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Thursday, January 29, 2015

How am I mischaracterizing Hayek? Or his followers?

I've been exploring Frederich August von Hayek recently.  Mostly because I keep seeing his "Road to Serfdom" cited as an argument against the government doing just about anything.  And generally used as a critique against social planning and any government concern with social justice.  Also, often used as a Libertarian argument in favor of free markets and rolling back regulation.  Many Republicans seem to be a fan (those vanishing few that actually do any reading and thinking).  Reagan and Thatcher found they had Hayek in common, "The Road To Serfdom" was read by Thatcher in her college years, and in 1984 she was gifted a leather bound copy by none other than Hayek himself.  Hayek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974.

Hayek, along with a cast of several other characters, including Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Milton Friedman, are often associated with the Austrian School of Economics, and are generally critics of Keynesian economics and proponents of an unregulated free market. There's some overlap here with Ayn Rand and Objectivism as well, but it's not clear to me just exactly how much.

So given these thinkers seem to form the core of the Republican playbook on government (or, preferred lack thereof), I wanted to know a little more about what the thinking process might be.  On the other hand, not really wanting to slog through "Road to Serfdom" (and I hear it is quite a slog), I've been reading reviews and articles (pro and con) and perusing YouTube videos on Hayek and other Austrian School cohorts, trying to piece together the essential arguments.

No doubt the true believers will tell me that I can't do any of it justice if I haven't read the original texts-- an argument I also encountered with Ayn Rand acolytes.  And while that argument may seem justified at first, the implication seems to be that the original arguments cannot be distilled down any further than the original revealed text.  This argument has usually occurred after I characterized the revered one's argument in a way that has been deemed "wrong" by the faithful but with no specific details offered as to exactly what is wrong with my characterization.  This suggests to me a real problem-- if the ideas are coherent, it should be possible to express them explicitly and concisely and not require reference to an authority.  In other words, if the arguments are any good they should be able to stand on their own and not reduce to "because Ayn Rand says so" (or Hayek says so, or von Mises says so, etc.).  Post-structuralist philosophy (Derrida, Foucault, et. al.) also seems to be completely infected with this problem.  My feeling is, if you can't paraphrase it, it's either complete gibberish, or at the very least you clearly don't understand it well enough to know if I've butchered it or not. So I just don't feel all that guilty about relying on various sources of distillation.

As best as I can tell given that then, Hayek seems to be essentially making the argument that optimal central planning is impossibly difficult, and therefore we should instead allow the "spontaneous order" of the free market to do whatever it is going to do.  Thus, the scorched-earth policy of Republican governance is justified.  Cut everything, period.

However, I do see some evidence that while the argument for the impossibility of optimal central planning seems to be a proper characterization of Hayek's ideas, the "what we should do about it" of "let the market decide" is how his followers have chosen to characterize him rather than what he actually thought about it.  For example, there's a quote of his regarding a social safety net:

"There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all, protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need descend. To enter into such an insurance against extreme misfortune may well be in the interest of all; or it may be felt to be a clear moral duty of all to assist, within the organised community, those who cannot help themselves. So long as such a uniform minimum income is provided outside the market to all those who, for any reason, are unable to earn in the market an adequate maintenance, this need not lead to a restriction of freedom, or conflict with the Rule of Law."

His followers downplay of this idea in favor of the free market has a couple of glaring flaws, even when fully granting Hayek's argument about the impossibility of optimal central planning.

The suggestion seems to be there are only two options-- a false dichotomy.  The implication is we must either be 100% for central planning or 100% for an unregulated free market.  I don't see those are the only options at all-- and certainly all examples of actual societies and governments are somewhere in between the two.  You can't just take one extreme and claim since it is unworkable that then means the other extreme is the answer.  It seems to me both extremes are completely undesirable, each for reasons of their own.   And I don't see that Hayek contradicts that, actually.

It's as if the faithful are making the argument that, because it's clearly impossible to predict the weather due to its complexity, we therefore have no need for umbrellas and snow shovels.

Now if I'm mischaracterizing Hayek's or his follower's arguments, I'd like to know HOW.  Don't just tell me to go read a book.  If you can't point out what's wrong with my characterization of his argument regarding central planning vs spontaneous order, or his followers who suggest that means there is no need for market regulations or safety nets of any kind, I would say YOU don't understand them well enough to know if I got it wrong or not.


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