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Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part XII

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Hayek’s strategy in arguing for individualism with a friendly face, contrary to the truncated, cartoon-like version which has been presented thus far, consists in contrasting it with what he calls a rationalist account, initiated by Descartes and carried on through and beyond the French Enlightenment. Needless to say, 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 in that it places undue emphasis on the faculty of reason, to include the notion of human design, as a prerequisite of progress and social cohesion. According to Hayek, tradition, the established norms and mores, ways of doing things, (the dominant?) human culture in general; each of these was a far greater guarantor and predictor of social stability, a far surer way for humans to progress than by any design of the human mind, no matter how brilliant or beyond the fray, (for, each of those, Hayek would argue, contained infinitely greater wisdom than any individual mind, past, future or present, could possibly muster). But that’s straight out of Edmund Burke’s playbook, Reflections on the Revolution in France being the definitive text here.

It remains to subject Burke’s thinking to a thoughtful critique, the respects in which it is valid and the respects in which it may not be, to which matter we shall turn shortly. Meanwhile, suffice it to say his was the first comprehensive and full-scale attack on liberalism, a state of mind that was spreading like wildfire in his own day and age, on the Continent at first but surely promising to overtake even the home country. Naturally, Burke was concerned! Our concern here, however, is not with Burke but with Hayek, Burke’s most modern exponent. And here, we find Hayek engaging in a number of historical inaccuracies, the most important of which being: he fast-forwards far too liberally. In the process, he produces a straw man insofar as Hobbes is concerned, the founder of the notion.

Understandably, Hayek has an ax to grind, the vulgar notion of individualism, as portrayed best, perhaps, by those who have subscribed 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 writings, must suffer over time the fate of becoming diluted). Hobbes had preceded Descartes; he wasn’t influenced by the French philosopher; and his 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 totally modern conception, unheard of in Hobbes’s own time, and it displays Hayek’s modern bias. Obviously, 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 the line of Burke and Hayek, than meets the eye.

I shall turn to these and related considerations in sections to follow.

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