Here is the sixth chunk of the argument. To return to the fifth chunk, click here. To advance to the seventh chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here. An Addendum to the present chunk, on cultural group selection theory, is posted here.
Nozick’s is a split view. There is the morality of the side constraints, and there is the egoistic morality of the market, and they have essentially nothing to do with each other. From the perspective of either, there is no intrinsic reason to care about the other. A similar critique ultimately applies to Hayek’s otherwise very interesting take on a moral vision for a free society in The Fatal Conceit (1988).
Hayek believes human behavior is structured in three tiers. The lowest tier is instinctual and includes genetically supported behavioral patterns and impulses that evolved over the thousands of years of our hunter-gatherer prehistory. The second tier is that of culture. Cultural customs, traditions, mores, and practices are transmitted through social learning. They evolved through a blind, quasi-Darwinian process of relatively random variation and selection through the success or failure of those who adopt them. They are not the product of reason. Reason itself, which is the third tier, is a late product of this process of cultural evolution. It enables us to consciously and critically evaluate evidence, hypotheses, and proposals. It is the only self-aware capacity of the three, but it is a very weak instrument. It is almost entirely incapable of grasping the reasons or justification or purposes of our actions or of predicting their effects. Hayek believes reason across the board is highly overrated. It serves mostly as a source of post hoc rationalizations of our behavior. One should not trust reason, whether theoretical or practical, very far at all. (The hostility to reason betrayed in this book is stunning. But further discussion of this point is a topic for another time.)
The different tiers are the source of different and sometimes conflicting behavioral imperatives, particularly “moral” imperatives. Our more primitive instinctual impulses evolved to promote the success of people living in small bands of 25 or so, whose members not only know each other but usually have familial relations and can easily meet face to face and make decisions by consensus or under the influence of a leader. Our instinctual impulses are therefore appropriate to small groups whose members have common interests and a shared context of knowledge. These impulses accordingly promote collective values of social cohesion (obedience to rules and authority, loyalty to group members and goals) and sympathetic regard for others (willingness to share one’s own rewards with others). Hayek summarizes these principles as “solidarity and altruism.”
Being genetically evolved over millennia, solidarity and altruism are deeply ingrained impulses. So it is unfortunate that they are ill-suited to the successful functioning of large-scale societies—what Hayek calls the extended order. In the extended order, most people do not even know each other, much less are they kin. They do not have particularly common interests or agreed-upon shared goals or a shared context of knowledge. In the absence of some widely shared, unifying goal, obedience to collective decisions or directives issued by a central authority is unlikely to serve the interests of most agents very well. Similarly, strong feelings of loyalty to members of one’s “group,” when that group extends to thousands (not to talk about millions) of people, is misplaced, inasmuch as one probably has little more in common with the typical member of one’s own group than one has with the typical member of the rival group. Again, altruism—sympathetic giving—will often be misplaced when people have no real knowledge of others’ contexts and actual needs. In short, an extended order is not a family unit, and it is a mistake to behave as if it were.
Instead, the extended order requires an entirely different, culturally evolved set of traditions. Indeed, Hayek thinks, it is only such culturally evolved traditions that allowed extended orders to emerge from small bands in the first place. These are traditions that present themselves as abstract rules—as principles—rather than as shared goals. The rules of an extended order may vary widely, but to the extent that they enable the extended order to be vigorous and prosperous, they will be rules that promote free market activity. These are rules that impose private property (which he calls “several property”), honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain, and privacy. He summarizes these principles as “several property and personal responsibility.” Clearly these are more individualistic values than those that stem from the instincts.
As I noted previously, he thinks the cultural principles of several property and personal responsibility have evolved through cultural evolution, not design. The process, interestingly, is one of group selection. That is, the cultural principles that promote the free market have evolved by promoting the greater strength and prosperity of some groups relative to others. These principles spread because the groups that adopt them displace other groups (or inspire other groups to emulate them). Significantly, this process does not require the principles in question to be optimally beneficial to individuals. This is important, because we have seen economic reasons to believe that they are not optimally beneficial to individuals.
Hayek thinks he can explain a lot of bad social theory and policy in terms of the conflict between the earlier, genetic instincts and the later, culturally evolved social rules. Both are deeply embedded in our psyches, and they can pull us in opposite directions in certain situations. For example, altruistic impulses make us want to help strangers halfway around the world, although truthfully we don’t know the strangers’ situation very well and are usually poorly qualified to help them, whereas the market, if allowed to operate, would automatically find the most efficient ways to satisfy people’s wants. Again, impulses of solidarity push us to favor our friends, family, ethnic, or other group members despite what the abstract, impersonal rules dictate, generally to the detriment of the economy as a whole. Thus, our instincts, which did not evolve by promoting the success of large groups, typically disrupt the successful functioning of such groups. But, being instinctual, it is emotionally satisfying to follow them and emotionally painful to neglect them, whereas abstract cultural dictates carry less emotional weight. Since we now live in large groups whose successful functioning depends on abstract rules of several property and personal responsibility, we do best to follow those rules and suppress our instinctual impulses. But of course, for reasons just explained, this is easier said than done. Hayek thinks a large part of the problem we have making modern society work, and a large part of the appeal of socialism, is due to the strong emotional pull of our “atavistic” instinctual impulses.
From the point of view of my project in this essay, Hayek’s approach is interesting because, like me, he proceeds by asking which moral principles are required by the thriving social order, not which principles of social order are required by thriving individuals. Our approaches also agree in taking the view that only a free society is capable of thriving. We differ, however, in that I also take seriously the question of what principles will produce thriving individuals and the problem of integrating the two sets of principles, whereas Hayek seems remarkably uninterested in individuals as such. It is noteworthy, for example, that he denigrates happiness as a goal and denies that the moral principles that make for a thriving social order should be expected to produce happiness (1988, 64, 69). It also seems clear that he regards the whole enterprise of moral philosophy—except where moral principles are the culturally evolved principles of the extended order—as a hopeless muddle and a waste of time (1988, especially ch. 5).
The distinction between genetically driven principles and culturally evolved principles has a certain plausibility, as does the particular assignment of altruism and solidarity to the first and several property and personal responsibility to the second, and it is amusing to read the erudite Hayek accuse his socialist adversaries of being in the grip of primitive and superannuated impulses and of being unable to come to terms with the more advanced cultural principles necessary to support large-scale societies. We should not accept these claims uncritically, however. For one thing, genetic and cultural evolution do not appear to be as distinct and hierarchically related as this model assumes (Richerson and Boyd 2005). For another, our genetically determined emotions (along with other genetically determined elements of our psychology) are not all bad from the point of view of an extended social order (Wilson 2002). If they were, the extended social order would hardly be possible. For example, as we shall see shortly, Robert Frank (1988) argues that certain genetically inherited emotional dispositions benefit the operation of a free market economy and may have evolved in part for that reason. Thus, both our genetic emotional dispositions and our culturally evolved practices should be scrutinized for appropriateness. And the standard by which they should be evaluated is—Hayek says—roughly the efficient functioning of the free market.
Hayek’s ideas about cultural evolution also seem questionable. Although some social orders have been observed to implode under the weight of their own economic and political incompetence—the Soviet Union and the imperial Spain of the 16th and 17th centuries come to mind—this does not seem to be usual. Most of the economies of Latin America and Africa, for example, have suffered from massive inefficiency from the time they gained independence from their colonial overlords to the present. But few of these economies have either disappeared or become imitators of the practices of developed economies. For that matter, Russia and Spain did not disappear or have their social orders replaced with more efficient ones. They’re still here and still largely incompetent. This raises a second point, which is that the dominant informal mores and practices of a society do not as a rule seem to change very quickly or easily. I do not mean the laws of the land or other formal institutions, but the informal customs and mores. For instance, property rights apparently have been reasonably well respected in England since the 13th century, despite the many vicissitudes that country has endured from then till now (Stark 2005, 153; McCloskey 2010, 315, 334–5). Thus, there does not seem to be very great scope for a quasi-Darwinian process of cultural variation and selection by resulting success or failure. Although quasi-Darwinian cultural evolution may well operate to some degree (to some degree perhaps it is inevitable), it may be a more fruitful line of inquiry to ask what forces induce and maintain the relevant cultural mores and practices. Another advantage of North’s new institutionalism is that it provides tools for this investigation, which, however, will have to be pursued in another place.
Finally, to repeat what I said at the outset of this excursion into Hayek, rich as his view is in many ways, it does no better than Nozick’s at solving the key problem that confronts any attempt to provide a morality for the free society; namely, to integrate the moral principles that are necessary to maintain a free society with the apparently egoistic behavior that is licensed within a free society. For Hayek, the moral principles of several property and individual responsibility that sustain the free society are arbitrary cultural imperatives with nothing to recommend them except their ability to allow the extended order to exist and thrive (cf. 1988, 70). This provides no reason for the members of the extended order to obey these principles if they can successfully evade them to their own advantage. And it sets up the paradox that people should selflessly devote themselves to these community-oriented values to create a space for the selfish behavior of the free market. To solve these problems, we shall have to look elsewhere.
- Frank, Robert H. 1988. Passions within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. Norton.
- Hayek, F. A. 1988. The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. Edited by W. W. Bartley III. University of Chicago Press.
- McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2010. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. University of Chicago Press.
- Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd. 2005. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Evolution. University of Chicago Press.
- Stark, Rodney. 2005 The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Random House.
- Wilson, David Sloan. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. University of Chicago Press.