Hayek being flat out wrong, on tape and in public

So one of the annoying things about the Hayek revival we are having is that people are talking about his ideas, without actually reading his work, and thus are making him into a plaster saint, which means we have to put up with a whole boatload of screaming nonsense about what Hayek meant. Urk. So like Jesus, apparently, Hayek spoke in parables.


Hayek was a scholar, and he was a theorist, but he also valued empiricism. Here he is with James Buchanan being, simply, wrong.

Because of his training and his scholarly vocabulary, he’s not reflecting on what he is saying about political or social theory here. He argues that because people don’t know what social justice is, it’s a nothing concept incapable of being enacted and we should just get rid of it.

Well, that’s nonsense. Hayek’s own body of work is based on a straight up concept from political theory central to many theories of the just society: liberty. He might not be able to frame–or even recognize–his arguments as emanating from a position on justice. But it doesn’t make his work any less relevant to those who frame justice in terms of liberty, or him any less wrong in acting as though he’s stating a empirical reality about what “social justice means’ when, in fact, he himself has taken an explicit position on what justice is and how just societies treat individuals.

It’s also pretty clear that Buchanan and Hayek, brilliant though they are, have not read Rawls particularly effectively.

Here, by contrast, is Hayek being brilliant, again with James Buchanan, on looking for patterns in the macroeconomy.

2 thoughts on “Hayek being flat out wrong, on tape and in public

  1. Hayek didn’t say he doesn’t recognize “justice”, he said ~specifically~ that “social justice” is a vacuous concept. Principles of justice regulate the just conduct between individuals, whereas what “social justice” purports to do is declare whether or not the ~conditions~ and ~distributions~, not the “rules of conduct” within which people endeavor to change and interact within those conditions, are in fact just.

    It’s not that Hayek ignored Rawls, its that he disagreed with Rawls. One of Rawls ingredients was “public reason”, which seems to me something that Hayek would reject, based on reading many of his critiques of excess exalt of reason. Specifically, the idea that people can use reason not merely to lay down an abstract, general framework (again, the “rules of conduct”), but can use it to refashion ~concrete~ social aspects, especially non-incrementally and without check, is something Hayek rejected – not merely as unworkable, but as dangerous. On positive & normative grounds, he opposed it.

    Yes, Hayek did believe empiricism had a role in political economy; however, it was mainly as a falsifying agent of theory. On this, the influence of Popper is evident. He did not, though, believe that empiricism should exalt itself in brute fashion to declare what is, and that planning should use that empirical data with an all-encompassing presumption to refashion society – as if it could be redesigned anew in man’s image. It was this impetus – to use engineering tactics on society – that he saw as the utopia that lets people see in socialists ideals the realization of their own.

    Some books he wrote that are relevant here:

    Law, Legislation, and Liberty (Vol 1-3, though especially 1 & 2)
    The Constitution of Liberty
    The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism.

    See also his article “The Primacy of the Abstract”

  2. Thanks for the comment, and I agree that’s how Hayek would see his position on justice, but I’d argue that you can’t lay out of principles or rules of conduct mediating the relationships between individuals and groups without, in consequence, setting in a place a de facto supposition about the justice of the conditions and the distributions that result from those rules of conduct. That is, I reject the distinction you make in the first paragraph, even though it’s a foundational definition, because of the inexorable connections between principles of conduct and resulting states/conditions. You don’t have to have to a *prescriptive* view of the resulting distributions or outcomes for those to considered just, socially, if they resulted from the rules of good or just conduct being followed. So I think Hayek of course rejects the idea that you know what that end set of social conditions or distributions would be a priori. But those resulted from (or is an expression of the aggregate) of individual choice and agency, then it is just, and whether he likes the label or not, it describes a social condition in addition to a set of rules.

    This discussion we are having in some ways mirrors his discussion of understanding the macroeconomy. My favorite bit of writing from Hayek is his Nobel Prize lecture where he runs into the same problem with describing or understanding macro—that is, you probably aren’t going to to. It’s beyond the wisdom of individuals to grasp, let alone prescribe, the features of aggregated social conditions. (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/1974/hayek-lecture.html)

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