Friday, April 22, 2011

The Discussion of Darwinian Liberal Conservatism at George Mason University

This week, I visited the Center for the Study of Public Choice at George Mason University. I spoke on "Darwinian Liberal Conservatism."

The Department of Economics at Mason is famous for its free-market and public-choice thinking. This started when James Buchanan moved his Public Choice Center from Virginia Tech to Mason. When Buchanan received his Nobel Prize, this gave special prominence to the Department. Later, Vernon Smith's Nobel Prize added even more distinction to the Department.

My discussions at Mason confirmed my general impression that public choice theorists are open to evolutionary reasoning.

The folks at Mason find it hard to understand why so many conservatives resist evolutionary science. I tried to explain why conservatives are bothered by the fear that Darwinian evolution threatens the belief that human social order rests on cosmic or religious foundations and thus denies cosmic teleology. This conservative fear manifests an underlying nihilism--the nihilistic belief that social order has no natural ground to support it in the absence of a religious belief in transcendent order.

In our discussions, there were at least two sticking points.

The first was group selection. Economists in the classical liberal tradition are often committed to a methodological individualism, and they see any idea of group selection as a treat to this commitment.

The second sticking point arose in our discussion of Hayek. Many of the people at Mason accept Hayek's argument that socialism is an atavistic return to the ancient instincts of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived in small, face-to-face groups organized around communal norms of distribution according to merit--"social justice." By contrast, life in a modern free society based on extended trade with strangers requires a suppression of these ancient instincts of foraging society.

To me this requires a Freudian view of civilization as the repression of human desires or instincts. This is implausible to me, because it suggests that human beings would have no good reason to live in free society that suppresses all of their natural desires. On the contrary, I believe, a free society succeeds to the degree that it satisfies natural human desires more fully than any other social order, and socialism fails because it frustrates human desires in a way that creates an emotional cost that is unbearable for most human beings.

In response to my criticism of Hayek on this point, the economists answered by suggesting that Hayek was exaggerating his point about socialism as "atavism" and the need for civilization to suppress the instincts--rather, what Hayek really meant to say is that civilization must channel those natural instincts in productive ways. If this is what Hayek meant, I answered, I would agree: natural desires constrain but do not determine cultural traditions.

But if this is what Hayek meant, he was not good in expressing it, particularly in his repeated claims that cultural evolution creates civilization by suppressing the innate desires of human beings (see, for example, "The Three Sources of Human Values," pp. 155-56, 160-61, 163-65, 167-69). Occasionally, Hayek says that civilization requires repressing only "some" of the innate rules (160-61). Then we wonder whether Hayek's "great society" does satisfy at least some natural instincts.

I have taken up this topic in Darwinian Conservatism, pp. 20-26.


Troy Camplin said...

Work needs to be done to clarify the issue of instincts in relation to spontaneous order vs. socialism. I think that Hayek is right that socialism is essentially atavistic in the way he suggests. But it is so primarily because socialism attempts to impose hierarchical network structure on society, where only scale-free networks can work. This actually gets to the knowledge problem Hayek talked about. HIerarchical networks create bottlenecks, a problem not found in scale-free networks.

Nevertheless, work does need to be done on the expression and suppresion of instincts in spontaneous orders and organizations. Humans are full of paradoxical instincts: we are xenophobic and xenophilic simultaneously, for example. What system emphasizes one over the other? What institutions? These are interesting questions that need to be investigated.

Kent Guida said...

I have yet to see a response to your discussion of Hayek in Darwinian Conservatism. Has any Hayekian written anything on this that I have missed?

Larry Arnhart said...

I haven't seen any Hayekian response to my discussion of Hayek.

In DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM, I point to three problems in Heyek's account of social evolution.

First, his Freudian understanding of civilization in a free society as a suppression of all instinctive desires makes it hard to understand why anyone would want to live in a free society.

Second, his apparent endorsement of a radical cultural relativism makes it hard to see how he could defend the traditions of the free society as superior to alternative traditions.

Third, his denial of the role of reason makes it hard to recognize the importance of deliberative judgment in the history of liberty.

The response of the folks at Mason was that these criticisms were based on a misinterpretation of Hayek. It seemed that their version of Hayek coincided largely with my position.

Troy Camplin said...

I have addressed the first before.

As for the second, I would point out that one can be a cultual relativist in the sense of arguing that one shouldn't try to impose one's culture on others because that causes problems (the history of such attempts should make it abundantly clear that that is correct), and still have the ability to recognize that one culture is materially more prosperous than another, or is indeed better than another on any number of measurements.

Third, Hayek does not deny the role of reason. He argues against rationalism, which is different. One cannot create a society through the use of reason; rather, societies emerge from the bottom-up. Reason comes in through immanent criticism. Thus, there is a role for reason.

Kent Guida said...

I find it implausible to think that Larry Arnhart has simply misunderstood Hayek all these years.

In an email exchange with one of the attendees, the subject of "atavistic return" came up, but without the suggestion that Larry is misinterpreting Hayek.

Troy Camplin said...

One can easily misunderstand elements without misunderstanding someone in general. It's highly likely we are all wrong about something, even something one has studied in depth. To argue Larry isn't likely to be wrong about something isn't an argument. In fact, it's a logical fallacy. All of my published scholarly work but one have been on Hayek's spontaneous order theory, and have dealt with some of Larry's questions directly, so I'm not entirely uninformed about Hayek and spontaneous order. And that's also not an argument, as I would be making the same logical fallacy. The point is that two experts can disagree.

Chris Z. said...

Dr. Arnhart,

I'm very interested in your work. I'm a conservative atheist. On January 6th, 2006, a person who reviewed your book, "Darwinian Conservatism", the first edition, suggested that we look up one of your debates with "First Things with Demski, Johnson et al. a few years ago." I cannot find this anywhere and would really like to watch it. Would you please post a link to this? I couldn't find another way of emailing you except through one of your blog posts. Hope you don't mind.

Thank you. I look forward to reading the second edition of this book.


Larry Arnhart said...


My first blog post (August 28, 2005) was this FIRST THINGS exchange.