The Hayekianism of Hayek’s Anti-Hayekianism

My friend, colleague, and fellow Circle member, Grayson English, recently shared this quote on Facebook:

Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today; and it is true that most utopias aim at radically redesigning society and suffer from internal contradictions which make their realization impossible. But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.

While the notion of “ideal pictures of a society” seems to run afoul of Constructivist Rationalism that Hayek so loathed, I believe he correctly acknowledged their usefulness as a “guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed.” It seems like there’s simply no way to express preference for one policy or law over another without the use of ideals; some hypothetical reference that can be viewed as both an unrealistic (at least in the near future) goal, but nonetheless a goal worth striving towards right now.

After all, to judge any political measure requires some standard to judge the expected outcome of that measure against and so we can see how the real world efforts match up to our hypothetical Utopia. Appealing to independent notions of what makes a given policy, law, or effort just is, therefore, required to do any political theorizing at all. For example, one standard (or Utopia) that we can use to determine the justification/efficacy of a given law is Natural Law. By appealing to principles of natural justice, we can ground our conceptions of what counts as a just law, or more broadly, a just government (if there is such a thing*) and then judge different policies and proposals in terms of how well they match up to Natural Law.

Now I’m not saying this was Hayek’s view. But I am saying it doesn’t seem incompatible with his view. It certainly doesn’t follow that appealing to principles of natural justice commits one to the kind of “rationalistic pseudo-individualism” that Hayek accused the French and Continental writers of.

Consider the following remark that Hayek makes in Two Types of Individualism, “the fundamental attitude of true individualism is one of humility toward the processes by which mankind has achieved things which have not been designed or understood by any individual and are indeed greater than individual minds.” Does valuing humility in this sense entail taking some sort of deference to undesigned orders? Only if Hayek’s “Utopia” and humility are mutually exclusive. But I see no reason to think that’s true.

One’s vision for society; one’s independent justifications for a given policy mustn’t lack humility (otherwise we find ourselves caught in Hayek’s collectivist Rationalism). But we can incorporate concerns for humility regarding the spontaneous orders of society into our “Utopias.” In fact, I would argue that is what Hayek himself did (though I think many of his policy proposals actually fail the test, but that’s an argument for another day).

Remember that not all spontaneous orders are just by our usual standards of fairness and equity. Opposing unjust orders, even spontaneous ones, need not be guilty of lacking the humility that Hayek stressed. One can acknowledge the limits of one’s own mind in the grand scheme of a complex society and also reasonably believe a given order is unjust by independent standards of justice. While those independent standards need to be tempered by Hayekian Humility, they still need to be independent, lest they fail to be actual justifications and not mere question-begging. Otherwise, we couldn’t even express preferences and judgements about policies. We would have no ground to stand on without our Utopias. But our Utopias, themselves, need to account for humility in order to be more than mere good intentions.

Hayek realized, more than anyone, the need to acknowledge the limits to one’s own mind and comprehensive powers. But he also realized political philosophy is nothing of the sort without independent standards for justification, which can themselves be continually refined and changed in light of new information and so, held with a sense of Hayekan Humility. While our “Utopias” are constrained by concerns for humility, they are, themselves, presuppositions of any political debate at all. We need them just as much as we need to grasp the notion of undesigned orders generally.

* There isn’t.

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