Thursday , May 23 2024
Hayek’s human subject is so bereft of human qualities she smacks of caricature. If he or she is the presumptive bearer of our democratic freedoms, God help us all.

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

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’s a cog in the wheel and yet, an indispensible building block of modern-day democracies, the last bastion of individual freedoms in the sea of collectivism, the “Great White Hope.” 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.

Little does it matter that Hayek’s hope rests on shaky foundations, the workings of the invisible hand enabled by the market (somehow seeing to it that all personal decisions, however poorly arrived or ill-informed, will turn to the good), coupled with the attendant conviction that the (pre)existing social norms and mores pretty much spell out the surest guide to all rightful human 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 common man, 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 history’s postscript anew. For indeed, if not the common man, who else will 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 awfully narrow conception of the average fellow’s moral concerns, again, limited as they may be to their immediate circle of family and friends for truly, all moral thinking must begin at home.

And yet:

There is no accounting for moral growth on Hayek’s schema, no mechanism of any kind whereby our average sort of fellow, Hayek’s Everyman, can pull himself by his or her own bootstraps. None whatever. We’re made to believe, instead, that mere tending to our own 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 both on the individual and social levels. It comes across as hollow and ideological.

Morality may begin at home, but if it is 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 the 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 theory of the invisible hand, a prerequisite, as it were, without which the latter couldn’t be trusted to proceed on its own. Adam Smith’s agents were essentially moral agents to begin with; and they brought their morality to the marketplace; yes, even to their impersonal dealings with perfect strangers.

We don’t see anything of the kind in Hayek, neither by way of the first principle guiding the agent’s actions, as it were, nor as an outgrowth, a promise of the eventual moral development and progress. Consequently, Hayek’s Everyman 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 they may be.

But this only validates the old dictum, that the merits of any political philosophy must rise or fall with the merits of the underlying sketch of the human subject. Well. Hayek’s human subject is so bereft of human qualities that she smacks of caricature. If he or she is the presumptive bearer of our democratic freedoms, God help us all.

Needless to say, the same goes for the freedoms which come with the marketplace.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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