Evaluating the Creative Powers of a Free Civilization

Featured image is Novgorod Marketplace, by Appolinary Vasnetsov.

Few phrases capture F. A. Hayek’s vision of emergent order more concisely than “The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization,” the second chapter of The Constitution of LibertyFree societies, in this vision, are perpetual discovery processes. One may wonder, however, how we evaluate what it is that these processes discover. Inspired by Hayek, James Buchanan appeared to believe that the evaluation itself emerges from the very same process. Hayek is harder to pin down on this question, but in The Constitution of Liberty appears to be a simple rule consequentialist.

Hayek and Buchanan’s view of social becoming as a discovery process is immensely valuable, but the frameworks by which they defend or evaluate this process leave much to be desired.

Creative Powers

Hayek describes a theory of social change which is similar to the one found in the diffusion of innovations literature, a parallel development he does not appear to have been aware of at the time he was writing The Constitution of Liberty.

That literature is what gave us the now widely used term “early adopter”. According to the basic model, many innovations get adopted by such people, but only a few go on to diffuse to the general population. One consistent finding is that early adopters are on average wealthier and higher status than the general population, which probably accounts for their greater tolerance for risk and demand for novelty.

In Hayek’s view these early adopters subsidize the process of innovation:

At first, a new good is commonly “the caprice of the chosen few before it becomes a public need and forms part of the necessities of life. For the luxuries of today are the necessities of tomorrow.” Furthermore, the new things will often become available to the greater part of the people only because for some time they have been the luxuries of the few.

Because research is often conducted on behalf of those introducing innovations, or marketers, the diffusion of innovations has something of a top-down bias. The great champion of this literature, Everett Rogers, pointed this out as one of its weaknesses. In Hayek, on the other hand, the innovations are generated in a radically diffuse and decentralized manner; by what boils down to trial-and-error on a colossal scale.

Where researchers have looked at specific attempts to introduce goods or practices, such as a public health initiative to teach Peruvian natives to boil water, Hayek is just as interested in how the existing practices of those natives were generated in the first place.

Hayek extends this through all areas of social life, starting with science and commerce, through sports and the arts:

Yet is it really so obvious that the tennis or golf professional is a more useful member of society than the wealthy amateurs who devoted their time to perfected these games? Or that the paid curator of a public museum is more useful than a private collector? Before the reader answers these questions too hastily, I would ask him to consider whether there would ever have been golf or tennis professional or museum curators if wealthy amateurs had not preceded them. Can we not hope that other new interests will still arise from the playful explorations of those who can indulge of them for the short span of a human life?

Much of Hayek’s defense of liberty is founded on a stance of radical uncertainty. We cannot know how science will advance over the next hundred years; if we could, we’d already be able to add those advances to our stock of knowledge now. This is true for product development, the many “new interests” that will “arise from playful explorations”, and sports. Most controversially, it applies to morality:

We cannot attempt to recount here the long story of all good causes which came to be recognized only after lonely pioneers had devoted their lives and fortunes to arousing the public conscience, of their long campaigns until at last they gained support for the abolition of slavery, for penal and prison reform, for the prevention of cruelty to children or to animals, or for a more humane treatment of the insane. All these were for a long time the hopes of only a few idealists who strove to change the opinion of the overwhelming majority concerning certain accepted practices.

We come very close here to Buchanan’s view that we cannot know how to judge the process until after the fact. How could we have known slavery and sexism were wrong until the abolitionists and feminists, those “lonely pioneers” of equality, taught us so?

But this is precisely where Hayek’s defense of liberty fizzles.

Discovering New Elements of the Good Life

Hayek’s consequentialism is plain enough from early on in The Constitution of Liberty:

It is not only in his knowledge, but in his aims and values, that man is the creature of civilization; in the last resort, it is the relevance of these individual wishes to the perpetuation of the group or the species that will determine whether they will persist or change. It is, of course, a mistake to believe that we can draw conclusions about what our values ought to be simply because we realize they are a product of evolution. But we cannot reasonably doubt that these values are created and altered by the same evolutionary forces that have produced our intelligence. All that we can know is that the ultimate decision about what is good or bad will be made not by individual human wisdom but by the decline of the groups that have adhered to the “wrong” beliefs.

Emphasis added by me.

The one-liner response to this rather crude formulation would be, as a friend put it, “so if China conquers America, authoritarianism is the best system?”

The problem is more basic than that, however. It is one thing to say that holding certain beliefs increases or decreases the odds that certain institutions will stick around under certain conditions (however contingent you want to make it). It’s quite another to say that right or wrong are determined purely by what sticks around.

By that logic, if societies which believed that “wrong” (why the scare quotes?) beliefs were determined by whether a group declined had themselves a tendency to decline, then this belief would itself be wrong. I believe the analytic philosophers call this a “performative contradiction”.

The Buchanan view as I understand it (and perhaps I’m reading too much into his short note) entails a simple relativism. Radical uncertainty has rendered social processes a black box; this black box will spit out both choices and the means to evaluate those choices. We can’t make use of past results in order to make prospective judgments.

Charles Taylor provides a far superior vantage point for approaching evaluation. In The Language Animal and elsewhere, he argues that liberty is not something that can be defined separately from its content:

But what is involved in respecting your liberty? Does adopting a law prescribing seatbelts in cars infringe our liberty in any meaningful sense? Certainly not in the sense that forbidding expression of political opinions, or the exercise of religion does. In fact, interpreting the scope of the liberty to be respected requires us to take account of what is really important in human life, which is a key to ethics, that is, to any conception of the good life.

And this is why various freedom indices must take stands on many substantive issues, something which the capabilities approach at least openly embraces.

A constant theme across Taylor’s work is the ineradicability of what he calls, variously, “strong evaluations,” “qualitative distinctions,” “constitutive goods,” or distinct forms of “rightness” from the merely logical truth-value. Hayek unwittingly makes the case for this. It’s clear he wants to make a defense of liberty grounded in epistemic humility, but “I don’t know why these institutions are better” is not very persuasive. So he’s forced to draw on some notion of intrinsic rightness in order to make a case that liberty and rule of law are, indeed, the right ideals.

Part of the rhetorical power of utilitarianism in particular, and consequentialism in general, is the illusion of neutrality. If we just focus on satisfying everyone’s desires, or getting the best consequences for everyone, it doesn’t appear that we’ve made a strong evaluation in Taylor’s sense. But of course, we have. Moreover, using supposedly weak evaluations as our guide usually precludes adopting social orders favored by (again only nominally) “stronger” ones.

So Hayek’s move towards a species of consequentialism can be read as an attempt to ask for very little in the way of consensus in order to make his case on behalf of liberal institutions. In doing so, he provides evidence for Taylor’s argument that strong evaluations are unavoidable.

Taylor sees something like a discovery process at work as well, though he does not talk about it in those terms. But his understanding of the relationship between explicit and implicit knowledge is much more sophisticated than Hayek’s.

In Sources of the Self, he argues that moral ideals “for the most part exist in our lives through being embedded in practices,” by which he means “any stable configuration of shared activity, whose shape is defined by a certain pattern of dos and don’ts”.

The basic relation is that ideas articulate practices as patterns of dos and don’ts. That is, the ideas frequently arise from attempts to formulate and bring to some conscious expression the underlying rationale of the patterns. I say this is the basic relation, not because it’s the only one, but because it’s the one through which others arise and can be understood. As articulations, ideas are in an important sense secondary to or based on patterns. A pattern can exist just in the dos and don’ts that people accept and mutually enforce, without there being (yet) an explicit rationale.

He continues:

The ways in which ideas can interweave with their practices are various. There can be a perfectly stable relation of mutual reinforcement, where the idea seems to articulate the underlying rationale of the dos and don’ts in an adequate and undistortive fashion; and then the idea can strengthen the pattern and keep it alive, while the experience of the pattern can constantly regenerate the idea.

But then it can come to appear to some people that the dominant ideas distort the practice and that perhaps as a consequence the practice itself is corrupt. They may demand rectification. From the standpoint of the conservatives, it will appear that the protesters are (at best) inventing a new practice. But however one describes it, the result of the struggle will be change, perhaps a split into two communities with separate practices—the case of Western Christendom in the sixteenth century.

Or it can be that the whole practice and its rationale come to seem repugnant, and there can be a demand for what is self-consciously seen as a transfer of allegiance to a new practice—as when ·whole Untouchable communities in India convert to Buddhism or Islam.

What can be discovered, in this relatively simple schema, are either practices or ideals, with a deep interconnection between the two. The quoted sections above are offered in order to show how ambitious it would be to try and trace their origin in either discussions of articulated ideals or emerging practices with implicit rationales, where a proper history would have to do both and map the interactions across each.

In Sources of the Self, Taylor argues that the modern world has gravitated towards genuinely new constitutive goods. The goal of the book is to map out those goods without offering a theory of how they emerged, exactly.

Taylor believes that the discovery of these new goods constitutes a real gain for mankind. But this isn’t to provide a consequentialist argument on behalf of modernity—e.g., modernity is good because as a consequence we have made these gains. No, these constitutive goods are themselves rationale for what constitutes a good life. We now recognize, according to Taylor, that being able to reason about some subject—especially the physical universe—with a certain detachment is an important part of living a meaningful life. Even Alasdair MacIntyre, no friend to modernity, implicitly concedes to this in fleshing out an ideal of independent practical reasoners. A lot of people mean something along these lines when they use the vacuous phrase “critical thinking.”

The spirit of uncertainty Hayek is seeking to preserve, and even Buchanan’s indeterminacy, are easily accommodated by Taylor’s framework without falling into consequentialism or relativism. He does this by focusing on the different senses of “rightness” for a given domain. The rightness of classical physics or quantum mechanics is not determined by whether the society that believes in them survives, or how they were generated. The rightness of ideals or constitutive goods similarly does not depend on such things; we must argue them on their own merits. The arguments can only be “hermeneutical,” he says; that is, there are no knock-down arguments as you might find in physical science. But the dimension of rightness remains.

Tacit Knowledge is Not Irrational

In his argument against attempting to rationally design society, Hayek invokes what has come to be called tacit knowledge.

Not all knowledge in this sense is part of our intellect, nor is our intellect the whole of our knowledge. Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools, and our institutions—all are in this sense adaptations to past experience which have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct.

He goes on to call these “non-rational factors,” placing him squarely in the school of thought of Edmund Burke. In this view, reason sits atop an ocean of unreasoned tradition.

In Hayek’s version, something analogous to natural selection weeds out the bad tacit knowledge over time. He concedes that “Some may be retained long after they have outlived their usefulness and even when they have become more an obstacle than a help.” But on the whole, in the long run, tacit knowledge tends to optimize to the challenges a society must meet.

The reason for supposing this is very obscure. On what basis is “less suitable conduct” weeded out? Is it because we recognize that they’re less suitable, and thus “selectively eliminate” them? In that case, they would seem more rational than he suggests. Hayek speaks very vaguely about wrongness of tacit knowledge revealing itself through the decline of the groups which employ it. But what’s the mechanism? Do the groups recognize they are in decline, and seek to emulate groups which are doing better? Or are they conquered by groups with conduct that is “more suitable”?

Whatever Hayek may think, all of this seems subject to Taylor’s critique of Hume in The Language Animal. Hume’s theory of moral sentiments involved social approval and disapproval acting as corrective mechanisms. I feel approval upon seeing some benevolent action, and the benevolent person is pleased by my approval. Hume reduces all of these to the level of unthinking feeling, bare reaction, hardly more than animal instinct.

But all this leads up to the question: is the favorable reaction to benevolence, which Hume rightly points to, a simple reaction, or a felt insight (which may later have to be modified, as the enquiry/ dispute proceeds). What was Hume getting at? What could he have been getting at? It would appear that his official view about his own theory saw approbation as a simple reaction. To admit insight would be to open the door to reason— admittedly a hermeneutical reasoning, not one of knockdown arguments or revelations of the undeniable. On the other side, it is clear that approbation wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. We have to recognize some act as one of benevolence before we approve it, and that may demand enquiry into the agent’s intention in acting (did he have an ulterior motive?), as well as causal reasoning (if the act manifestly did harm, and this was obvious to the agent, could he have been benevolent?). But the reasoning Hume admits concerns only contingent efficient causation, whereas developing a moral insight leads rather to a change, even transformation of the goal sought.

Emphasis added by me.

We are not automatons reacting to stimulus. When the people around us start using some product that didn’t exist before, we can look at how it fits into their life. We can talk to them about it. We can consider whether it might be of any use to us. And then we can decide to adopt it. If it’s a non-durable good, we can decide whether we want to continue to get it after we’ve used it up. If it’s a durable good, we can decide whether we want to get rid of it at any point, or to not replace it once it has broken down for good. These decisions are not made through some internal optimization formula. Nor do we typically draw on a Theory of Everything in order to make them; they’re “non-rational” in that narrow sense.

Once again, Taylor’s framework brings in many degrees of rightness, as understood by practitioners as well as theorists. He offers something more palatable than the simple dualisms of rational and non-rational, tacit and explicit, theory and practice.

Broadly, he offers three “rungs” of articulation.

At the bottom are what he calls enactments.

A good example is the “body language” of personal style. We see the leather-jacketed motorbike rider step away from his machine and swagger toward us with an exaggeratedly leisurely pace. This person is “saying something” in his way of moving, acting, speaking. He may have no words for it, though we might want to apply the Hispanic word ‘macho’ as at least a partial description. Here is an elaborate way of being in the world, of feeling and desiring and reacting, which involves great sensitivity to certain things (like slights to one’s honor: we are now the object of his attention, because we unwittingly cut him off at the last intersection), and cultivated-but-supposedly-spontaneous insensitivity to others (like the feelings of dudes and females), which involves certain prized pleasures (riding around at high speed with the gang) and others which are despised (listening to sentimental songs); and this way of being is coded as strongly valuable; that is, being this way is admired, and failing to be earns contempt.

The biker’s whole way of carrying himself seems to have a vocabulary of its own, but this need not be articulated. This corresponds to the level of practice and tacit knowledge in Hayek’s framework, but it isn’t irrational. As Taylor said of practices in Sources of the Self; there are stable patterns of dos and don’ts—that is, there are standards of right and wrong inherent to the enactments. Even if they aren’t articulated yet, there are strong evaluations here, notions of good that are being aligned with.

The second rung involves naming the enactment (“macho”) and some of its characteristics. This is not simply a matter of labeling something that exists in the world, like a rock or a dog; the act of naming and drawing attention to certain facets can change the practice in subtle or drastic ways.

The third rung is rationality is the full sense that Hayek would recognize; the sort he is attempting to emphasize the hard limits of. At the lowest level it involves working out the rationale of a practice, at the highest you get big systems such as Aristotle’s or Hume’s attempting to work out the rationales of many or all practices. Hayek and Buchanan themselves operate at this level as economists and social theorists.

The complex relationship among the rungs has already been hinted at in the discussion of practice in the previous section. The point I want to make here is simply that the lowest level is by no means irrational. Enactment is just as rational as high moral theory. Some might say more rational.

The diffusion of innovations in commerce as well as morality cannot be understood unless we recognize these different dimensions of rationality. When someone adopts an innovation, there is a rationale, whether implicit or articulated. Most likely, its level of articulation is mixed. The sociologists who conduct research in this field take this more seriously than Hayek, conducting interviews and surveys to attempt to learn people’s reasons, in their own words.

The creative power of our free, playful explorations is extraordinary. Who would have guessed that we’d be able to communicate, nearly instantly, with billions of people all over the world? Who would have guessed, 300 years ago, that we’d be flying around in planes, working in skyscrapers, and sending people to the Moon? Who can say what great and terrible things the future will bring?

But it cannot be explained in terms of non-rational group selection mechanisms, given the human sense of strong evaluation right down to the level of enacted meanings. And consequentialism cannot provide a neutral defense of the institutions which unleash this creativity, at least not without an independent defense of consequentialism as an ideal.

The spirit of Hayek’s project fits better with the substance of Taylor’s.

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24 thoughts on “Evaluating the Creative Powers of a Free Civilization

  1. Sam

    “It’s clear [Hayek] wants to make a defense of liberty grounded in epistemic humility, but “I don’t know why these institutions are better” is not very persuasive.”

    As description, Taylor’s epistemic and sociological account bests Hayek’s but breaks no new ontological ground.

    With enactment, identification and identifying, rational deliberation, and all their interplay, Taylor (via yourself) offers a compelling account of the sociology of moral order and technological progress. But with Burke and Hayek Taylor leaves us at consensus in the end. A marvellous consensus, though (sadly?) not more.

    Modernity will always claim moral progress for itself, truly felt, through enactment and the rest.

  2. Me again! I read this blog entry because… well I love Hayek and I love Buchanan even more. Unfortunately, I think your point might have gone over my head. Which is kinda strange. I have no problem quickly grasping the arguments of Hayek and Buchanan. I easily understand what they are saying. So I get the feeling that the problem isn’t on my end. But maybe it is? Maybe it isn’t? I don’t think it helps to be less accessible than Hayek and Buchanan. Personally, I wish that Buchanan had been far more accessible. And I wish that I was infinitely better at making him far more accessible.

    Here’s a paragraph that I just wrote to some lowest common denominator type that I’ve been debating in a forum…

    “The Titanic proved that it’s possible for ships to go in the wrong direction. Do you want to argue that it’s impossible for the EPA to go in the wrong direction? That would be a really stupid argument. I think you’re smart enough to understand that it’s possible for every organization to go in the wrong direction. Then the issue is determining who gets to decide whether the EPA is going in the wrong direction. Clearly you don’t trust that environmentalists are capable of deciding for themselves whether the EPA is going in the wrong direction. But if you don’t trust environmentalists to gauge the wrongness of the EPA’s direction… then who should be in charge of gauging the wrongness of the EPA’s direction? The only people who are left are the people who don’t care about the environment! Hopefully it should be abundantly clear how massively stupid it would be to allow people who don’t care at all about the environment to be responsible for gauging the wrongness of the EPA’s direction.”

    It’s not very well-written but I think it’s a pretty decent example of a point that’s reasonably accessible.

    Anyways, maybe you don’t care about being accessible… which is certainly your prerogative. And maybe you consider me to be the lowest common denominator. Maybe you’re right. But figured I’d share my two cents because in the past I thought some of your insights were kinda interesting.

    1. Here’s the defense of liberty I believe in:

      Freedom to make your own choices and your own mistakes is a central part of a good, human life. Work, tinkering, starting a business, trading—these are all part of what make up a good life as well, and what’s more, they’re a means by which we discover new goods and practices that can add to the good life.

      Here’s how I read Hayek and Buchanan:

      We should have freedom and property rights because they’ve had good consequences in the past. We should use our judgment to decide if specific activities are right or wrong because cultural evolution will work that out.

      I think that’s bogus. For one thing, our judgments are *part* of how cultural evolution happens. For another, the fact that some practice has stuck around does not make it good. Child pornography and child prostitution have stuck around; that does not make them good, and gaining social acceptance wouldn’t make them good, either.

      1. How would you distinguish something bad which enjoys near-universal approval in a society with lasting success from the good? — I didn’t see an attempt at this in Taylor and it’s hard to imagine what reasons one could give, generally.

        When people’s intuitions differ and pragmatic reasons fail to bridge the gap moral questions become inscrutable. One position may or may not be more True but per Burke we can only really access that kind of truth through patterns of social flourishing.

      2. You ask an epistemological question. My answer would be that there is no guarantee that we will, but there was no guarantee that Newton would develop his system, or that 20th century physicists would develop quantum mechanics. We are lucky enough to live in a society that has preserved a great deal of resources from the past—philosophy, theology, art, poetry, literature—as well as access to similar resources from other cultures.

        So how can we distinguish? By living our lives and trying to find answers, the way people always have. By talking with, challenging, and inviting challenges from, other people. By thinking it through.

        You can’t imagine what reasons one could give? How about that there exists a natural relationship between children and adults which is deformed by sex or sexual depiction between the two? There are plenty of reasons, and non-philosophers and non-social scientists don’t have as much trouble with this as those who overthink it and use garbage frameworks.

        Burke is wrong. Social flourishing is not evidence for right and wrong. It’s completely orthogonal.

      3. Sam

        I meant to suggest the ontological question by posing an epistemic one. A question like, Once we strip away a level of flourishing what content distinguishes relevant Goods from the rest? naturally suggests the question, What is goodness?

        Our sense of the good and the reasons we give in moral discussions really do follow from flourishing: As individuals and as groups of all sizes, and especially when these levels are realized together we draw moral lessons, accordingly. I think we discuss intuitions and frameworks developed over time precisely as means to promote flourishing–consciously or not. It seems to me that is what Taylor is ultimately describing and Hayek and Buchanan and Burke, too.

        Along those lines, I doubt you mean what you say about Burke, at least the way you’ve said it. Were the good completely orthogonal to social flourishing the good would be superfluous to questions of organizing human communities! “Some societies work, others don’t. Nevertheless, if our sense of the good suggests forms of the latter kind we’ll follow them to dysfunction!” — not what you intended, I suspect, but how else does one read “completely orthogonal”?

        Burke wouldn’t disagree that there’s more to moral truth than societal continuity and success. Burke was a religious man, though. Unclear on his grounding of morality, it’s safe to guess he took God’s nature and will to play central roles and didn’t consider the question worth pursuing. (Or didn’t consider himself to have much useful to say on it.) As a Catholic, Taylor may fall into this tradition, I haven’t read him and don’t know. Hayek certainly did not, and if you pushed Hayek on the nature of the good he may well have conceded morality as a social fact of nature but not a cosmic one.

        But if we’re going to assert Hayek is wrong it seems worth asking just *what it is* that we’re talking about.

        We resist the ontological question because we can take people’s current beliefs as a given. Fair play for ordinary discourse. And it’s easy to shroud our sense of the nature of the good in objective facts about social patterns. These are true enough.

        However, our deep desire (and, I believe, the reason people dislike the Hayekian line here) is Truth in another sense: Moral reasoning that grounds in universal principles, always true, no matter the incentives, no matter the society. A vestige of orthodox faith, perhaps–having this moral framework, it’s difficult to abandon. And to me Taylor’s description, though compatible with religious Truth, suggests (for the non-believer) an anti-realist ontology. Morality as social fact, alone.

        And being left with anti-realism leaves us with our collective sense of flourishing.

      4. The Aristotelian answer is that we know what the human good is the way that we know what a good heart (the organ) is; we can observe and get a sense of what a healthy heart looks like, what its purpose is, and what a bad heart is by comparison.

        It’s true that for the human good, it is importantly connected with flourishing. But there’s the important question of what exactly flourishing entails. If you just have a social evolutionist account, you’re missing the most important parts, IMO https://sweettalkconversation.com/2015/10/03/where-do-the-virtues-come-from/

        Materialist ontology and metaphysics, which is what you’re implicitly relying on (as did Hayek and as did Burke, though his still included a machine maker along with the machine universe) are actually very weak and bizarre, and have several huge holes that’ve never been plugged. So the fact that a materialist ontology leaves no room for morality isn’t troubling to me. Of course it doesn’t. But materialism is probably incorrect. The older accounts (some version of Platonism or even theology, though I’m not a believer myself) is probably closer to the truth; I tend to think a version of Aristotelianism is viable.

      5. So if Aristotle were correct, for instance, then final causality (or something like it) wouldn’t be dependent on social flourishing to exist. It would be a fact of existence.

      6. Sam

        I would amend materialism to naturalism though I realize that’s pretty well free of content (ontologically, not methodologically). Accordingly, I have no strong sense of what exists. Material in some sense. Patterns of material. Secular moral Truth? Perhaps; I do struggle with the reasoning there.

        Not that I think the Aristotelian account incoherent or anything like that. But on its face the social evolutionary framework seems capable of explaining both moral behaviour and moral feeling. I will read your post on where the virtues come from.

      7. Yeah, as I said on Twitter I made a dumb typo in the above—I meant to say Hayek and Buchanan argue we SHOULDN’T use our judgment to decide things in advance because cultural evolution will sort it out.

  3. You’ve critiqued the outcome of cultural evolution without taking into account the fact that cultural evolution has been distorted by the fatal conceit (“the man of the system”). Here’s Hayek on conceit versus evolution…

    “It is probably true that, at any given moment, a unified organization designed by the best experts that authority can select will be the most efficient that can be created. But it is not likely to remain so for long if it is made the only starting point for all future developments and if those initially put in charge also become the sole judges of what changes are necessary. It is an error to believe that the best or cheapest way of doing anything can, in the long run, be secured by advance design rather than by the constant re-evaluation of available resources. The principle that all sheltered monopolies become inefficient in the course of time applies here as much as elsewhere.

    True, if we want at any time to make sure that we achieve as quickly as we can all that is definitely known to be possible, the deliberate organization of all the resources to be devoted to that end is the best way. In the field of social security, to rely on the gradual evolution of suitable institutions would undoubtedly mean that some individual needs which a centralized organization would at once care for might for some time get inadequate attention. To the impatient reformer, who will be satisfied with nothing short of the immediate abolition of all avoidable evils, the creation of a single apparatus with full powers to do what can be done now appears therefore as the only appropriate method. In the long run, however, the price we have to pay for this, even in terms of the achievement in a particular field, may be very high. If we commit ourselves to a single comprehensive organization because its immediate coverage is greater, we may well prevent the evolution of other organizations whose eventual contribution to welfare might have been greater.”

    “Conceit” limits the number of people who are allowed to judge for themselves what changes are necessary. With conceit… valuation is exclusive. With markets… valuation is inclusive. We are all free to judge/valuate PETA. We are far less free to judge/valuate the EPA. It’s super easy to boycott PETA. It’s super hard/costly to boycott the EPA (ie move to Canada). It’s necessary to keep this fundamental disparity in mind when you evaluate the outcome of cultural evolution.

    1. This is still a side issue. What is the best use of resources? The question Hayek is trying to answer is: does the market or does the government allocate resources to their best uses?

      And my question is: how are we supposed to judge the answer to that question? What is “best”? In order for us to look at the outcome of markets or the outcome of central planning and say one is better than the other, we must evaluate each as good or bad, or some mixture of good things and bad things.

      Hayek’s answers and yours, implicitly, is that something like PETA is better than the EPA because we can let people decide for themselves in the case of the former. But that implies that letting people decide for themselves is inherently good, something that needs to be defended. Letting people decide for themselves whether to pay for child porn does not make child porn good. Child porn is bad, inherently, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong, full stop. That is how right and wrong work.

    2. To give more examples:

      Central planning is bad because systems that primarily operate that way have more famines, and a system that starves innocent people to death is bad.


      Markets are good because they provide the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances, which means we have fewer famines, but also shortages of less crucial but still important things like toilet paper. Allowing people to survive, but also to live comfortably, is good.

      1. On the one hand, PETA is valuated and scrutinized by people who truly care about animals. But on the other hand, my girlfriend gets teary eyed when she watches that Sarah Mclaughlin commercial with the abused animals. Yet, as far as I know, my gf has never donated any money to any animal organization. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s an example of the free-rider problem.

        Is the EPA valuated and scrutinized by people who truly care about the environment? What’s the point? If due diligence leads you to believe that it’s a very effective organization… it’s not like you can give more of your taxes to it. If due diligence leads you to believe that it’s a very defective organization… it’s not like you’re going to move to Canada in order to boycott it.

        Whatever you think is a problem… it’s more likely to be solved with more scrutiny and valuation. With public goods, because of the free-rider problem, we can only maximize scrutiny/valuation by creating a market in the public sector. If my gf doesn’t allocate her taxes to improving the well-being of animals… then I can only conclude that perhaps she’s more concerned with the well-being of the environment…or children… or cancer patients.

        In terms of “good” and “bad”… The Holocaust was bad because it destroyed 6 million Jews’ worth of difference. This severely hindered humanity’s progress.

        Personally, I don’t find any use in saying that the Holocaust was inherently bad, full stop. It’s not even an argument against mass murder. Or, it’s a really bad argument. What we need are really good arguments against the diminishing of difference. Adam Smith, Bastiat, Mill, Hayek and Buchanan we’re all on the right track. Did Adam Smith say slavery was inherently bad? I don’t know. But I know that he said this about slavery…

        “Slaves, however, are very seldom inventive; and all the most important improvements, either in machinery, or in the arrangement and distribution of work which facilitate and abridge labour, have been the discoveries of freemen.” – Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

      2. So you think that the only reason killing 6 million Jews is bad is that it hampered our progress? If we could show that progress was not materially impacted, then mass murder would be OK? This is the heart of the issue. Hayek, Buchanan, and you, hold to a version of consequentialism, which makes whether or not mass murder is bad entirely contingent on whether it impedes getting results we want. That is the repugnant result of a repugnant framework.

  4. In the beginning of the Bible, Cain killed Abel. Not too long afterwards God produced the 10 commandments. Once of which was, “thou shalt not kill”. Then, in the new testament, a few Romans and Jews killed Jesus. In the crusades, lots of Christians killed lots of people. And in World War II… the Germans killed 6 million Jews.

    I’m pretty sure that “thou shalt not kill” REALLY isn’t cutting it. It’s seems pretty self-evident that we need a more persuasive argument. Do you have a more persuasive argument against murder? If not, and we fail to come up with one, then it seems like history is doomed to repeat itself over and over and over.

    I think people understand “thou shalt not kill”. What people don’t understand is WHY thou shall not kill. My reason is because killing diminishes difference and difference is the source of progress. Is this a good reason? Obviously not if you can disprove it. However, rather than attempting to do so, you simply jumped on a moral high horse and pranced around so that everybody could clearly see and admire your majestic moral superiority.

    1. Why is better demonstrated in stories and art than philosophy. And we do have such stories, and people are persuaded by them. By and large, people understand that it is wrong to kill, in most circumstances, and especially when the victims are innocent. But people are flawed, in a number of respects; they are tempted to do wrong even when they know it is wrong, and sometimes they are uncertain about whether something is wrong, if they believe in some other duty that calls for them to do something that might otherwise but wrong (such as killing in a just war).

      If you want to dig deeper in the the “why” philosophically, that’s a longer conversation, but one short summary of Aristotle’s take on it can be seen in this post which I linked to above: https://sweettalkconversation.com/2015/10/03/where-do-the-virtues-come-from/

      I apologize if I just seemed to be jumping on a moral high horse, but I’m a bit touchy on the idea that the suffering and deaths of millions of innocents is only wrong if we can demonstrate that it impeded some notion of progress. That’s exactly the kind of argument people made to justify their execution in the first place—the eugenicists believed that they could identify those who actively *stood in the way* of progress. More to the point, you haven’t even made it clear what progress would entail. If you’re going to make that sort of argument you should be aware of how it can go wrong: https://sweettalkconversation.com/2016/03/15/warning-for-some-values-of-x-y-genocide/

  5. I read your blog entry about virtue and got flashbacks of Socrates and Euthyphro. I have and enjoyed John Holbo’s book… Reason and Persuasion. Holbo is my favorite liberal. Coincidentally, he has a recent blog entry over at Crooked Timber about Hayek. It’s worth taking a look at if you haven’t already seen it.

    From my perspective, most people don’t know the true/correct/right “Why”. My proof of this is that we aren’t free to allocate our taxes. This is concrete evidence that people don’t truly understand the value of difference. Which means that people don’t truly understand why slavery and murder are bad.

    “Since the Germans drove the Jews out and lowered their technical standards, our science is definitely ahead of theirs.” – Winston Churchill, The Few

    The eugenicists thought that they understood the source of progress… but their actions clearly revealed that they really didn’t. They worshiped uniformity. But sameness is the source of regress… not progress. Sameness means putting too many eggs in the same basket. This is detrimental whether we’re talking about evolution or economics. The eugenicists worshiped uniformity. I worship difference. Difference is the God of progress.

    I’m not sure what you mean that I haven’t made it clear what progress would entail. Right now Netflix gives me the opportunity to rate its content by using their star system. But Netflix does not give me the opportunity to allocate my fees to my favorite content. Should it? Yes, definitely. My allocations would reflect my difference. Your allocations would reflect your difference. The supply of content would quickly come to reflect the diversity of the demand for content. Actors, writers, directors would be more efficiently allocated. More valuable content would be created. This would certainly count as progress.

    1. Why? Who cares about diversity? Why is catering to people’s preferences more exactly so good in itself? You haven’t defended this, you’ve simply relied on it as a first principle.

  6. Here’s your defense of liberty…

    “Freedom to make your own choices and your own mistakes is a central part of a good, human life. Work, tinkering, starting a business, trading—these are all part of what make up a good life as well, and what’s more, they’re a means by which we discover new goods and practices that can add to the good life.”

    Is there any diversity in your defense? Of course. Freedom is people’s ability, chance, opportunity to express their differences. But you don’t specify this. It’s definitely there… it’s there by definition… but you don’t even mention it.

    Yet, here you are asking me who cares about diversity. You’re asking me why catering to people’s preferences more exactly is so good in itself. You’re saying that I haven’t defended this, that I’ve simply relied on it as a first principle.

    Your defense of liberty is a defense of difference. But are you a pragmatarian? Do you perceive any benefit to giving people the freedom to choose where their taxes go? No? Do you perceive any benefit to Netflix users having the freedom to choose where their fees go? No? Do you perceive any benefit to replacing voting with spending? No? Then your defense of difference is simply regurgitation.

    When you say, “difference here, but not there, or there, or there…” then it’s a given that you don’t truly understand why difference should be anywhere.

    What’s a good defense of difference? How much progress would be made with only asexual reproduction? Would we be here? Nope. We’re here because sexual reproduction is all about difference. Is our very existence a good defense of difference? Well yeah. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you said, “difference in genetics, difference in the private sector, but no difference there, or there or there…”

    Asexual reproduction certainly has some difference. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be sexual reproduction. The difference is the amount of difference. With sexual reproduction there’s a lot more difference. More difference means more progress. Progress is a function of difference.

    Right now all our biodiversity is on one planet. Is this a problem? How long until we colonize space? How long before all our biodiversity isn’t in one basket? It’s a function of difference. Most of the humanity’s difference is latent. Poverty is a big reason. Another big reason is that taxpayers aren’t free to directly allocate their taxes. Difference in the public sector would eliminate poverty. Then humanity’s difference will be fully unleashed. We’ll colonize space… which will mean even more difference and even more progress.

    Are you convinced? Probably not. Maybe I’m wrong. But I have yet to hear a good argument for the segregation of difference. Lots of people argue against racial segregation. But lots of people think diversity can be represented. It’s the premise of juries and congress. Diversity can’t be represented. There was only one exception…

    “Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

    Walt Whitman was the only exception. Nobody else can contain multitudes. Or even a crowd. Or even a small gathering.

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