Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Cato, Critical Review, Hayek, and the Empiricist League

•Thanks to the Coalition to Reduce Spending (and Jonathan Bydlak and Corey Hubbard), I got to see a Cato Institute luncheon yesterday that included not only a P.J. O’Rourke speech and the joking introduction of David Boaz as the thinktank’s “Dear Leader” but an encouraging talk about their new police misconduct tracking project, a valuable reminder that libertarians are interested in all government overreach, not just the kind that annoys a few millionaires, despite what the left may say about us. 

•Volume 25 of the libertarian-leaning political philosophy journal Critical Review contains articles (in issue No. 1) noting that some of the fundamental philosophical issues libertarians wrestle with also came up in medieval theology, such as whether things are good because we (or God) will them or whether we (or God) desire them because they are good.  Sounds like baffling semantics, but your answer might affect whether you think freedom is valuable as an end unto itself or whether it is merely instrumental to ends that could in theory be achieved by other (perhaps welfare-statist) means. 

Another article in the issue, by Jeppe von Platz, identifies Murray Rothbard as the source of the view sometimes expressed in libertarian circles, as baffling to me as it was to Robert Nozick, that even if you have complete self-ownership, you do not have the right to sell yourself into slavery.  I can see objecting as a matter of mere semantics to this use of the word “slavery” -- you’re really just a very lowly long-term employee, in some sense -- but surely self-ownership means you could even sell yourself to cannibals if you so chose, at least as a legal matter, if not necessarily an advisable or moral life choice.  Don’t tell me I can’t be a slave if I want to. 

Lest talk of profoundly degrading jobs make it sound as though libertarians foresee or desire a populace laid low, though, know that another article in the same issue, by Kevin Quinn, addresses Adam Smith’s view that what we’d now call the multiplier effect of education -- indirect benefits to the broader society from individual consumption of education -- might warrant state subsidies.  I think Smith’s friend Hume better understood, though, why things that are important and that should be vibrant should be the last things entrusted to government -- indeed, Quinn says Hume mischievously argued for state-run religion on the grounds that it would tend to sap religious enthusiasm.  (Anglicanism may have proven him correct.) 

The wider academic world, of course, is far more social-democratic in orientation than the above musings, and issue No. 2 of this Critical Review volume tackles democratic deliberation, particularly the (darkly amusing, really) observation by Diana Mutz that despite most political scientists assuming that political deliberation is a good thing and that partisan rancor is a bad thing, it appears that the more tolerantly people listen to others’ views, the less interested they are in participating in or paying attention to politics -- it’s the partisans who participate most, dismiss foes most readily, and know the most political facts.  Apathy or combat may be our only realistic options (I have an argumentative acquaintance who’d heartily agree). 

The issue layers on other reasons to be pessimistic -- or at least unambitious -- in one’s hope for democratic politics, including:

(1) the fact that sometimes the most important political phenomena are ones so complex and so easily misunderstood that even a tiny amount of bias may lead to them being radically misinterpreted (Richard Robb argues that no one really foresaw the Financial Crisis in any detail -- and that you can’t really blame them, based on extrapolations from previous history -- but that doesn’t stop people claiming they could have prevented it),

(2) the obvious bias even within the recently-popular practice of publicly “fact-checking” articles after publication,

(3) the current lack of good political norms for dealing simultaneously with the need to express one’s own view and get along with everyone else (though I am optimistic that in the long run online squabbling will actually make people better at this and make it harder to maintain uncommunicative, monolithic “us vs. them” thinking, just you watch),

(4) the related difficulty of motivating one’s political base and appealing to moderates at the same time,

and (5) the dangerous tendency for the establishment to present certain solutions as neutral ones -- and as politically-neutral forms of civic engagement -- that no one should be fighting over (such as many big, foundation-supported, philanthropic crusades).

Given all those difficulties, I’ve concluded, of course,
that the thing to do is abolish government and abandon politics as we know it.  But I think there’s a great temptation on the part of intellectuals in general and academics in particular to think the proper response is instead to adopt some very complex, nuanced, quite likely mushy political philosophy, in the (likely vain) hope it will address and overcome all the above variables. 

And that, long crazy complicated story short, is why I think the past few decades have seen many establishment libertarians more interested in Hayek (who is the subject of double-issue No. 3-4 of this Critical Review volume) than in Mises. 

I’ll just say briefly that Mises’ philosophy pretty much boils down to: don’t violate property rights (he wasn’t an anarchist, but many of his present-day admirers see that as the logical conclusion of his view, as do I).  Hayek, by contrast, is complicated and vague enough (though the differences are subtle in the grand scheme of things) that he serves a few functions in intellectual history, not all of them necessarily good: (1) he gives the intellectuals more wiggle room to bat around ideas, (2) he describes the evolution of tradition and institutions more effectively than almost anyone (I like this part), (3) by seeming more open-minded than Mises he wins the tolerance of mainstream intellectuals (and a Nobel Prize, which Mises never got), and (4) he ends up inadvertently encouraging some social democrats (who notice the non-libertarian elements of his thought) and, perhaps more perversely, apostate libertarians who are hell-bent on softening those Misesian property rights in order to look less radical, less crazy.  (Francois Godard notes in this issue the important and overlooked historical irony that Hayek’s thought was influential in post-WWII Germany, spurring both its laissez-faire “miracle” recovery and Popper-like social-democratic thinking among Continental intellectuals.)

I love aspects of Hayek, and he even figured prominently in my senior college philosophy thesis about tradition, evolutionary psychology, and markets (yes, I’ve been blabbing about the same stuff for over twenty years -- and I see related topics will be addressed tonight at the latest evening of talks by the Empiricist League, on the evolution of morality in cheaters, altruists, and, yes, robots, if you care to join me at 6:45pm at Over the Eight, 594 Union Ave. in Williamsburg).  However, I think it may be time to “return to Mises” (a step perhaps delayed, ironically, by the libertarian Mises Institute, or at least others’ reaction to the Mises Institute, since its radicalism and occasional ventures into the outright offensive alienated more Hayek-ophilic libertarians for a couple decades). 

Absent the secure property rights of Misesian thinking, you might start out with some open-minded Hayekianism, but you soon degenerate into the dangerously multi-variable, self-congratulatorily problematizing musings of the so-called Bleeding Heart Libertarians and in short order you’re living under socialism (long story short again, you understand).  Why play that dangerous game, aside from giving intellectuals (who should not be our primary moral concern) something fun to do?  (This Heather Mac Donald piece repeating her recent condemnation of over-politicized academics, by the way, is a nice snarky reminder that encouraging academics to engage in intellectual play does not necessarily lead to good things.)

But don’t just take my word for it that Hayek has problems: the Critical Review double-issue does such an effective job of picking apart his contradictions that it almost makes me hope CR might do a “Return to Mises” special issue itself one day soon.  Articles note (as Misesians often do) that Hayek never fully dealt with the fact that economic information is not merely decentralized (as he helped teach much of the world) but indeed subjective (to the extent individual customers and sellers’ valuation of goods vary in ways which only their actions in the market can reveal and which no third party or metaphysical yardstick of value can objectively refute).

One article by the aplty-named Andrew Lister lists a very funny torrent of abusive epithets Hayek heaped over the course of his career on the very concept of “social justice” (dear to several of the Bleeding Heart crowd and to Brown University philosopher John Tomasi), yet Hayek also suggested that social institutions should be picked so as to foster the well-being of the worst-off or randomly-chosen individuals in that society, which sounds an awful lot like John Rawls’ idea of social justice. 

Rather than being delighted they agree, though, perhaps we should step back warily at this point and ask whether even Hayek was dangerously disinclined to treat individuals (or pairwise interactions) as fundamental, leaning toward the conventional philosopher/planner mindset instead, as almost all of us naturally do absent a large dose of Mises-style radicalism.  The issue notes that Hayek actually risks having the social democrats outflank him in the use of methodological individualism, since (coherently or not) they typically envision free-and-equal individuals and are not always as fundamentally committed to centralized technocratic planning as Hayek feared (making his Road to Serfdom depiction of civil servants inevitably becoming totalitarian seem a bit dated, albeit brilliant). 

Just as mainstream economists are tugged in a collectivist direction by the illusory idea of “equilibrium,” Hayek’s downplaying of Mises-style subjectivism may have nudged him just a bit closer to the view of society as a well-oiled, finely-meshed machine instead of a flurry of individualistically-differing ends.  Mises, you might say, is conceptually more rigid but ends up describing society’s functioning in a more loosey-goosey hippie way, and rightfully so.  It’s all in catallactic flux, not approaching a harmony that, but for decentralization, might be held in the mind of a hypothetical planner. 

On the bright side, Hayek’s de-emphasis of subjectivism helped him avoid the pitfall into which he saw both Rousseau and J.S. Mill falling of thinking that an individual’s sense of self-expression and fulfillment was the measure of liberty.  He rightly saw that that line of thinking can lead anywhere the intellectuals want it to, from art subsidies to grand, “meaningful” national projects (such as those Hillary Clinton describes herself as longing for).  Better to think in terms of evolving institutions (weeding out the bad rules over the centuries) than in terms of developing individuals, even though this led him to endorse a system of individual liberty. 

On the downside, if Hayek’s vague (though useful) notion of “spontaneous order” can be taken to legitimize even the evolution of political institutions (as opposed to ever-better market practices), we’re pretty soon back in the world of social democracy and Popper’s Continental Europe.  As Lister notes, though, John Tomasi has argued that we might in the long run discover that a very laissez-faire society makes the poor better off than any consciously-Rawlsian or social-democratic redistribution laws -- and if we rob future generations of the poor of opportunities and a high standard of living by having a regulation-girded welfare state today, we will have failed the poor by both libertarian and Rawlsian standards.

For practical, moderate, modest, utilitarian reasons, I think we might do well to get back to the simplicity of Mises.  But you can talk to me about it when I’m in the audience at tonight’s Empiricist League lectures, if you like.  It’s a partly-free society.  

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