to alleviate economic pressures and to use governments to temper economic outcomes, Mises accepts no compromise with the hard-edge views of how a market economy must operate. Here he discusses his views of John Stuart Mill in his Liberalism in the Classical Tradition (Mises 1985).

“John Stuart Mill is an epigone of classical liberalism and, especially in his later years, under the influence of his wife, full of feeble compromises. He slips slowly into socialism and is the originator of the thoughtless confounding of liberal and socialist ideas that led to the decline of English liberalism and to the undermining of the living standards of the English people. Nevertheless – or perhaps precisely because of this – one must become acquainted with Mill’s principal writings:

Principles of Political Economy ˆ(1848)
On Liberty (1859)
Utilitarianism (1862)

“Without a thorough study of Mill it is impossible to understand the events of the last two generations. For Mill is the great advocate of socialism. All the arguments that could be advanced in favor of socialism are elaborated by him with loving care. In comparison with Mill all other socialist writers – even Marx, Engles and Lassalle – are scarcely of any importance.” (Mises 1985: 195)

An indication of how adamantine Mises’s political judgements are may be recognised in the following comment from the preface he wrote for Liberalism in 1962.

“In England the term ‘liberal’ is mostly used to signify a program that only in details differs from the totalitarianism of the socialists.” (ibid.: xvi)

At any rate, no actual socialists have ever cited Mill as the source of their views on how an economy ought to be managed. Yet Mises’s concerns over the drift of economic theory and government policy remain a vivid warning of how dangerous economic theory has become, both economically and politically.

Say’s Law and the failure of Keynesian economics

I am very happy to say that the best paper I have ever written was just yesterday accepted for publication. It’s on John Stuart Mill’s Fourth Proposition on Capital which he published as part of his Principles of Political Economy in 1848. In his own lifetime it was never challenged. Leslie Stephen (who incidentally was Virginia Wolf’s father) described it in 1876 as “the best test of a sound economist”. And yet by 1890 and ever since, although some of the great minds of economics have had a go at it, no one has been able to make straightforward sense of what Mill had meant. And when I say some of the great minds of economics, I am including Alfred Marshall, Friedrich Hayek and Allyn Young.

I should also add that understanding Mill may be amongst the most important issues of our time. Keynesian economic theory, which argues the exact opposite of what Mill had written, has had a devastating effect on every economy in which a Keynesian policy has been applied. Our economies are sinking under the weight of useless public spending and misdirected expenditures under the delusion that such spending will actually do us some good. Mill and every one of his classical contemporaries perfectly well understood that wasteful non-value-adding spending would not only do no good, it would actually do positive harm.

So what was this Fourth Proposition. It may not look all that formidable but in it there lies a truth that may yet save our economies. What Mill wrote was this: “Demand for commodities is not demand for labour.” Or restated using the jargon of today: an increase in aggregate demand will not lead to an increase in employment. The principle stated here is the classical pre-Keynesian meaning of Say’s Law, which has vanished from amongst economists and been replaced by the Keynesian theory which had been specifically designed to refute Say.

For me, the disastrous outcome of the application of Keynesian policies was a certainty. It was beyond any doubt in my mind that the stimulus would not just fail but bring ruin in its wake. I put my views into print in February 2009 just as the stimulus programs were being put into place and my five-year review was published in March this year. In 2009 it was mostly just theory although there had been plenty of Keynesian failures before that. By 2014, the evidence has become so overwhelming that there should no longer be the slightest doubt that a Keynesian stimulus will sink your economy into a coma and leave it that way for years on end. If you want to know why, you can read Mill, or if you find a thousand pages of mid-nineteenth century prose a bit on the heavy duty side, you can read this instead.

Hayek on Keynes’s ignorance of economics

I’d never seen this before and was apparently first published on 29 September 2012. The notes on the Youtube clip read:

Friedrich Hayek explains to Leo Rosten that while brilliant Keynes had a parochial understanding of economics.

“Parochial” is quite a word when the clip actually speaks of Keynes’s ignorance. It is well known that Keynes had a third rate understanding of economics but was a genius at polemical writing. After Marx, Keynes is the most destructive economist who has ever lived.

It is also interesting that Hayek sees understanding the history of economics as an important part in the education of an economist. Keynes’s ignorance of the economics of the past was seen as a great failing, a failing which now besets the whole of the profession. I wonder how much any modern economist would know about the monetary economists Hayek lists assuming they even know their names.

[My thanks to Harry for sending this on.]