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 and 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 of these notables was, in essence, conservative thinkers. One only wishes he had included Hobbes, the most influential of them all.
Let’s highlight the points of similarity — all the respects in which Hobbes’ views and those of Burke and Hayek more or less coincided.
In the first place, Hayek argues for limited government and is dead-set against central planning. According to Hayek, the best results obtain whenever every individual is left to her own devices, irrespective of how enlightened they may be. And that’s irrespective of their native abilities, talent, ambition, or less than the even-playing field.
Hobbes’s view isn’t all that different since his conception of equality is grounded in equality based on insecurity: all are equally insecure, according to Hobbes, vis-à-vis the impersonal forces of the market.
This isn’t to say Hobbes regarded everyone as commanding the same quotient of power. Far from it! His point was that no matter how powerful any one individual may be, he or she isn’t powerful enough to overawe the rest (assuming, of course, that all those who had opposed them were equally intent on stripping them of their power).
Consequently, the inauguration of the state would become a dire necessity – especially for those who felt threatened by the forces about them. But let’s not misunderstand 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 order.
Once again, one fails to discern any significant difference here
To properly understand the import of Hayek’s complaint, we must fast-forward once more, 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 or spirit on the founders that Hayek registers his complaint but rather against the behemoth which had risen in its wake. And in this particular respect, to the extent that Hayek directs his critique against statism, he’s right on target; it accords, besides, with the gist of the anarchistic thought. Where he errs, it’s in his narrative of how we get 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 Descartes’s thought and carried forth in the works of the French Enlightenment thinkers (Rousseau in particular), the presumed springboard for the supposedly wrongheaded brand of individualism, was necessarily ill-taken.
There’s much to disagree with the ideas that paved the way for the French Revolution — the vulgar notion of egalitarianism being one. It’s understandable, therefore, that Hayek would oppose it on 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 supreme vision of a fully mature human community — a far cry from socialism, one should say! In retrospect, Hayek’s narrative is faulty, not on account of what it does say but by what it 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 as part of any original design but events that have left a permanent footprint on what was soon to become a modern-day liberal state. The extension of the original franchise from the lily-white, propertied class to women and slaves, all the previously disenfranchised, 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.
Consequently, the state was forced to function, at least de jure if not de facto, as the ultimate 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 but, properly speaking, patchwork.
Hayek makes no mention of this all-important consideration — the developments that have virtually guaranteed the modern-day liberal state’s emergence. For this reason, his account is short-sighted and biased
Alongside the notion of limited government, allowing individuals to think and act according to their best lights, there runs an undercurrent of a theme: the idea that the existing social norms and mores serve as our most reliable guide to think and act responsibly. In short, the idea that if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. This Hayek inherits from a variety of conservative writers, Burke in particular.
For the life of me, I don’t understand the logic. Not only is Hayek guilty here of a glaring contradiction: of allowing individuals almost unlimited freedom to think and act as they will, while at the same time constraining them to be bound by custom. He’s equally guilty of committing to the conservative mantra that change is less desirable than the status quo, that we should always resist it.
But surely, this runs counter to all historical evidence and our experience.
Our practices are almost always imperfect, forever in need of slight modification if not a total replacement. Some of them become dysfunctional over time, divorced from their intended use; others become outdated. It runs counter to the very idea of human progress, whichever way we define progress. Yet, this remains the hallmark of conservative thought, the mainstay, and in this respect, Hayek is just another garden-variety exponent
But perhaps Hayek’s gravest error lies in the picture of Everyman, which comes part and parcel with (because it’s implicit in) Hayek’s thought system. Self-absorbed and all-concerned as he or she may be about their immediate surroundings, their circumstances, their immediate family, and their circle of acquaintances and friends, Hayek’s agent comes across as flat, one-dimensional, and unconvincing.
Self-absorption and self-preoccupation are all to the good as preconditions, for all morality, strictly speaking, must begin at home. But surely, if it’s ever to amount to anything, ultimately and eventually, it must transcend all the local and parochial loyalties and allegiances and become a universal quality of mind capable of embracing everyone, every single member of the human community, even the stranger. Especially the stranger!
Well, there is nothing whatsoever in Hayek’s grand schema, no allowance whatever, to account for the possibility of moral growth. Hayek’s agents start as immature adolescents insofar as their character or the quality of their motivation are concerned; and they end up no better than they had started — there being nothing to show for their having lived.
At least on Adam Smith’s account, we are treated to a theory of moral sentiments, which had preceded his magnum opus, to augment his reliance on the invisible-hand type of explanation. To his credit, Adam Smith fully realized that morality was the common bond that made any explanation that made society possible. Well, we find nothing of the sort in Hayek. And for this reason, we must dismiss his purportedly modern-day account — he does speak, for instance, of “distributive justice,” albeit in passing and in a derogatory way! — as grossly inadequate, alas, as patently false
We must also reject Hayek’s brand of individualism, presumed to emerge in the context of inter-societal, person-to-person relations — whereby each individual is pre-programmed to pursue their own, narrowly-defined interests — as a convenient fiction. Instead of valorizing and defining the individual for being so engaged, to the exclusion of all other interests and concerns that make us truly human, Hayek’s ascription only tends to demean him and turn him into a cartoonish, cardboard-like character on his account.
No surprise there, however, since Hayek ends up with what he’d started: garbage in, garbage out. His agents are incapable of anything finer. And this brings home the familiar adage that it all starts and ends with the conception of the human subject. Come up with a realistic enough philosophy of the human subject, full-bloodied and robust, and you stand a good chance of coming up with a political philosophy that’s halfway credible
We must conclude that for all its defects, MacPherson’s characterization of modern-day individualism as “possessive,” though also a caricature, is undoubtedly more on target than Hayek’s feeble attempt to represent his actors as our unsung, modern-day heroes. (Say what you will, but a great many of us, especially in the West, derive our sense of individuality from our possessions: vulgar consumerism is the most apparent syndrome, but the river runs deeper than that. The culture of private property is in our blood.)
Neither response will do. Whereas the first (Hayek’s) offers a fictional account of our comings and goings, our alleged status as moral agents remains a question mark; the second (MacPherson’s), however valid as social critique, falls short of offering a viable solution. The first is a standard conservative response; the second displays a liberal mindset for not carrying its findings to their natural conclusion.
But frankly, only the abolition of the private property system and culture and all that it entails can bring about social justice and make us whole again. But for as long as liberalism refuses to come to terms with this fact and make the final break, it shall remain a defunct political philosophy: for in offering a remedial kind of solution, via government intervention, it doesn’t eradicate the status quo, only perpetuates it.
In any event, the very notion of individualism is highly overrated, itself a symptom of our decadent culture. And the same goes for how it’s typically expressed, whereby property and possessions are natural extensions of the approbation-seeking self. If anything, true human worth ought to be based more on communal, give-and-take type of human relations than on personal accomplishments without regard to one’s contribution to the greater community, but more on this later.
Meanwhile, we must show that liberalism — the dominant ideology behind the capitalist system and modern-day liberal democracies and the mainstay of the liberal state — is a natural outgrowth of the dissatisfaction with the purely conservative account. Although born as a reaction to the conservative narrative’s excesses, it shares with that narrative too many commonalities to be its natural-born enemy.
The more proper relationship between the two is more akin to the one that obtains between two stepbrothers or estranged cousins, each of whom shares essentially the same genetic makeup, the same DNA, for their quibble to amount to anything much.
And while ’tis true that the liberal narrative is more accurate of the two insofar as descriptions go — in that the state’s intervention has become a dire necessity and a fact of life — that’s where its value ends. It offers no lasting solution since the state has long lost the capacity to act fairly and judiciously. (As an aside, it’s part of the anarchistic thesis that modern-day states had become so entangled in the existing socio-political arrangements that they must perpetuate the status quo to ensure their survival.)
In short, it had become necessary to start viewing conservatism and liberalism as two sides of the same tarnished coin so that we may discard the entire conservative-liberal paradigm and reinvent a new one.