Hayek’s strategy in arguing for individualism with a friendly face, contrary to the truncated, cartoon-like version presented thus far, consists of contrasting it with what he calls a rationalist account, initiated by Descartes and carried on through and beyond the French Enlightenment.
Hayek dismisses the French version as misguided and, in its stead, posits the English Enlightenment version, as represented by the writings of Edmund Burke, Lord Acton, and other notables. (De Tocqueville was an exception, a Frenchman who could think like the English.)
Hayek’s critique amounts to the following: the rationalist account is faulty; it places undue emphasis on the faculty of reason, including the notion of human design, as a prerequisite of progress and social cohesion.
According to Hayek, tradition, the established norms and mores, human culture, each of these was a far greater guarantor and predictor of social stability and a surer way to progress than by design – no matter how brilliant the human mind or beyond the fray. Each of those, Hayek would argue, contained infinitely greater wisdom than any one person, past, future, or present.
But that’s straight out of Edmund Burke’s playbook, Reflections on the Revolution in France being the definitive text here.
Thus, it remains to subject Burke’s thinking to a thoughtful critique, the respects in which it is valid, and which it may not be, to what matter we shall turn shortly. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that Burke’s was the first comprehensive and full-scale attack on liberalism, a state of mind that was spreading like wildfire in his day and age, on the Continent at first but indeed promising to overtake even the home country.
Naturally, Burke was concerned. Our concern, however, is not with Burke but with Hayek, Burke’s most modern exponent. And here, we find Hayek engaging in several historical inaccuracies, the most important of which being: he fast-forwards far too liberally. In the process, he produces a straw man by way of dealing with Hobbes.
Understandably, Hayek has an ax to grind – against the vulgar notion of individualism, as portrayed best, perhaps, by those who have subscribed ever since to the libertarian creed and strand of the liberal dogma. But this was but an aftereffect, a fallout, the unfortunate consequence of Hobbes’s original writings (which, as is the fate of all works, must suffer over time the effect of dilution).
Hobbes had preceded Descartes; the French philosopher didn’t influence him, and Hobbes’ brand of rationalism, if rationalism indeed it was, wasn’t fashioned in the Cartesian mold. Hayek’s gravest error: the contrast of his brand of individualism with socialism or collectivism. It’s a modern conception, unheard of in Hobbes’s own time, and it displays Hayek’s modern-day bias.
Hayek is projecting.
If I appear to be changing my tune here, so much the better. For although I presented Hobbes’s account of individualism as lending itself to caricature, I’m ready to take it back.
I’m beginning to suspect that Hobbes was a far more conservative thinker, much more in line with Burke and Hayek than meets the eye.
To these considerations I’ll turn next.