Hayek's Slippery Slope

Hayek's Slippery Slope

Mini Teaser: Friedrich Hayek's ideas,  particularly those set out in The Road to Serfdom, have been subject to extraordinary ups and downs in learned, as well as in popular and political, estimation.

by Author(s): Neil McInnes

Hayek's ideas, we began by saying, and particularly those set out in The Road to Serfdom, have been subject to extraordinary ups and downs in learned, as well as in popular and political, estimation. This latest descent into obloquy at the hands of an eminent political philosopher who was once a sympathetic expositor might not be typical; it is evident from the few quotations I have given that in order to achieve his change of mind Professor Gray had to go from being a liberal suspicious of moral conservatism to being a conservative dismissive of economic liberalism, and not everyone is so versatile. Besides, whatever may be said of the "ravages" of Thatcherism, much of Gray's attack is unfair to Hayek. He never preached laissez faire and he tolerated a level of governmental intervention that would make Milton Friedman blanch. He came to endorse basic social services in health, education, and minimum incomes (though not of course minimum wages) as long as there was no control of prices or quantities, i.e., no impairment of competitive markets. Moreover, as a lifelong Catholic, he insisted on the observance of traditional rules of conduct, some of which we could never rationally justify, as the basis of society.

For all that, there was no doubt that much of what Gray now calls community, fairness, and merit, Hayek would reject as the morality of "tribalism", the myopic morals of small face-to-face groups where a good deed (and a bad one, for that matter) concerns a known neighbor. Against that tribalism (we would now say communitarianism) Hayek set "the extended social order" where doing good means living in accordance with abstract rules, and where no one relies on the benevolence of a neighbor but on the self-interest of unknown strangers who participate in the same market; in other words, the open society. Popper's two volume celebration of the open society, as against an "oppressively social morality", was in press when he read The Road to Serfdom and he got his publisher to put in a note making clear that Popper had finished his book first and could not have borrowed from Hayek. Later Popper suggested that The Road to Serfdom could well be read as volume three of The Open Society and its Enemies. Actually, he was not as close to Hayek as he liked to think, mainly because his knowledge of economics was primitive and Hayek was too polite to tell him so. But on the main point of devaluing the cozy tribal Gemeinschaft as against the vast, open, and anonymous Gesellschaft, these two Viennese were in harmony.

Ernest Gellner thought this needed explaining, and he called his explanation "the Viennese theory." He said that from the middle of the last century "the individualistic, atomized, cultivated bourgeoisie of the Habsburg capital had to contend with the influx of swarms of kin-bound, collectivistic, rule-ignoring migrants from ... the Balkans and Galicia." (He could have added Moravia and thus included the Freud family's move to Vienna.) The Viennese were marked by the experience, and people like Hayek and Popper "would seem to be haunted by the contrast between the creativity of an individualist bourgeoisie and the cultural sterility of kin-hugging gregarious migrants from some Balkan zadruga, whose clannish and collectivist feelings threaten liberty and progress." That, suggested Gellner, was why Hayek was horrified by the thought of enslavement to communal, affectionate cooperation toward agreed ends, as in a plan, much preferring the liberation that came with abstract, impersonal, rule-bound market society.

There could be something in this but the main point would not be the psychological one, about two contrasting attitudes to social life. The main point is the political one, namely that there is a large array of stable positions in between the extremes, and just because you abandon one extremity does not mean you are "on the road" to the other. There is serfdom - there was a massive case of it until just the other day - and a unified economic plan is one sure way to it, among other ways. Likewise there is the open, anonymous society, though one must doubt that it was ever, or ever could be, as frigidly impersonal and rule-bound as Hayek imagined. But there are a number of workable, livable, viable compromises in between. To try one of them is not to venture onto a slippery slope.

Neil McInnes, a regular contributor, has written for Encounter, Survey, and Quadrant. He divides his time between Canberra and Paris.

Essay Types: Book Review