Hayek prides himself on having arrived at a fairly comprehensive, if not compelling, picture of Everyman, the all-too-oft neglected cog in the wheel precisely because it is a cog in the wheel and yet, an indispensable building block of modern-day democracies, the last bastion of individual freedoms in the sea of collectivism, And the portrait he sketches is that of a fellow who is neither too stupid nor too bright, endowed with no special abilities, talents or ambition, just the average kind of fellow; there being nothing distinctive about him but nothing too objectionable, either.
It doesn’t matter that Hayek’s hope rests on shaky foundations, the workings of the invisible hand enabled by the market, coupled with the attendant conviction that the (pre)existing social norms and mores pretty much spell out the surest guide to all rightful conduct, norms and mores — which, for this very reason, are never to be questioned, only obeyed. It’s the democratic spirit in Hayek that we must applaud, his unshakeable belief in the commoner, buttressed as it may be by some of his more or less artificial devices, all-seeing to it that the average man will come through with flying colors and write the history’s postscript anew. For indeed, if not Everyman, then who else would carry the democratic mantle? It’s certainly not the aristocratic or the privileged man. The democratic spirit demands otherwise, and Hayek is true to that spirit.
But when we look at Hayek’s subject, the bearer of his hope, his unsung and all-too-often forgotten hero, what do we find? Hayek’s depiction of such a critter as barely average in wit and not overly ambitious is something we can certainly live with; we run into such people every day. We can also live, I suppose, with Hayek’s rather dim view of the average fellow’s knowledge, limited as it may be to his or her immediate circle and narrowly defined interests and concerns. And I suppose we can also live with Hayek’s equally narrow conception of the average fellow’s moral scruples, limited as they may be to his immediate circle of family and friends since all ethical thinking must begin at home.
There’s no accounting for moral growth on Hayek’s schema, no mechanism of any kind whereby Hayek’s average sort of fellow can pull himself by his or her bootstraps. None whatever. Instead, Hayek asks us to believe that mere tending to our narrowly defined interests and (moral?) concerns will miraculously morph into a better society and better men. “Just plug along” is Hayek’s recommendation, “tend to the business at hand, and the market will take care of the rest.”
Oddly enough, I don’t find Hayek’s prescription very reassuring. It’s a cost-benefit, utilitarian type of analysis at best; it bypasses the entire question of moral progress on the individual and social levels. It comes across as hollow and ideological.
Morality may indeed begin at home, but if it’s to count for anything, it had better transcend one’s immediate circle of family, acquaintances, and friends and eventually “trickle-down” to affect even the strangers. Especially strangers! There’d be no virtue to it were it to remain parochial.
Adam Smith, Hayek’s acclaimed high priest and guru, understood this little proviso all too well. The theory of moral sentiment was an integral part of his notion of the ways of the market — a prerequisite, as it were, without which the latter couldn’t proceed on its own. Adam Smith’s agents were essentially moral agents. And they brought their morality to the marketplace — even to their impersonal dealings with perfect strangers.
Well, we don’t see anything of the kind in Hayek, neither by way of the first principle guiding the agent’s actions nor as an outgrowth, a promise of the eventual moral development and progress. Consequently, Hayek’s agent comes across as a one-dimensional being, a discredit even to the average kind of fellow we’ve all come to know, lazy and not ambitious as he may be.
But this only validates the old dictum – namely, that the merit of any political philosophy must rise or fall with the merits of the underlying portrait of the human subject. Well. Hayek’s subject is so bereft of human qualities that he or she smacks of caricature. If either is the presumptive bearer of our democratic freedoms, God help us all!
Naturally, the same goes for the “freedoms” which come with the marketplace.