Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek | The Nation


Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek

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In their war against socialism, the philosophers of capital faced two challenges. The first was that by the early twentieth century, socialism had cornered the market on morality. As Mises complained in his 1932 preface to the second edition of Socialism, “Any advocate of socialistic measures is looked upon as the friend of the Good, the Noble, and the Moral, as a disinterested pioneer of necessary reforms, in short, as a man who unselfishly serves his own people and all humanity.” Indeed, with the help of kindred notions such as “social justice,” socialism seemed to be the very definition of morality. Nietzsche had long been wise to this insinuation; one source of his discontent with religion was his sense that it had bequeathed to modernity an understanding of what morality entailed (selflessness, universality, equality) such that only socialism and democracy could be said to fulfill it. But where Nietzsche’s response to the equation of socialism and morality was to question the value of morality, at least as it had been customarily understood, economists like Mises and Hayek pursued a different path, one Nietzsche would never have dared to take: they made the market the very expression of morality.

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Corey Robin
Corey Robin, who teaches at Brooklyn College, is the author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea, and The...

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Moralists traditionally viewed the pursuit of money and goods as negative or neutral; the Austrians claimed it embodies our deepest values and commitments. “The provision of material goods,” declared Mises, “serves not only those ends which are usually termed economic, but also many other ends.” All of us have ends or ultimate purposes in life: the cultivation of friendship, the contemplation of beauty, a lover’s companionship. We enter the market for the sake of those ends. Economic action thus “consists firstly in valuation of ends, and then in the valuation of the means leading to these ends. All economic activity depends, therefore, upon the existence of ends. Ends dominate economy and alone give it meaning.” We simply cannot speak, writes Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, of “purely economic ends separate from the other ends of life.”

This claim, however, could just as easily be enlisted as an argument for socialism. In providing men and women with the means of life—housing, food, healthcare—the socialist state frees them to pursue the ends of life: beauty, knowledge, wisdom. The Austrians went further, insisting that the very decision about what constitutes means and ends was itself a judgment of value. Any economic situation confronts us with the necessity of choice, of having to deploy our limited resources—whether time, money or effort—on behalf of some end. In making that choice, we reveal which of our ends matters most to us: which is higher, which is lower. “Every man who, in the course of economic activity, chooses between the satisfaction of two needs, only one of which can be satisfied, makes judgments of value,” says Mises. 

For those choices to reveal our ends, our resources must be finite—unlimited time, for example, would obviate the need for choice—and our choice of ends unconstrained by external interference. The best, indeed only, method for guaranteeing such a situation is if money (or its equivalent in material goods) is the currency of choice—and not just of economic choice, but of all of our choices. As Hayek writes in The Road to Serfdom:

So long as we can freely dispose over our income and all our possessions, economic loss will always deprive us only of what we regard as the least important of the desires we were able to satisfy. A “merely” economic loss is thus one whose effect we can still make fall on our less important needs…. Economic changes, in other words, usually affect only the fringe, the “margin,” of our needs. There are many things which are more important than anything which economic gains or losses are likely to affect, which for us stand high above the amenities and even above many of the necessities of life which are affected by the economic ups and downs. 

Should the government decide which of our needs are “merely economic,” we would be deprived of the opportunity to decide whether these are higher or lower goods, the marginal or mandatory items of our flourishing. So vast is the gulf between each soul, so separate and unequal are we, that it is impossible to assume anything universal about the sources and conditions of human happiness, a point Nietzsche and Jevons would have found congenial. The judgment of what constitutes a means, what an end, must be left to the individual self. Hayek again:

Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower—in short what men should believe and strive for. 

While the economic is, in one sense readily acknowledged by Hayek, the sphere of our lower needs, it is in another and altogether more important sense the anvil upon which we forge our notion of what is lower and higher in this world, our morality. “Economic values,” he writes, “are less important to us than many things precisely because in economic matters we are free to decide what to us is more, and what less, important.” But we can be free to make those choices only if they are left to us to make—and, paradoxically, if we are forced to make them. If we didn’t have to choose, we’d never have to value anything. 

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By imposing this drama of choice, the economy becomes a theater of self-disclosure, the stage upon which we discover and reveal our ultimate ends. It is not in the casual chatter of a seminar or the cloistered pews of a church that we determine our values; it is in the duress—the ordeal—of our lived lives, those moments when we are not only free to choose but forced to choose. “Freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us,” Hayek wrote, “is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created.”

While progressives often view this discourse of choice as either dime-store morality or fabricated scarcity, the Austrians saw the economy as the disciplining agent of all ethical action, a moment of—and opportunity for—moral artistry. Freud thought the compressions of the dream world made every man an artist; these other Austrians thought the compulsions of the economy made every man a moralist. It is only when we are navigating its narrow channels—where every decision to expend some quantum of energy requires us to make a calculation about the desirability of its posited end—that we are brought face to face with ourselves and compelled to answer the questions: What do I believe? What do I want in this world? From this life? 

While there are precedents for this argument in Menger’s theory of value (the fewer opportunities there are for the satisfaction of our needs, Menger says, the more our choices will reveal which needs we value most), its true and full dimensions can best be understood in relation to Nietzsche. As much as Nietzsche railed against the repressive effect of laws and morals on the highest types, he also appreciated how much “on earth of freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance, and masterly sureness” was owed to these constraints. Confronted with a set of social strictures, the diverse and driving energies of the self were forced to draw upon unknown and untapped reserves of ingenuity—either to overcome these obstacles or to adapt to them with the minimum of sacrifice. The results were novel, value-creating. 

Nietzsche’s point was primarily aesthetic. Contrary to the romantic notion of art being produced by a process of “letting go,” Nietzsche insisted that the artist “strictly and subtly…obeys thousandfold laws.” The language of invention—whether poetry, music or speech itself—is bound by “the metrical compulsion of rhyme and rhythm.” Such laws are capricious in their origin and tyrannical in their effect. That is the point: from that unforgiving soil of power and whimsy rises the most miraculous increase. Not just in the arts—Goethe, say, or Beethoven—but in politics and ethics as well: Napoleon, Caesar, Nietzsche himself (“Genuine philosophers…are commanders and legislators: they say, ‘thus it shall be!’”).

One school would find expression for these ideas in fascism. Writers like Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt imagined political artists of great novelty and originality forcing their way through or past the filtering constraints of everyday life. The leading legal theorist of the Third Reich, Schmitt looked to those extraordinary instances in politics—war, the “decision,” the “exception”—when “the power of real life,” as he put it in Political Theology, “breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.” In that confrontation between mechanism and real life, the man of exception would find or make his moment: by taking an unauthorized decision, ordaining a new regime of law, or founding a political order. In each case, something was “created out of nothingness.” 

It was the peculiar—and, in the long run, more significant—genius of the Austrian school to look for these moments and experiences not in the political realm but in the marketplace. Money in a capitalist economy, Hayek came to realize, could best be understood and defended in Nietzschean terms: as “the medium through which a force”—the self’s “desire for power to achieve unspecified ends”—“makes itself felt.”

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