Monday, May 20, 2013

Marginalia

. Monday, May 20, 2013


Corey Robin has written a long article arguing that Austrian economic thought and marginalism in general is descended from Nietzsche. Hence, Hayek et al are a bunch of aristocrats dedicated to oppressing society. I'd be happy to be persuaded that the marginalists -- at least as Robin uses the term, which isn't the only way -- are Nietzschean, but Robin's article didn't do it. Too many strong assertions based on tenuous evidence, and Robin is not exactly an impartial observer. This follow-on John Holbo post -- while exceptional in many ways -- doesn't do it either. Partially because it rests so heavily on a peculiar (I think) reading of this quote from Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty:

To grant no more freedom than all can exercise would be to misconceive its function completely. The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use.

This does not have to mean that "some people’s freedom is a lot more valuable than other people’s freedom", as Holbo wrote in a previous post and quotes here. In light of the rest of Hayek's work (or even the rest of the passage from which this quote is pulled: see below) it is strange to argue that this passage means anything like what Holbo thinks it means: "Ideally, we would find that one man and even make all others his slaves, if that is what it took to let him exercise his freedom to the fullest. Hayek thus affirms a freedom monster argument somehat analogous to the classic pleasure monster reductio."

The Hayek quote refers to the exercise of liberty, which may not be universal even if the liberty is extended universally. Hayek is arguing that it does not follow from the fact that the exercise may be non-universal that the liberty should be restricted. Instead, those who would exercise their liberty should be free to do so. In fact, there are a million liberties. None of us can act on all them, but all of us will act on some of them. Restricting liberties that the majority isn't exercising may be tempting, but it would be wrong to do so since the exercise of liberties leads to the improvement of society. That's the argument.

To get from Hayek to Holbo's interpretation of Hayek you have to take a few steps. First you'd have to ignore the footnote on the very passage Holbo pulls, which contains this quote (from some people I've never heard of): "If there is to be freedom for the few who will take advantage of it, freedom must be offered to the many." How does that imply enslavement of the masses for the benefit of one? Suppose I proposed universal suffrage while acknowledging that many people will stay home on election day. Would that make me anti-democratic? It's a strange argument.

Hayek believes that social progress occurs partially through experimentation, the results of which are ex ante unknowable. The "unknowable" part is extremely important for Hayek. It's how he can simultaneously support a welfare state and public provision of public goods while opposing egalitarian redistribution and social ownership of the means of production. "Knowable" advances can be socially planned, and Hayek was fine with using the power of the state to do so. ("It is the character rather than the volume of government activity that is important.") Unknowable advances cannot be planned but are nevertheless desirable, thus experimentation must be allowed through constitutionalization and encouraged by the preservation of (market) reward for experiments that succeed. Holbo is correct that this is Millian -- J.S. Mill's "utilitarianism" is dynamic, not static: society benefits at time t+1 from the exercise of individual liberty at time t. Whether this is actual utilitarianism or something else is, I suppose, the question -- but wrong when he implies that Mill, by way of Hayek, was Nietzschean.

Hayek seems to believe that the majority of society will choose not to experiment because they are risk averse -- "The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million..." emphasis added -- or because they are exercising some other liberty, but it is socially optimal to have somebody doing some experimenting. Those who are interested in doing so, those who will exercise their liberties while others do not, should be allowed to do so, since society will benefit if they succeed. The rest of the passage in The Constitution of Liberty quote above goes:

The less likely the opportunity, the more serious will it be to miss it when it arises, for the experience that it offers will be nearly unique. It is also probably true that the majority are not directly interested in most of the important things that any one person should de free to do. It is because we do not know how individuals will use their freedom that it is so important. If it were otherwise, the results of of freedom could also be achieved by the majority’s deciding what should be done by the individuals. But the majority action is, of necessity, confined to the already tried and ascertained, to issues on which agreement has already been reached in that process of discussion that must be preceded by different experiences and actions on the part of different individuals. 
The benefits I derive from freedom are thus largely the result of the uses of freedom by others, and mostly of those uses of freedom that I could never avail myself of. It is therefore not necessarily freedom that I can exercise myself that is most important for me. It is certainly more important that anything can be tried by somebody than that all can do the same things… What is important is not the freedom that I personally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things beneficial to society. This freedom we can assure to the unknown person only by giving it to all.

How can one (e.g. Holbo) read this and come away thinking Overman? It's more like the open source movement. Which makes sense, since Hayek's view on this goes back to his 1945 essay "The Uses of Knowledge in Society". He argues there that because much knowledge is local, and centralized planning cannot incorporate local knowledge, that centralized planning will fail. This argument is what he's drawing from to say that the exercise of liberty by some -- who are in possession of local knowledge not available to all -- is not suboptimal.

Now, possibly you could argue that Hayek's view of the masses is too dim (even though he includes himself in them) and that is where the aristocracy comes in and takes us to Nietzsche. Or possibly you could argue that the "knowable" advances are greater than the "unknowable" advances. Indeed, this is the argument against which Hayek dedicated himself to in writing The Constitution of Liberty, which was published in 1960 -- a time after Sputnik when Paul Samuelson was predicting that the USSR's GNP per capita would surpass the US's within a generation or so -- so you'd at least be meeting him where he is. The question Hayek is trying to address is whether society will benefit more from planning or from spontaneous emergence. He obviously believes it is the latter. He may be wrong, but not because he's a Nietzschean.

The better argument is the one made by Amartya Sen: it is not necessarily local knowledge which precludes some from exercising certain liberties, but rather material opportunity. It may not be that some will not exercise their ability but that they cannot do so. In this case they are not free. Hayek says almost nothing about this directly, but does say that just because some are free does not mean that all should be enslaved. Those who can exercise their freedom should do so, as this will provide benefit for society.

This is the point, I think, that Hayek goes astray. His argument about the importance of local knowledge and decentralization falls apart when those with local knowledge cannot employ it and opportunity is centralized. His claim that innovations by the few will benefit the many is empirical: sometimes they do, often they do not. His argument that order is spontaneous is contingent, in other words, not a law of nature. Complex systems can, and do, break down. To simply admit does not require giving anything else up.

But, again, this is not Nietzschean. Which is why Objectivists do not like Hayek. This is an argument that Hayek should revise his beliefs to include a role for a marginally bigger -- although not fundamentally different -- state, or some other redistributionary apparatus. This is doable using Hayekian language, even if Hayek himself and many of his supporters recommend a minimalist state. Hayek is reconcilable with somewhat-modest forms of social democracy, in other words, and social democracy is reconcilable with a deregulated-but-redistributionary political economy.

But to do that you'd have to admit that Hayek was not quite a moral monster. Corey Robin is dedicated to showing that the right wing is authoritarian in all its guises. He believes that when Hayek writes "Why I Am Not A Conservative" he simply cannot be trusted: he's a reactionary like all the rest, and all the rest are motivated first and foremost by a lust for exploitation and oppression. There is nothing inherently wrong with this intellectual project, and I've learned a lot by following it. But it is inherently limiting at the same time, and it commits one to answers before questions have even been asked.

16 comments:

JR said...

From Road to Serfdom: "Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance — where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks — the case for the state's helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong"

Emphasis mine. Hayek is probably the Austrian economist most amenable to leftist principles. Very odd choice of target.

Kindred Winecoff said...

I don't think it's an odd choice of target at all. I think Robin did this deliberately. I think he *had* to do it. See my last paragraph. Then, if you like, go back and read the first chapter of *The Reactionary Mind*. Robin doesn't need to go after Rand as an elitist; everyone already knows that. For his central claim to be true he needs to show that the least-likely candidates are aristocratic authoritarians-in-waiting.

Hence, Hayek.

But it's a very hard case to make on the plain evidence. Robin said he's been working on this article for a year. Presumably he's spent that time digging up isolated quotes and making tenuous allusions such as the one I highlight in this post. But even Holbo isn't willing to go quite so far as Robin (see comments in the CT thread where he says a little Nietzsche goes a long way... probably because any substantial look at either writer makes it clear that they are not close cousins), and Holbo yields to no one in his love of the right-wing-gotcha moment.

I really think this ends up contorting Robin in knots, however. What does he do with someone like Tony Judt, who was clearly conservative and clearly not reactionary (and who wrote kind things in the NYRB about Robin's first book)? As far as I can tell he's ignored him entirely. What does he do with someone like Henry Farrell, who is going around writing about how the social democratic project is in crisis and needs to be saved from the right-wing radicals? Are they all elitists lusting after the Ubermensch as well? Come on.

The problem -- for him -- is that he runs the risk of driving away folks who might be sympathetic. I'm having conversations with folks on Facebook and Twitter about this today who all say the same thing: I like some stuff of Robin's, but he takes it so far that his seriousness is in real question. None of them are right-wing.

LFC said...

An interesting post and I'm glad you got to the Sen point, with which I agree.

I haven't read a lot of Robin's stuff but my impression is that he thinks "the reactionary mind" is devoted above all to the defense of hierarchy and a hierarchical social order. Which is not necessarily the same thing as authoritarianism: they can go together but don't have to. Late Victorian Britain combined social hierarchy w a form of parliamentary democracy, tho admittedly women couldn't vote and a quite a few men still couldn't even after the Third Reform Act (1884). But the pt is you can have hierarchy w/o outright authoritarianism, and my impression -- possibly wrong -- is that the former is what Robin thinks conservatism and reaction are dedicated to defending.

I think Robin can go overboard -- at least his piece called "Why Conservatives Love War" which appeared in CHE a while ago paints w too broad a brush in trying to make all conservatives out to be militarists and warmongers of one sort or another. Some conservatives fit this description, others don't. But Robin, at at least in that essay, is not interested in drawing those distinctions. That said, I am in general sympathy w his politics if not w the broad-brush approach of some of his work.

LFC said...

Speaking of the marginalists, I. Wallerstein made a joke/pun, in something that used to be available online but isn't any more, about a passage in the intro to one of the editions of Jevons's Political Economy. I've been hesitant for various reasons to quote this pun/joke at my blog (and accordingly haven't done so) but maybe I'll track it down and quote it here, in the congenial shade of this somewhat obscure comment thread. ;)

Anonymous said...

Holbo's interpretation comes from combining the "one man in a million" quote with a line occurring a few paragraphs earlier: "If we knew how freedom would be used, the case
for it would largely disappear." Hayek is arguing a different point there--that the value of freedom lies precisely in what we learn from its unpredictability, so trying to predict which exercises of freedom are fruitful or harmful defeats the purpose of freedom. (Which would seem to imply that I should have the right to build a nuclear reactor if I can afford the uranium but that's offtopic).

So if the value of freedom lies in its unpredictability, and some people are less predictable than others, then the freedom of those people is more important. Hayek, though insists on freedom for all, not because freedom for all is equally valuable, but because freedom for each of us is still good, and for contingent reasons like that footnote (freedom for some requires freedom for all).

This does mean that "some people’s freedom is a lot more valuable than other people’s freedom". Hayek even takes this one step further a couple paragraphs later in that passage--
"Of course the benefits we derive from the freedom of others become
greater as the number of those who can exercise freedom increases.
The argument for the freedom of some therefore applies to the
freedom of all. But it is still better for all that some should be
free than none and also that many enjoy full freedom than that
all have a restricted freedom.
"

So, ideally, everyone is free. But if that's not the case, it's more important to make sure that there exists someone who is completely free than that everyone is partially free.

Granted, we're talking about second-bests here, but this turns Rawls on its head and turns it into a sort of Maximax principle.

Holbo's wrong about making everyone the slave of the "freedom monster", of course--in fact, he gets Hayek backwards, if we had perfect knowledge, the freedom monster would have nothing to teach us, and would therefore be useless (Robin makes a similar mistake). Still, I don't think the rest of Holbo's article (either this one or the original it was quoted from) depends on that particular misinterpretation (looks more like he was looking for the chance to be whimsical).

You are correct, of course, that "His claim that innovations by the few will benefit the many is empirical". Holbo seems to hypothesizing that Hayek would have found this psychologically appealing. (Especially if he doesn't even seem to consider the alternative--someone with different sympathies would be less likely to expect concentration of wealth to increase experimentation and innovation.)

If this was all the Nietzsche elective affinity case rested on, it would be weak to say the least. However, the quotes Robin dug up from Chapter 8, sections 6&7 on the wonders of inherited wealth seem even more Nietzschean--in those sections, Hayek is trying to argue that inheritors of wealth have better or deeper values than the rest of us. (Or at least that some of them will have better values, but it isn't clear why those with better values would triumph over those with worse). And here it isn't even a matter of empirical assertions--when Hayek complains that the support of the masses for the arts is inadequate, or that the tastes of the newly rich are inferior, it's hard to find anything but aristocratic preference behind that.

I'm not saying Hayek is evil, I'm not sure about the whole Nietzsche thing, but let's not play dumb here--sometimes stuff in Constitution of Liberty is weird. And that's not even the book liberals would find most objectionable--surely that would be Road to Serfdom the inspiration for countless Slippery Slope to Stalin arguments.

Anonymous said...

Also, when Hayek writes "I am not a conservative", he sees conservatives as people who are satisfied with being a "brake on the vehicle of progress", but Reactionary Mind argues that view of conservatives is wrong.

Kindred Winecoff said...

LFC,

I'd be interested in that Wallerstein quote.

Robin "painting with too broad a brush" is my first problem with him. My second problem is that he seems to think that the "reactionary mind" can only occur on the right. To me that's plainly absurd, and the fact that he'd even argue along these lines suggests that his project is primarily ideological.

(I didn't say "authoritarian". I said "aristocratic authoritarians in waiting". It may seem a subtle difference but Robin's reactionaries all want control. In any case Robin's essay ends with Pinochet so you tell me what he's *really* driving at.)

Anon,

I read your comment to be almost 100% in agreement with my post. You talk about unpredictability where I talk about unknowability. The bit you quote I make reference to (with a type) in the paragraph which mentions Sen.

But I don't think it's correct to conclude that Hayek believes what you say he believes here:

"So, ideally, everyone is free. But if that's not the case, it's more important to make sure that there exists someone who is completely free than that everyone is partially free. "

I read that (and the surrounding passages) to mean that, on the spectrum from universal "un-free" to universal "free", any move in the free direction is a good one. So "better... that many enjoy full freedom than that all have restricted freedom" is *not* a Maximax Freedom Monster. It simply means that we should support extensions of freedom at all times and in all places, even if they are not universal.

Why is this? Because freedom has instrumental value. So Steve Jobs' freedom is more valuable to society than mine because he created the iPhone and I did not, but it does not follow from that that my freedom should be restricted in order to enhance Steve Jobs'. And Steve Jobs' ability to create an iPhone depended upon others first creating cell phone networks, the internet, LED screens, etc. And Steve Jobs' creation of the iPhone allowed thousands of others to create applications for it. Etc. All of these are one-in-a-million, and they all aggregate for the benefit of society through trial and error.

This is important, because it's really where Hayek's supposed aristocratic preference comes in, which is the link to Nietzsche. But what Hayek is describing in the "tastemakers" sections of CoL is halfway trickle down economics and halfway an Aristotelian view of leisure that is echoed in some very similar ways by Keynes and Marx, among others! There is nothing in Hayek which is aristocratic, except (perhaps) a recognition that because of scarcity not all can live lives of leisure. Unlike Nietzsche, and like Keynes and Marx, Hayek believes it would be great if we all could.

Hayek's project is about maximizing the number who can and protecting those who are striving to do so. This is why he is all about constitutionalized rule rather than personalized rule. Getting from there to the Overman is quite a large jump.

LFC said...

Have e-mailed the Jevons thing.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Hayek says that every move in the free direction is good (so there's no Freedom Monster), but what I mean by Maximax is, if Hayek is forced to choose between two different directions, one increasing the freedom of the freest person, the other making the least free person more free, then, for the instrumentalist reasons you discuss, he prefers the former, doesn't he?

Hayek would not prefer to see anyone poorer. But talk of a society setting up a lottery to set up a special leisure class if none already existed is telling--presumably the same money used to create that lottery could allow a larger chunk of poor people to become middle class.

Now, Hayek has instrumentalist reasons for preferring to create that leisure class (in the counterfactual leisureless world) than marginally helping the poorest people. But it's not hard to find holes in those reasons: is it really true that our biggest innovations come from inherited wealth? That was not the case for Steve Jobs. Haven't some of our most unique cultural products come from marginalized groups? Is making the rich richer really supposed to cause more political change than giving poor people a chance to speak for themselves?

The issue is not whether it is a good thing, ceteris paribus to free someone from having to work for a living, but whether it is more important to grant that freedom than, say, to move someone from working class to middle class. And Hayek's answer here is the opposite of the Open Source/Wikipedia/Free Culture visions of a great many people with day jobs contributing in their spare time.

Hayek states that his position holds "even if we do not take into account the probability of inherited ability", but if ability could be inherited, so too probably is homogeneity--we would get better innovation if we drew from a diverse set of genes rather than counting on whoever was richest in the last generation.

Most disturbing was this passage: "The point that is so frequently overlooked in this connection is that action by collective agreement is limited to instances where previous efforts have already created a common view, where opinion about what is desirable has become settled, and where the
problem is that of choosing between possibilities already generally recognized, not that of discovering new possibilities. Public opinion, however, cannot decide in what direction efforts should be made to arouse public opinion, and neither government nor other existing organized groups should have the exclusive power to do so. But organized efforts have to be set in motion by a few individuals who possess the necessary resources themselves or who win the support of those that do; without such men, what are now the views of only a small minority may never have a chance of being adopted by the majority."

Here, the general public isn't just inferior to the inheritors wealth. They're completely without agency at all--they need some outside larger force--a government, an organization, or a person of wealth--to decide what they should think. Why can't they make up their own mind? Yes, they could all make up their own mind better if they could all be in the idle class. But if that's not possible, would it be better to give some of the people all the free time to develop their ideas to the fullest, or all of the people some time to develop their own unique ideas?

Kindred Winecoff said...

"if Hayek is forced to choose between two different directions, one increasing the freedom of the freest person, the other making the least free person more free, then, for the instrumentalist reasons you discuss, he prefers the former, doesn't he?"

I'm not sure he does! I think what he's arguing against is the claim that if we are forced to choose between expanding the liberty of some but not all or not expanding the liberty of any then we should choose the latter on egalitarian grounds. Hayek is saying this is wrong.

I think you're absolutely correct that as an empirical matter Hayek is on very questionable ground: innovation does not necessarily come from inherited wealth and may be even less likely to do so. But I don't think it's quite so damning as you suggest. "Moving someone from working class to middle class" is only strongly related to freedom insofar as it requires redistribution. Hence, at least for Hayek, such a move reduces the stock of freedom. Now someone like Sen might disagree with this (or maybe not), but from within the framework Hayek is using, it is perfectly reasonable to contend that raising peoples' incomes from $25000/year to $35000 is not such a huge increase in freedom, whereas heavy taxation to that end is a major abrogation of freedom for those being taxed.

Remember that Hayek was writing CoL during the 1950s, when the top marginal tax rate in the US was 90% (to take one easy example, but as I'm sure you know the US and European capitalist economies were highly restrictive coming out of WWII). Such a high tax rate might be such a restriction on freedom that it might prevent the one-in-a-million guy from making some investment which could lead to an innovation: he will only gain 10% if the investment pays off, but if it does not he loses 100%.

For Hayek, this is a tragedy because a realized innovation will trickle down to the rest of society over time while an unrealized innovation will not. Over any reasonable time horizon both the person who had his income increased from $25000 to $35000 and the person who was taxed to pay for that are worse off.

What does this have to do with aristocracy? Not much. But for Hayek freedom and social progress is not just materialist. So I take something different from the passage you find "disturbing". It's not that the public can't make up its mind; it's that they/we have made up our minds. We've reached equilibrium, decided on what we want, etc. Hayek is concerned that this could lead to social sclerosis; we'd miss opportunities to progress. We need an exogenous force to push society towards a new equilibrium. In fact we need a lot of them competing against themselves for the support of the public.

(Note that it's interesting to think about this in light of Henry Farrell's recent piece on the plight of European democracy.)

I think he's wrong to downplay the importance of emergent processes here, which can and do happen in large groups. It's odd because this is a big part of his thinking in other places. But I think his point in this section is that if we restrict the ability of aristocrats (or anyone) to try to influence this process then we're going to miss opportunities to advance as a society.

This is why he's not a conservative, in his mind.

I see plenty that is objectionable in that -- although less than I would if he didn't insist on the necessity of the welfare state -- but nothing at all that is Nietzschean in anything like the will-to-power sense.

Mike Huben said...

I don't understand how you all can go on about "freedom" without saying which freedom you are talking about.

Hayek's idea of freedom was "from government". But freedom to create and innovate depends crucially on other sorts of freedoms, such as some freedom from the demands of daily life. If you look at the major computer-based start-ups of the past few decades, they were all started by students who did not have to earn their education or their living expenses. They were free to experiment and innovate because they didn't have to work a low-paying job that took up much of their time and energy. Likewise, we have people like Rowlings who was free to pursue her writing because she was living on state benefits.

Anonymous said...

I understand that Hayek opposes redistribution in his general work, but in the narrow context of tCoL 8.6 I don't think that applies. "If we knew of no better way of providing such a group, there would exist a strong case for selecting at random one in a hundred, or one in a thousand, from the population at large and endowing them with fortunes sufficient for the pursuit of whatever they
choose." This is contingent on a counterfactual, but it's still an odd thing for Hayek to consider--not only does it involve society making an arbitrary choice (the decision to create this lottery), but the whole point of the lottery seems to be to create even more disruptive arbitrariness--to make somebody rich, anybody, just to be able to shake things up.

re:the public, I think our readings differ in that it didn't sound to me like Hayek was talking about an occasional or intermittent problem, like a gyroscope becoming gimbal locked. He didn't seem to think the public was capable of moving itself at all--it could only choose from pre-selected outcomes, if even that. And what are we to do if the combination of a working-class public and a hereditary leisure class becomes sclerotic? "Add another gimbal" isn't a permanent solution to gimbal lock. Any exogenous force must, itself, come from some other system.

I admit my understanding of Nietzche is even worse than my naive grasp of Hayek. But it seems like there are many tensions in tCoL that could have been resolved differently than the way Hayek choose to resolve them.

Anonymous said...

KW - excellent analysis, even if I can't agree with your parting suggestion that there is nothing wrong with Robin's larger intellectual project. Even if we set aside that the project might be intellectual poison of a sort, it's probably a waste of Robin's fine intelligence and educational investments.

Your analysis shows that you're a more sophisticated and serious student of Hayek than I am, but I take Hayek's key insights to center around the problems of human ignorance in a hyper-complex modern society.

At risk of appropriating or misconstruing Hayek's writings, with which I am still only casually familiar, I'm inclined toward an updated, 21st century "Hayekian" take on his support for a "modest" Social Democracy . . .

Which is that, you're right, from a Hayekian perspective, there ought not be a priori rejection of Social Democracy, in part because Social Democracy is premised on the idea that democratic societies have the knowledge and cognitive resources to ameliorate socioeconomic problems via pragmatic, piecemeal "social policies." Social Democracy is obviously much less ambitious than central planning, etc.

If it turns out that even Social Democracy "breaks down" on epistemic/consequentialist grounds, however, a Hayekian would not be wedded to its still possibly overly-ambitious espistemic claims/demands.

As such, a Hayekian would tend to support direct redistribution over paternalistic social welfare partly because of the former's lower epistemic requirements. Conversely,a Hayekian reading might actually support a "socialistic" but also more straightforward single-payer HC system over the 1,200 page ObamaCare labyrinthine "reform."

Kindred Winecoff said...

Mike,

Thanks for the comment. But I'm not sure Hayek would disagree with anything in it, so I'm not sure what argument you're trying to make.

Anon #1,

I'm in a bit of a weird position, insofar as I'm "defending" Hayek for no particular reason (i.e. I'm not a Hayekian). Everything you've written is perfectly reasonable and I think we're in near-complete agreement. I agree that lots of CoL is weird, including the lottery. I suspect that Hayek was trying to theorize about dynamics and not doing very well. But there are many examples -- from JS Mill to Lenin -- of folks thinking that elites have a positive role to play in societal change. Nothing about this, on its face, is Nietzschean.

Anon #2,

Thanks for the kind words. I'm not an expert on Hayek (or Nietzsche) so anything I've written above could well be wrong. I.e., take it with a grain of salt.

It's not for me to say what Robin's research agenda should be. As I said, I personally have learnt a lot from it, even though it ultimately fails to convince me (as most ideologically-minded work does). It does bother me to see the same people cheer-lead Robin who lambasted Jonah Goldberg, since they are essentially pursuing the same research project from opposite ends. (I haven't read Goldberg's Liberal Fascism book so I can't speak to its quality, altho I suspect Robin's much higher. I mean only that the work of both is not especially fair-minded or generous.)

As for the health care point, I think you are correct. In fact you could push it further: Hayek might say that the reason why we got this monstrous bill is because of a vagaries of democratic politics; a constitutional system might have produced a more streamlined policy that was less susceptible to rent capture.

I actually disagree with much of Hayek's theory of politics, by which I mean that he had only half of a political theory: democracy might have its downsides, but so does constitutionalization. Had Hayek lived long enough to see how constitutions were used in Chile and elsewhere he might have changed his views on some things.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Anon #1, a further thought:

Let's set aside lotteries for a second, both because these are the extreme thought-provoking case, and because they are unrealistic. But we have something else which is in some ways similar: scholarships. Now, scholarships are not random -- altho their issuance is somewhat idiosyncratic -- but they seem fairly well-suited to do what Hayek wants. People who win scholarships have a greater chance of moving into an "elite" position and also will be less constrained by material demands. They will have opportunities to innovate which they otherwise would not have.

There are two kinds of scholarships: merit-based and needs-based. In practice, even the needs-based scholarships are merit-based in some ways. Hayek would probably say that it would be best if scholarships -- from normal college subsidies to "genius awards" -- were universal. But given that they cannot be for reasons of scarcity and political economy, it is still better that we have some scholarships than none even if this generates inequalities. Society as a whole benefits from having people experimenting and innovating and gaining knowledge, etc.

Given that we have to ration these things somehow, what is the best way to do it. Well, a lottery is better than nothing, but better yet is to try to maximize the return on these scholarships. How do you do that? Give them to the people who will use them to improve society the most. It is difficult to precisely identify these people, but one way we can get closer to identifying them is to have contests. Contests can help us aggregate information (on aptitude, creativity, etc.) in useful ways.

A 19 year old from Romania just won a $75,000 scholarship for building a driverless car at 1/20th the cost of Google. An 18 year American won a $50,000 scholarship for developing a way to charge a cell phone in 30 seconds. (Link at bottom.) There is nothing about giving those students a scholarship that implies will-to-power. Instead, it allows them to dedicate themselves towards creating things that will improve society without having to worry about working two part-time jobs while going to college. No, not everyone gets that freedom... there is inequality here. But inequality is a lesser problem than general stagnation (at least for Hayek, but I'm with him to at least some extent). Therefore, those who would best exercise freedom should be the ones with first priority for receiving it.

Now it's *possible* that innovation would not suffer under more egalitarian systems in which the means of production are collectively owned, but Hayek -- writing at a time when this was very much more in dispute than it is now -- claims there is a good reason to believe that will not be the case: namely, the informational problem.

(This doesn't say anything about the heritability of wealth, about which I have mixed feelings.)

http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/students-self-driving-car-tech-wins-intel-science-fair-1C9977186

Anonymous said...

KW - thanks for the response.

I agree that Hayek is probably not an especially strong theorist of democracy, freedom, constitutional systems, etc. Certainly, because he was interested in those topics and thus ventured into them, his theorizing must be subjected to criticism; however, it's his contributions to our understandings of "knowledge in society," human ignorance, complexity in socioeconomic matters, etc., that are essential.

There seems to be a wide range of great sources for exploring democratic and constitutional theory, but comparatively much less appreciation for the importance of human ignorance, including in relation to 21st century social democracies.

I know that we all acknowledge the centrality of ignorance, but it tends to be lip service. Political, economic, and social theorists rarely start from the premise of ignorance - it's more like a loose end that must be reconciled.

I don't see much value in getting bogged down in Hayek's flawed democratic theory, which is of tertiary importance, let alone his theories on spontaneous order, which IMO are secondary, unless one is predisposed to resist his epistemic project (of course, libertarian/conservatives are just as much, if not more, to blame for this detour).

Actually, I'm among a very small minority of crazy right-wing (libertarian) "conservatives" who is quite happy to pursue his (consequentialist) political theorizing along Rawlsian lines. Rawls was a great political philosopher, but he was not especially attuned to economic realities.

Marginalia
 

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