What are we to make of Hayek’s view of individualism with a happy face, a view which takes for granted the institution of the market as the ideal venue and the system of private property for its natural foundation? Hayek’s thought does represent the best of conservative thought, after the tradition of such venerable thinkers as Edmund Burke, de Tocqueville and Lord Acton, so we can’t just dismiss it offhand. Yet, subject it to a thoughtful critique we must.
As far as I’m concerned, Hayek’s blind spot, his idée fixe, consists in having subjected the notion to a false contrast: to socialism, nationalism, fascism, all forms of totalitarianism, to any government, in short, where central planning and from top-down control are the defining features. It’s not exactly as though Hayek’s concerns were misplaced. Plenty of writers from the left shared the exact same concerns: Hannah Arendt and George Orwell come immediately to mind, and it might be instructive to compare their responses to those of Hayek. Which doesn’t negate the fact that Hayek, no less so than the rest, was a child of his age. He lived and wrote under the specter of socialism; and his brand of individualism represented the bulwark, the last line of defense against the totalitarian state, against the evils of collectivism under all its guises.
Another theorist of note who invites immediate comparison with Hayek is Ayn Rand, a writer who is molded by the same set of circumstances and concerns. But whereas Rand’s representation of the individual was heroic, Hayek’s verges on the trivial; the average player is an indolent kind of fellow, narrow-minded, lazy and by and large, ignorant. And yet, in spite of it all, in spite of Hayek’s rather unflattering view of the human condition, he beams nothing but optimism. The market is for Hayek the underlying mechanism, the venue, the invisible hand which miraculously transforms all the unenlightened and shortsighted individual decisions for the good of all.
Needless to say, this serves Hayek’s purposes just fine: not only is his core assumption as to the general fickleness and unreliability of human nature justified, by the same token the institution of the market is being elevated to the status of an unquestioned principle of social organization, the prerequisite for any orderly and rational human society. The one feeds off the other, and vice versa of course. But that’s the essence of any functional type of explanation; its strength derives from its appeal to the rather dubious fact that things “work.” It’s never asked, by the way, how well do they work or whether they could be made to work better.
Let’s leave aside, however, the question of whether Hayek’s unreserved brand of optimism as to the unmitigated virtues of the market is fully justified. Let’s also leave aside the rather crucial question of whether the markets are really free, whether they could exist or even come into being without at least the tacit support and encouragement by the state, an institution which, unless I be convinced otherwise, is bent on controlling all activities pertaining to trade and commerce if for no other reason than managing such activities surely must count among the state’s most vital interests. In fairness to Hayek, let’s try to reconstruct his vision of the market and the freedoms it is presumed to accord on his own terms, unencumbered by the aforementioned concerns.
Let’s clear up one possible misunderstanding first. When Hayek speaks of the average citizen, consumer, and generally speaking, the average participant in market-related activities as shortsighted and uninformed, he speaks in a restricted sense: he or she may be uninformed but only insofar as their decisions, choices and actions impact the whole of society in some macro way, with a mind to how their decisions and choices might affect the wellbeing of all. And it’s true that none of us have this kind premonition or foreknowledge of the future, which is why Hayek delimits the scope of our personal knowledge to our immediate affairs and concerns, as affecting our family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, what have you. It is in this and only in this respect that we are as knowledgeable as can be, and we can’t ask for anything more. Again, no disagreement here. In this respect, Hayek’s account is as refreshing as it is realistic.