Does Hayek have to be Jesus?

Attention conservation notice: Philosophers and everybody else should remember their Aristotle: moderation in all things, even in their extremism. :^)

As with so many things on the interwebbies, the controversy that came up over this issue has come and gone before I got around to thinking about it, but since I am still thinking about it, I shall write about it and get some ideas out there.

Crooked Timber contributor Corey Robin’s piece in the Nation on Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek. The uncontroversial part of the article: the intellectual connections between Nietzsche and the Austrian intellectual tradition that would nurture Hayek. Read it. I mean it. It’s a good piece of popular writing on the history of philosophy, some of Nietzsche’s less celebrated work, Jevons, Menger, and the movement from economics away from a humanist tradition and into a scientific tradition. The key word play in the title comes down to “marginalism.” He doesn’t explain marginalism explicitly. Here is a nice explanation.

The piece started a bit of a debate, which is all-to-the-good, but the debate seems to be primarily ideological rather than historical. Most of the objections, covered in the second piece from Robin, come down to an unwillingness to have liberty-loving Hayek in any way associated with the facisist Nietzsche, even in the most oblique way, and in the desire to reinforce the mathematical association of marginalism rather than some sissy moral philosophy. But Jevons and Menger very much asserted a moral basis to their ideas about value, as did Smith.

The heat of the criticism leveled at Robin among fellow academics is shocking, though not perhaps to those of us in planning who are used to ideologues getting annoyed with researchers who ask the wrong question or derive the wrong conclusions. An explanation that Robin proffers for the heat makes sense to me:

One possibility is that my work unsettles the boundaries so many libertarians have drawn around themselves. (The liberal-ish conservative Goldman is a different matter; in his case, I think the problem is simply a lack of familiarity and experience with these texts.) Like some of their counterparts outside the academy, at Reason and elsewhere, academic libertarians often like to describe themselves as neither right nor left—a political space, incidentally, with some rather unwholesome precedents—or as one-half of a dialogue on the left, where the other half is Rawlsian liberalism or analytical Marxism. What they don’t want to hear is that theirs is a voice on and of the right. Not because they derive psychic or personal gratification from how they position themselves but because theirs is a political project, in which they borrow from the left in order to oppose—or all the while opposing—the main projects of the left.

I would agree with this assessment, but with caveats. There is an rather unhealthy and smug “I’m above conventional politics” assumption to much of contemporary libertarianism, and it’s entirely possible that its adherents don’t like the idea that their most effective, iconic modern representative among philosophers might be associated with the right. But as contemporary political practice with its strange bedfellows has made clear enough to us all by now, libertarians are running with Republicans in the US and conservatives in Europe. Intellectually one might question how you interpret Hayek’s treatment of elite actors and the hierarchies that emerge from markets. Reading Hayek–really reading Hayek, not just trading on ideas you think he had that you like–you see that he does advocate for the the moral and social legitimacy of the hierarchies that emerge from markets. Whether you believe hierarchies necessarily place his political theory on the right might be questioned (I have similar questions about Burke), but you can not read Hayek fairly without coming to the same conclusion about Hayek existing in the same camp as Menger and Jevons when it comes to the moral validity of market distributions. We can argue about Nietzsche, but I think Robin’s argument is fair enough to Hayek as far it goes. After all, libertarianism a complex set of ideas in political theory, and it’s likely that concepts and approaches overlap among political animals.

The second rejoinder Robin pens concerns the fact that people considered his mentioning Hayek’s association with Pinochet a “lapse in judgment” or irrelevant to Hayek’s moral philosophy, or a ‘smear job’ on the part of Robin. Critics offer up various suggestions:

1. That Hayek only defended Pinochet insofar as Pinochet was better than Allende;
2. That Hayek was in his 80s, so his association with Pinochet was a sign of age rather than of his philosophy; and
3. That Hayek ‘wasn’t Jesus’ so we shouldn’t care about his political associations.

Robin has his own points to make, but less so for the third, and that ‘s the one I am most interested in. But here’s some quickies from me:

1. We have no idea what Allende would have been like. Dead leaders can be anything we want them to be. See Kennedy, John. F. and Ceasar, Julius. And Jesus.

Secondly, Pinochet was engaged in consulting with Pinochet, as Robin’s post makes clear. This point matters more to the history of philosophy perhaps more than to pure political ethics, but it still matters. It suggests that like many ideologues who ostensibly deplore interventionist states, Hayek approved of interventionist states enough so long it mirrored his own social preference ordering around the primacy of the market.

Thirdly, libertarianism is not a philosophy that I think flourishes under consequentialist arguments like this one of being “better than Allende.” It’s strongest intellectual core rests on rights, not outcomes.

2. There is absolutely no evidence that Hayek was failing intellectually in his 80s. If anything he strikes me as being as sharp as ever in public comments. This comment is pure ageism and arguing from convenience.

3. Jesus. This is a particularly interesting comment, from a journalist:

Libertarian journalist Julian Sanchez says, “I don’t think anyone denies that was a grotesque mistake but…what? Hayek isn’t Jesus? Unsure why we’re supposed to care.” And again: “I mean, maybe Hayek was a shit human being. Let’s suppose. Still. Why do I care?”

Again, we care in the history of philosophy, but we also care about whether Hayek’s ideas, when applied to real-world political institutions, produce the favorable and morally justifiable ends he envisions. We can argue (and we would) that Pinochet’s state isn’t a fair application of libertarianism any more than Stalin’s or Mao Zedong’s  states were fair applications of Marx. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, there is no more evil man than the religious evil man. It’s possible that Hayek’s philosophy led him where common sense would have told him to stay away; none of that means the theory isn’t useful. It means that the theory, like most, is partial. Moderation in all things, moderation in all things, our friend Aristotle cautions in his Ethics. Except moderation.

More to the point, Hayek already has way more in common with Jesus than many would allow. Both are discussed more than they are actually understood, it seems to me. Both aren’t who they really were any more, but are instead reflections of our own desires of what people want them to be. The Hayek of The Road to Serfdom is a somewhat different thinker than the Hayek of Constitution, and the Jesus of Mark is different than the Jesus of Luke (and the Jesus of Joel Osteen.) One doesn’t have to be Jesus to be a moral exemplar.

All these things come together as I’ve been thinking about Jesus quite a lot lately. I just chatted about Bart Ehrman’s book over at Price Points. The money quote from Ehrman:

Jesus was inescapably and ineluctably a Jew living in first-century Palestine. He was not like us, and if we make him like us we transform the historical Jesus into a creature that we have invented for ourselves and our own purposes.

It seems to me that the hostility directed at Robin’s work very much reflects this same problem: Hayek is already like Jesus in being a symbol, reduced to some essential toeholds of popular libertarianism. In trying to situate Hayek within an intellectual tradition, Robin runs afoul of the people who have constructed a Hayek of their own making (and a Nietzsche of their own making)–a little doll who thinks what they do and values what they do instead of the complex, evolving, and culturally situated thinker that Hayek was as a writer and a thinker.