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 Liberty. Free 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.
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.
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.
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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