Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek
Hayek offered an alternative account of the market as the proving ground of aristocratic action. Schumpeter had already hinted at it in a stray passage in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Taking aim at the notion of a rational chooser who knows what he wants, wants what is best (for him, at any rate) and works efficiently to get it, Schumpeter invoked a half-century of social thought—Le Bon, Pareto and Freud—to emphasize not only “the importance of the extra-rational and irrational element in our behavior,” but also the power of capital to shape the preferences of the consumer.
Consumers do not quite live up to the idea that the economic textbooks used to convey. On the one hand, their wants are nothing like as definite, and their actions upon those wants nothing like as rational and prompt. On the other hand, they are so amenable to the influence of advertising and other methods of persuasion that producers often seem to dictate to them instead of being directed by them.
In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek developed this notion into a full-blown theory of the wealthy and the well-born as an avant-garde of taste, as makers of new horizons of value from which the rest of humanity took its bearings. Instead of the market of consumers dictating the actions of capital, it would be capital that would determine the market of consumption—and beyond that, the deepest beliefs and aspirations of a people.
The distinction that Hayek draws between mass and elite has not received much attention from his critics or his defenders, bewildered or beguiled as they are by his repeated invocations of liberty. Yet a careful reading of Hayek’s argument reveals that liberty for him is neither the highest good nor an intrinsic good. It is a contingent and instrumental good (a consequence of our ignorance and the condition of our progress), the purpose of which is to make possible the emergence of a heroic legislator of value.
Civilization and progress, Hayek argues, depend upon each of us deploying knowledge that is available for our use yet inaccessible to our reason. The computer on which I am typing is a repository of centuries of mathematics, science and engineering. I know how to use it, but I don’t understand it. Most of our knowledge is like that: we know the “how” of things—how to turn on the computer, how to call up our word-processing program and type—without knowing the “that” of things: that electricity is the flow of electrons, that circuits operate through binary choices and so on. Others possess the latter kind of knowledge; not us. That combination of our know-how and their knowledge advances the cause of civilization. Because they have thought through how a computer can be optimally designed, we are free to ignore its transistors and microchips; instead, we can order clothes online, keep up with old friends as if they lived next door, and dive into previously inaccessible libraries and archives in order to produce a novel account of the Crimean War.
We can never know what serendipity of knowledge and know-how will produce the best results, which union of genius and basic ignorance will yield the greatest advance. For that reason, individuals—all individuals—must be free to pursue their ends, to exploit the wisdom of others for their own purposes. Allowing for the uncertainties of progress is the greatest guarantor of progress. Hayek’s argument for freedom rests less on what we know or want to know than on what we don’t know, less on what we are morally entitled to as individuals than on the beneficial consequences of individual freedom for society as a whole.
In fact, Hayek continues, it is not really my freedom that I should be concerned about; nor is it the freedom of my friends and neighbors. It is the freedom of that unknown and untapped figure of invention to whose imagination and ingenuity my friends and I will later owe our greater happiness and flourishing: “What is important is not what freedom 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.”
Deep inside Hayek’s understanding of freedom, then, is the notion that the freedom of some is worth more than the freedom of others: “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.” Hayek cites approvingly this statement of a nineteenth-century philosopher: “It may be of extreme importance that some should enjoy liberty…although such liberty may be neither possible nor desirable for the great majority.” That we don’t grant freedom only to that individual is due solely to the happenstance of our ignorance: we cannot know in advance who he might be. “If there were omniscient men, if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our present wishes but also our future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty.”
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