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On Popper and hayek

3:AM: The liberal philosopher Hayek is another figure you’ve thought and written extensively about. Can you first tell us what he contributes to thoughts about the desirability of a market-based social order. Is he elaborating further the ideas of the classic liberalism of Hume and Smith, or is he closer aligned to the Chicago school?

JS: Hayek is a somewhat complex figure. At one level, he was concerned – in work for which he won the Nobel Prize – with the elaboration of a particular kind of approach to the understanding of capital and of trade cycles. This work was interesting, but it became highly technical, opening up problems which demanded a mathematical treatment of a kind which went well beyond anything that Hayek could himself do. In addition, those who had been sympathetic to his approach for the most part abandoned it, in favour of the development of Keynesian ideas. At another level, he is in my view best seen as having been influenced by the tail-end of the Methodenstreit. This, and discussions in Mises’ private seminar, seem to have led him to a range of broad concerns, which might usefully be seen as a kind of re-interpretation and defence of the broad approach that was being taken by Hume and by Smith.

Three things play a key role, here. First, while Hayek, when he was a young man, visited the United States and, while there, collaborated with Wesley Mitchell (e.g. in the writing of his introduction to the translation of Wieser’s Social Economics). On his return to Vienna, discussions in Mises’ seminar, and Hayek’s reading of Mises’ Socialism, and the impact of Mises’ arguments about economic planning under socialism, seem to have made a real mark on Hayek’s work. He developed his own views about all these matters, but the overall thrust of his approach seems to me best understood as leading him to the view that: (a) a market economy – with the extended division of labour, coordinated by prices – is of key importance, in enabling people to live well, and also to enjoy a high degree of freedom; (b) beyond Smithian concerns about the coordination of economic activity in an extended society, it also allows for the social use of socially distributed knowledge; (c) there is no alternative to this, in terms of the working of a society like ours (this is the thrust of the argument about problems of economic calculation under socialism). But what is needed for the successful operation of such a society imposes various structural constraints on the accomplishment of other things which we might find attractive. In some cases – e.g. a high degree of material equality – we may need simply to give up the ideal, when we understand what the cost of implementing it would be. In other cases – e.g. in respect of a system of social welfare – we need to rid ourselves of the idea that it can be achieved using market mechanisms. Rather, what we need to do is to see how an extra-market safety net can be constructed; how, that is to say, various ethical goals that we might have can be achieved without damaging the operations of a market-based society.

Second, Hayek was struck by the extent to which those who were trying to make changes that he thought were damaging, were inspired by a kind of hostility towards institutions which had not been deliberately designed or planned. Hayek’s view, here, was that a market system, but also a range of other valuable social institutions, such as moral codes, language and the common law, had developed in a piecemeal manner rather than being planned. Hayek’s key concern, here, is with those who simply presume that things not being planned mean that they are worthless, or that they can always be improved by being reconstructed from scratch. At times, he writes as if there was some process of selection, through history, which had the consequence that what we end up with is valuable. But this is not a view which he holds systematically, and his key views, here, are that such institutions need to be understood and improved upon. In addition, he thinks that certain kinds of organization – e.g. as exemplified in a market order – may be taken as models for the deliberate design of other institutions.

Third, Hayek ends up offering a complex account in which a range of different material is put together, ranging from economics, and law, to his own ideas about cognitive psychology. His ideas are clearly in the tradition of Hume and of Smith. But he is also forced to grapple – in a way that they were not – with the problems of how a complex social order of the kind that he described, is to be maintained and improved upon, in the setting of modern democratic life. Here, it seems to me that in the end, in his Law, Legislation and Liberty, he ends up with a difficult problem. It is that an economic and legal order of the kind which he thinks would be best for us, is not necessarily one which will appeal to us in the political forum. (A key difficulty is that within it there are likely to arise problems which we would like to see resolved, but where what would be involved would be incompatible with the structural requirements of a well-functioning market-based society.) He suggests that what might best address this, is a bicameral political structure, in which one body sets general rules which then serve to constrain the actual government – the parallel with Rousseau’s Social Contract is striking, although Hayek believes that a body elected by those over 40, on a cohort-year basis, would be the best way to go. In fact, it seems to me that this could not do what Hayek requires, as his Law, Legislation and Liberty in fact calls for ongoing adjustments to be made to the legal system, in the light of economic issues as they develop. This requires a body of experts, rather than one which is representative. In my view, the best model would be something like the U.S. Supreme Court – but where one would have to understand it as being open to arguments in an effective public sphere (which gets us back to issues that I discussed before in relation to Popper).

3:AM: How does Hayek differ from public choice theory and how far do these approaches overlap?

JS: In the light of what I have said before, one should be able to see that their concerns were very different, although there was a good deal of sympathy between James Buchanan and Hayek. In his Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek comes close to invoking public choice concerns when he discusses some of the problems of political pluralism. In addition, I think that he would have stood in need of a more elaborate such approach, if he had tackled what I would see as a major problem facing his work; namely, how he would respond to what one might call a market-wise welfare liberal. Consider, here, figures like Raymond Plant and David Miller (the Nuffield political theorist, not the collaborator with Popper). They took seriously Hayek’s concerns about markets, prices etc. But they made the argument: you, Hayek, don’t rule out a welfare safety net, provided that it is constructed in ways which would be compatible with the operation of a market-based social order. Well, they might say, is this not equally compatible with our much more strongly redistributionist ideas, provided – as we wish – we take care that they would not damage a market-based social order? Hayek, as far as I know, did not address their work – he was, by the time that it came out, very elderly. But it would seem to me that, to do so, he would need to make use of a combination of moral argument (including about the likely consequences of the implementation of such a system) and public-choice style argument about the difficulties of making sure that such a system actually did what its proponents wished for – as opposed, rather, to providing ways in which educated people who did not particularly deserve assistance, got it.

However, there seems to me a problem about public choice theory. At a certain level, some of its key ideas seem to me really powerful. For example, that we should not presume that public policy is made by benevolent despots; that we should look to the systematic consequences of people pursuing their various interests within the political system, and so on. However, there seem to me major problems about how public choice theory (and rational choice theory) has developed.

First, there was the problem of people’s motivations. Buchanan argued, steadily, that we should treat people as self-interested. But it is clear that this does not work: there seems every reason to believe that people go into politics for a variety of motives, and no special reason to believe that they are motivated by narrow self-interest. On neither an explanatory level, nor when used for the purpose of normative analysis, does a commitment to pure self-interest seem telling. As critics of public choice theory have argued, while some behaviour seems to be illuminated by their approach, a lot does not. It is striking that Buchanan’s former collaborator, Geoffrey Brennan, has – with Loren Lomasky – written a book in which voting is looked at as expressive, rather than instrumental. The book is interesting. But it seems to involve adopting what had been a key theme stressed by the critics of rational choice theory, and to be a devastating departure from rational choice theory as a research programme.

Second, there is the problem that the approach has tended to degenerate into technical puzzle-solving, to the exploration of empirical material in a manner which it is not clear anyone who was not a devotee of the approach would find telling, and to the exploration – in a manner that mirrors contemporary economics – of formal concerns without any real concern for their explanatory value in real-life situations. A key problem, here, seems to me to be that in part the whole thing has become a normal science, in which people beaver away on their internal agenda, without stopping to look at what the pattern of all this work amounts to over time, or to engage with wider criticisms of their enterprise. (Compare what seemed to me the less than satisfactory engagement with works like Green and Shapiro’s Pathologies of Rational Choice, or Jeffrey Freidman’s collection of reactions to Green and Shapiro’s book, The Rational Choice Controversy.) In part, however, the problem seems to me to be the relatively unsophisticated approaches that critics were using to try to evaluate such work: it is the kind of view drawn from Popper, to which I have referred above, which I believe that we really need.

Third, the result in my view is that we don’t get what we really need from this approach. That is to say, it seems to me that the key insight that public choice theory offered is that we must not assume that government is a benevolent dictator, but, instead, look at the actual motivations, institutions etc which are involved, and the full range of consequences which flow from people’s conduct. This analysis may sometimes usefully be technical. But for the most part, it can surely be conducted in a more concrete and historical mode. Such an investigation would be of use to everyone with political ideals. And it should be directed towards critical discussion in the public sphere. The same thing, however, can also be said about economics itself. But for all of this to work would require that people become convinced that such a thing is needed, and then that there should be a significant reform of both our political order, and also of the structure of academic life. Here, Russell Jacoby’s Last Intellectuals gives us a good picture of the problems that we have to avoid; but how to get back to a situation where there are not only public intellectuals, but a sphere within which they can operate – and, indeed, make a living – would be a really difficult problem, even if people could become convinced that it was what was needed.

3:AM: Hayek is the economist usually linked with early neo-con thinkers like Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA. And he was influenced by Mises’ critique of socialism wasn’t he? So is it fair to say that neo-cons are right to call Hayek one of their own or does a lingering Fabianism haunt his work?

JS: Hayek’s views were complex. He was a classical liberal rather than a conservative, but he also had a strong appreciation of the value of inherited institutions. It is, though, worth recalling his Appendix to The Constitution of Liberty, ‘Why I am Not a Conservative’. He was influenced by Mises, but did not agree with his methodological approach or with a good number of his substantive arguments. In addition, Hayek had no real worry about a (limited) welfare state, and allocated various positive functions to government. His concern was that these should not be discharged in ways that damaged the market order and its associated legal system.

Hayek had some influence on politics at various points. Churchill took up some of the rhetoric suggested by Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in the British election just after the Second World War, and it is widely thought to have helped him lose. Mrs Thatcher is well-known for thumping his Constitution of Liberty onto a table, and saying: ‘This is what we believe.’ But the relationship between an intellectual and public policy is, of necessity, somewhat tenuous; not least as politicians have elections to win. However, it is clear that there was a flurry of intellectual activity among some people associated with the British Conservative Party in the early 1970s. The Institute of Economic Affairs became more influential, and Sir Keith Joseph founded the Centre for Policy Studies. There was a more general growth of interest in classical liberal ideas during the 1970s, and this had some effect on the British Conservative Party more generally – although even when Mrs Thatcher was in power, her political ideals were not strongly supported by Conservative Members of Parliament.

The U.S. is a more complex business. David Stockman, who worked with Reagan, had written a study of Hayek’s work. Hayek’s ideas were also well-received among people in think tanks influential on the Republicans. However, Hayek’s ideas were in some ways out of kilter with approaches which were popular in the U.S. His work did not feature an appeal to rights. His work also did not contain the kinds of links to religious themes, or moralizing, which are often found among American conservatives. His general approach was also not in line with that of Strauss – a significant intellectual influence on some American conservatives. While those in the United States who in some ways had similar ideas, tended to be influenced by von Mises, whose classical liberalism was more hard-line.

That being said, Hayek seems to me best understood as a sophisticated classical liberal, and in consequence his work contains much that is at odds with all strains of conservatism. Hayek’s critique of the hubris of those who think that they know enough to run other people’s lives, is, it seems to me, the antithesis of the views of those conservatives who think that they had a calling to re-make the political institutions of those living in the rest of the world. The devastation that has followed would, I think, be exactly what a Hayekian would expect.

3:AM: Your approach to Hayek is influenced by Popper and Lakatos in some ways isn’t it? Can you say something about this and what advantages it brings?

JS: In my Political Thought of Karl Popper, over and above an explanation and critical discussion of Popper’s work, I offered what was in some ways a Hayek-informed critique. In Hayek and After, I discussed the development of Hayek’s views, and also the changing problem-situations which are to be found in them. It was, thus, an approach which made use of the kind of generalization of Popper’s approach which I have discussed in response to your earlier questions. I suspect, however, that what I had seen as useful cross-fertilization was seen by such readers as I had, as making the books particularly unattractive. I have been a bit saddened by the way in which what I have written has seemed to make little impact on those writing about either figure. It is not that I was expecting that people would agree with me, but I was hoping for a bit of critical engagement!

To turn to what I took from Popper and Lakatos, the key things here are as follows.

First, a Popperian approach is non-foundationalist. Ideas can simply be advanced as attempts to resolve problems. But they can be evaluated as to how well they do – both in themselves, and in relation to competing approaches. Further, we can look at their coherence – or otherwise – with other ideas. In the face of problems, we then need to see how our favoured approach can respond to them. Our concern, there, should be with responding to problems in ways that are guided by our favoured ideas, but in a manner that is fruitful, interesting, and which increases the content of what is being claimed. That is to say, one has, here, what I’d see as being a generalization of Popper’s approach to the evaluation of scientific theories, but one which extends in principle to philosophical subject-matter. (I have in a conference paper, argued that ideas of this kind, are what a Popperian approach should amount to, even in respect of the philosophy of religion!)

Second, this then means that appraisal is not in terms of what can be proved, but, rather, by way of whether an idea can withstand critical scrutiny. One can undertake such appraisal in terms of how the idea itself stands up to what are currently taken to be the problems at which it is directed. But one can also – and I would see this as being a more distinctively Popperian approach – look at the history of the transformations of the view, and at the acceptability of the moves that have been made, over time. In the case of Hayek, while I think that his views are very interesting, I was struck by the way in which, earlier in his work, he had been explicit about the need for the critical appraisal and improvement of such things as the inherited legal system. It seemed to me that it was problematic that, in his later writings, this idea seemed to drop out of sight, without his having explained why it was not needed.

Third, one can use such an approach not just to appraise a specific programmatic approach, but one can also look at it in relation to competing ideas. Indeed, the kind of historical approach which it suggests, undertaken for the purposes of the appraisal of views, is in my view not only of importance in appraising views as we currently encounter them, but also for helping us to make contrasting ideas commensurable with each other. That is to say, not only – as I have suggested earlier in the interview – can such an approach be helpful in terms of highlighting moves made by the proponents of an approach as problematic (as I suggested in terms of the development of public choice theory). But it can also, for example, help us see how Marxism and subsequently critical theory can be brought into critical dialogue with classical liberalism. In such an encounter, not only can we develop critical evaluations, but we may also learn things of great importance. For example, while I am in general critical of Habermas, I think that the kinds of problems to which he drew attention in his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere are really important and, as I have suggested above, pose problems which need to be addressed by someone interested in Popper’s approach to political thought.

Finally, I would stress, again, an issue which I have raised, above. In our current academic situation, it seems to me all too easy for scholars simply to become successful normal scientists. The incentives – and thus the rewards – are all for doing really well what is standard in ones field. I would see the crucial role of a ‘Popperian’ approach as being that it enjoins us to take a critical distance to this, and to ask questions about the overall coherence of what is being done, both in itself and with other facets of our knowledge. It also leads us to ask not just whether people are busy successfully solving puzzles, but how their problematic relates to the ideas – and the agenda – with which they started, and to those of other competing programmatic approaches.

3:AM: What’s the relationship between Hayek and Nozick?

JS: In broad terms, I would say that there isn’t one, other than in terms of an affinity between their political approaches!

Anarchy, State, and Utopia was published in 1974, by which point Hayek was a very elderly man, and was trying to complete his Law, Legislation and Liberty. He noted that Nozick’s book had come out, and that it looked interesting and important, but he was not able to engage with it. Nozick’s book was itself responding to a problem-situation set up by American libertarians who – as contrasted with Hayek – took a strongly rights-based approach in their work. Nozick’s book is initially concerned to develop an argument – against individualist anarchists – that one can, in fact, make an argument for the legitimacy of a minimal state on the basis of premises which they should accept. He then – but working with much the same ideas – argues for the illegitimacy of anything that goes beyond this. Nozick’s argument is interesting, intriguing and highly suggestive. But it suffers from the weakness that the ideas about rights from which it starts are not ones which it is clear that others are compelled to accept. This limits the force of his book as critical argument. However, some writers – e.g. Gerry Cohen – found themselves challenged by what he had to say about self-ownership, and were led to a stream of interesting attempts to deal with aspects of this problem that Nozick raised. However, it is striking that – as contrasted with Rawls – Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia has not led to a school of writers, concerned to take further his approach.

It is, however, equally striking that in some ways the same could be said about Hayek. While there has been a great deal of scholarship concerned with Hayek’s work, a lot of it seems to me to have been concerned with attempts to explicate what his ideas were, rather than to take them further. There are reasons for this: Hayek is a much more complex writer than he might at first appear. In his work, issues from economics, psychology, philosophy, legal theory and the history of ideas are to be found inter-twined together. In addition, what he discusses, in these different areas, is typically material with which most people today are not too familiar. There is a lot to be done in the explication of Hayek. But – or so it seems to me – there is more to be done, by those who find Hayek’s approach attractive and interesting, in improving it, and in trying to further a Hayekian research program.

3:AM: And finally are there five books (other than your own) that you could recommend to readers here at 3:AM that would take us further into your philosophical world?

JS: First, I’d suggest that people read Popper – starting with the non-technical bits of The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Conjectures and Refutations, and the Postscript – and also the works of those associated with him; notably Watkins, Lakatos, and the early Feyerabend. I’d also commend Jarvie’s The Republic of Science, as offering an interesting social interpretation of Popper’s work, and David Miller for more technical discussion.

Second, I’d recommend Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Lectures on Jurisprudence. Alongside these, I’d commend Hayek’s Individualism and Economic Order and his Road to Serfdom, as suggesting a way of updating the Smithian economic approach, and David McNaughton’s Moral Vision, as suggesting (at least to me) a way of re-reading Smith’s moral theory, as a form of realist, fallibilist ethical intuitionism.

Third, I’d suggest some C. S. Lewis – e.g. his Christian Reflections and his novel That Hideous Strength – as showing how one can be both clear and entertaining as a public intellectual. Lewis, it seems to me, shows how one could update a robust Chestertonian style, and a particularly striking form of writing, to deal with difficult subjects. I’d also commend George Orwell – notably the posthumous four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters – as suggesting a different cut on passionate commitment, rational argument and readability.

Fourth, there is material on the Scottish Enlightenment and, more generally, on Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century natural law theory. This served as the intellectual framework within which ideas about ‘commercial society’ were first theorized. Seeing where we started from, points to a host of interesting intellectual problems with which we need to grapple. My old friend Knud Haakonssen’s Natural Law and Moral Philosophy, is a most interesting starting-point.

Finally, anyone concerned with the kinds of issues to which I have here referred needs, I think, to take seriously challenges to our moral ideas which stem from the kinds of critical readings of them which have been offered by those interested in evolutionary biology. A measure of the issues which face those who, like myself, favour a moral realist perspective, is offered by, for example, Richard Joyce’s The Evolution of Morality.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 21st, 2014.