Hayek doesn’t accuse Hobbes and company, the precursors of the liberal theory, with modern-day liberal bias. Quite the contrary, he prefaces his introduction to “Individualism: True or False,” by saying:
The true individualism which I shall try to defend began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke – the man whom Smith described as the only person he ever knew who thought on economic subjects exactly as he did without any previous communication having passed between them.
Consequently, his true sentiments are expressed well in advance: each personage he mentions being a conservative thinker, first and foremost. One only wishes he had included Hobbes, the most important of them all.
Let us highlight the points of similarity, the essential respects in which Hobbes’s views and Burke and Hayek’s views didn’t diverge all that much.
In the first place, Hayek argues for a limited government and is dead-set against central planning: according to his lights, the best results are almost always most likely to obtain whenever every individual is left to their own devices to pursue their interests, irrespective of how enlightened or unenlightened they may be, regardless of their native abilities, talent, ambition, even less-than-even playing field.
Hobbes’s view isn’t all that different since his conception of equality is grounded in a kind of equality that stems from insecurity: all are equally insecure, according to Hobbes, vis-à-vis the impersonal forces of the market.
It isn’t to say Hobbes regarded each and everyone as commanding the same quotient of power. Far from it! The point was that no matter how powerful any one individual may or may not be, he or she wasn’t powerful enough to overawe the rest. The underlying assumption is that all those who oppose such a person are equally intent on stripping him of their power.
That’s why the inauguration of the state by all who feel threatened by the forces about them is a dire necessity — the most natural consequence. Let’s not mistake, however, the scope of Hobbes’s project. His conception of the state was minimal, no less minimal than Burke’s or Hayek’s, the only purpose being to preserve the established social order. Once again, one fails to discern any significant difference here.
To properly understand the import of Hayek’s complaint, again, we must fast-forward, beyond the minimal state envisaged by Hobbes et al., to the eventual formation of a totalitarian, welfare state, the true Leviathan.
It’s not against the presumed deficiency of conservative thought and spirit on the part of the founders that Hayek registers his complaint. The complaint is against the behemoth which, unbeknownst to all, had risen in their wake.
In this particular respect, insofar as Hayek critiques statism, he’s on target; it accords, besides, with the gist of the anarchistic thought. However, where he errs is in his narrative of how we got from point A to point B. His account is one-dimensional, unduly beholden to the history of ideas and, in that sense, ahistorical.
It’s not exactly as though Hayek’s emphasis on rationalism, as inaugurated by the thought of Descartes and carried forth in the works of the French Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau in particular, is ill-taken. There’s much to be said for the ideas which paved the way for the French Revolution, the vulgar notion of egalitarianism in particular, and it’s quite understandable why Hayek would oppose it in principle. But to dub Rousseau a socialist or a precursor of socialism only displays Hayek’s modern-day bias.
If anything, Rousseau was advocating a communal form of social relations whereby everyone would be in sync, not by any grand design or central planning but by having come by it honestly, by General Will. And the context was the State, Rousseau’s vision of a human community – a far cry from socialism, one should say. In retrospect, Hayek’s narrative is faulty not because of what he does say but because of what he omits.
I alluded in the course of these essays to a series of historical developments that succeeded in the inauguration of Hobbes’ grand schema — not part of the original design but developments that have nonetheless left a permanent footprint on what was soon to become a modern-day liberal state. From the lily-white, propertied class to women and slaves, all the disenfranchised, the extension of the franchise surely must count among the most significant of these developments; not anticipated, one hastens to add, but come to think of it, hardly a surprise.
It is thus that the state was forced to function, at least de jure if not de facto, as a guarantor of the rights of the new constituents: it had become what’s come to be known as the liberal state. Which only confirms the earlier observation that liberal theory isn’t a theory, properly speaking, but patchwork.
Hayek makes no mention of this all-important consideration — the developments which have virtually guaranteed the emergence of the modern-day liberal state — for which very reason his account is short-sighted and biased.