Alan Wolfe

Further Thoughts On An Untenable Distinction

My previous entry arguing that no real distinction can be made between classical and modern liberalism has resulted in interesting emails, as well as some discussion over on National Review's "The Corner" from Ramesh Ponnuru, Jonah Goldberg, and Yuval Levin. I am happy to see the debate engaged.

On one of my points, the disagreement over there is universal: How could I possibly claim that Hayek ought not to be considered a liberal--when he once wrote an essay saying he was not a conservative? After all Hayek is no romantic revolutionary along the lines of Ayn Rand. He was a skeptic and a determined advocate for liberty and in that sense had much to offer that liberals of any sort should appreciate.

But if one believes that liberalism is primarily committed to the idea that human beings can use their understanding of how the world works to shape it according to purposes they themselves choose, Hayek is not a liberal. His strongest argument for why we should rely on the market is that the collective action of a multitude of individuals each with imperfect knowledge of the world can produce the best outcomes. From where I sit, Hayek's quasi-cybernetic conception of how the social world works has more in common with sociobiology and other disciplines that view human action as essentially random and purposeless but nevertheless capable of directing our actions collectively, even if we can determine in advance their direction.

In addition, Hayek was not a value pluralist. For Hayek freedom is not about choosing which way of many different ways can best help us realize our goals. Only one way, the market way, was the right way. I never get a sense reading The Road to Serfdom that a good society is one organized the way, say, Michael Walzer talks about different spheres or realms of justice, each with its own ways of thinking about fairness and distributional rewards. A liberal society, I believe, is one that allows room for free markets, but also allows room for many other kinds of social institutions, some based on love, others on obligation, others on solidarity. Government is indeed coercive but a liberal society requires coercion in some areas of life just as it requires unfettered choice in others. The trick is discovering which set of rules are appropriate for governing which kinds of human behavior. Hayek is not much help in this regard.

Finally I do not see in Hayek the kind of appreciation of irony and joy in life's unexpected twists and turns that mark a liberal temperament. Granted that The Road to Serfdom was written in difficult times, what with fascism arising in one place and socialism on the march in others, but I still find Hayek's relentless and humorless style of argumentation standing in sharp contrast to the capacious sensibility one finds in a John Stuart Mill. That is what I meant when I said that Hayek has little appreciation of the crooked timber out of which we are made. The road to serfdom for him was straight and narrow. But so was the road away from it. Liberals should be suspicious of straight and narrow roads wherever they lead.

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