I know there are some serious Hayek-heads ’round these parts, so I was wondering if anyone had some cents they’d like to share on the essay. Is it, to your mind, little different from Friedman’s declarations of being a “classical liberal”; or is there something different and perhaps more interesting going on here?
And one last Q: is it just me, or does not this essay at times sound eerily similar to the proclamations of conservative apostates like Andrew Sullivan and David Frum? If so, what does that tell us about how conservatism has and hasn’t changed in the interval between Hayek and now?
Discussion below the fold.
Hayek’s politics were a consequence of his economics, and not — as usually happens — the other way around. Throughout his career, Hayek studied what he believed was the most important and also the most neglected economic input: knowledge.
The uncomfortable truth about knowledge is that we all have less of it than we like to admit. It takes a cosmically vast amount of knowledge to run the world, incomparably more than any one human brain can carry. It’s also vastly more than a committee can manage, because as the committee grows larger, the problems of communication explode.
Much of this knowledge can’t even be put in formal, procedural terms anyway: How do you paint a beautiful painting? What makes a good bedside manner? How do you run a great university-level calculus class? Some people know these things. We’d want them in any flourishing modern society. And none are susceptible to algorithm.
Summed consumer preferences are like that as well. When it’s difficult enough to figure out what you want, it’s obviously impossible to know in advance what a society will want, at least if we are to go beyond a bare subsistence attained by well-known methods.
Suppose you have a new idea. It could be “Make shirts out of bamboo polymer extract.” Or “Let customers assemble furniture themselves.” Or even just “Put a gas station on this corner.” Is it a good idea? You might like the idea. You might think it’s clever, or noble, or well-intentioned. But that’s not the same thing. Clever, noble, and well-intentioned win in committee, but they don’t necessarily make consumers happier. The knowledge about consumer satisfaction lies latent in the minds of consumers — who may not even be able to put it into words themselves. Still, it can be found.
The best test of whether an idea offers consumers more satisfaction is simply to let them try it. In the process, both they and we discover something. It could be that consumers generally find “Bamboo shirts are comfortable,” or “Assembling furniture is kind of fun,” or “This gas station is convenient.” Or maybe the opposite, depending on their preferences and the price point we can offer. But we won’t know any of this until we test. Our testing process is the market. That’s the important thing that markets do.
The first thing we would want for our testing process is something like a level playing field. In real life this almost never happens, but the process goes on anyway, because it has no choice.
The first goal of a Hayekian politics is therefore to move toward a more level playing field for new ideas and new technologies. We will never get it perfectly right — that would presume perfect knowledge — but we need to try anyway. Technological and cultural improvement depend on it.
No person shall operate a motor vehicle upon the streets of the city without giving full time and attention to the operation of the vehicle.
Reasonable? Yes! Makes a level playing field? Yes, because getting killed by reckless drivers is no way to run a society.
But note that it also makes driverless cars illegal — even if, as seems likely in the near future, driverless cars become safer and more fuel-efficient than the ones run by humans. Would commuting be fun if you didn’t have to drive? I think so. You could sleep, eat, read, watch a movie, play games, even have a drink if you wanted. Cars would stop being little anxious boredom chambers and turn into rolling immersive entertainment systems. Sounds like a winner to me, but we’ll never get to try it with laws like these.
It’s not just technology, either. Markets also change our culture. As James Peron put it:
[S]ocial conservatism is undermined by, and inconsistent with free, or depoliticized markets. More specifically depoliticized markets undermine the sort of static social structure that conservatives yearn for. Far more consistent with such goals is a system of state, or bureaucratic socialism. Social conservatism is not achievable with depoliticized markets operating within a system of limited government. The very nature of the markets themselves undermines the goals of the conservative…
The quandary for moral conservatives is that economic prosperity requires economic freedom, which is only secure in a society based on classical liberal values. Economic prosperity ultimately rests upon a liberal theory of values. Conservatives, of the Left and the Right, claim to favor economic prosperity and thus they are forced to reign in state power and unleash individual initiative.
But once the forces of competitive capitalism are unleashed, entrepreneurs produce goods and services which conservatives oppose. The market economy creates competition in ideas, information and images. Yet the conservative forces don’t want these new ideas competing with their own. But if the conservative succeeds in controlling the economy to the degree necessary to achieve this goal he will simultaneously destroy economic prosperity. This happens because to control the “undesired” effects of modern capitalism is to control capitalism. If central control of the economy is imposed the creative nature of capitalism is destroyed.
Want capitalism? Great! But then you’ll get Timothy Leary, too. You’ll get gay bookstores and abortion clinics and Internet pornography. You’ll get strange people doing taboo things, consensually, to each others’ bodies. If you don’t want them doing these things, you’ll have to be an interventionist to some degree. Half measures often don’t suffice, either, as we are now discovering in the War on Drugs.
If you want a culture to look only one way, then you are presuming a level of knowledge not given to any of us. And if you presume that stasis is best for its own sake, then you are betting against every truly great cultural innovation ever — or, at the very least, you’re betting that everything interesting has already happened. I don’t have the faith to think this way, and even if I did, I wouldn’t like the picture of the world it implied.