Monday, May 16, 2011

Hayek's Freudianism and the Prehistory of Liberty

I am preparing to travel this week to the Westward Look Resort in Tucson for a Liberty Fund conference on "Hayek and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge."

One of the readings for the conference is Hayek's "The Three Sources of Human Values." In that essay, he argues that "freedom is an artefact of civilization" that requires the "repression" of the innate desires and emotions of the human mind as shaped by genetic evolution for life in hunter-gatherer bands or tribes (155, 161, 163-64). The neural structures of Homo sapiens were adapted for life in small groups of foraging individuals. In such a face-to-face society, social order was deliberately organized to satisfy the needs of the known and recognizable members of the group. By contrast to this prehistoric life in small foraging groups, the advent first of agriculture and then of settled urban life has made possible--over the past 5,000 years--an expansion of social life through trade with distant strangers, which creates an abstract society governed by abstract rules. Eventually, the ancient Greeks discovered how individual liberty and private property made possible the civilization of free men. The modern liberal capitalist society continues the cultural evolution of freedom that began in ancient Athens.

But this civilization of free individuals is painful for human beings because it represses the genetic instincts and desires of the human brain as adapted for life in small primitive groups. "In consequence, the long-submerged innate instincts have again surged to the top. Their demand for a just distribution in which organized power is to be used to allocate to each what he deserves, is thus strictly an atavism, based on primordial emotions" (165). The demand for "social justice"--for a distribution of resources according to individual need and merit--is implicitly a demand to return to a primitive society. By contrast, a "free society" cannot be a "just society," because the spontaneous order of market competition and exchange does not allocate resources according to any shared standard of just deserts. Consequently, socialism is appealing to human beings because it satisfies our innate instincts for social justice.

I call this the "Freudian" theme in Hayek's writing, because it follows the argument of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents that civilization requires that human beings repress their animal instincts. This could also be called the "Popperian" theme, because Hayek took it from Karl Popper's Open Society and Its Enemies, in which the popular appeal of the "closed society" is explained as an atavistic return to tribal morality based on personal relationships against the impersonal and abstract relationships of life in the "open society."

I will be interested to see if any of the other folks at this conference find this reasoning as confusing as I do.

Generally, Hayek defends the "free society," in which social order arises as an evolutionary order from the unplanned interactions of individuals, and he rejects the "planned society," in which the attempt is made to organize social life by the deliberate design of one or a few minds. But he also suggests that a fully planned society is at least possible in families and tribal groups:

Only in the small groups of primitive society can collaboration between the members rest largely on the circumstance that at any one moment they will know more or less the same particular circumstances. Some wise men may be better at interpreting the immediately perceived circumstances or at remembering things in remote places unknown to the others. But the concrete events which the individuals encounter in their daily pursuits will be very much the same for all, and they will act together because the events they know and the objectives at which they aim are more or less the same.

The situation is wholly different in the Great or Open Society where millions of men interact and where civilization as we know it has developed. . . . each member of society can have only a small fraction of the knowledge possessed by all, and . . . each is therefore ignorant of most of the facts on which the working of society rests. (LLL, vol. 1, 13-14)


And yet Hayek also says that ethology and cultural anthropology have shown that in both animal societies and primitive human societies, the structure of social life is determined by the evolution of unconscious and instinctive rules of conduct--for example, rules of parent-child bonding, social rank, and property--that have not been explicitly and consciously formulated by deliberate design. Moreover, the eventual formulation of such rules in human language depends upon the evolution of language as a spontaneous order that has not been deliberately designed (LLL, vol. 1, 72-82).

It seems then that primitive human beings and other social animals organize their social lives according to abstract rules rooted in their evolutionary instincts. "Men generally act in accordance with abstract rules in this sense long before they can state them" (CL, 148-49). So, contrary to what Hayek says about free society and civilization as the repression of primitive instincts, the "abstract rules" of the "abstract society" are cultural extensions of the social instincts manifest in primitive societies, which permits an extension of cooperation to ever wider groups.

The extension of cooperation in the "Great Society" to embrace millions of individuals who are strangers to one another depends on expanding trading networks. In some of his writing, Hayek suggests that trade arose for the first time in human history five to ten thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture, and thus the propensity to trade could not have been shaped by genetic evolution in the history of primitive human ancestors. But this ignores the extensive evidence for prehistoric trade--both within and between tribal groups--and for the evolution of language and norms of reciprocity as facilitating trade among our hunting-gathering ancestors. This would suggest the possibility that the expansion of trading networks over the past five thousand years was the cultural extension of innate propensities for trade.

Another problem for Hayek's Freudian/Popperian conception of the "open society" as the repression of primitive instincts is that this ignores the ways in which a liberal society allows for human beings to satisfy their desires for personal social bonding in civil society. A fundamental principle of liberal thought, as Hayek emphasizes, is the importance of civil society as lying between the individual and the state--a social realm in which human beings are free to express their social needs through the natural bonds of family life and the voluntary associations of life. This allows for human beings to satisfy their instinctive needs for familial and social bonding in small groups comparable to those of their hunting-gathering ancestors.

The social structures of civil society can satisfy the human instincts for face-to-face social bonding in small groups bound together by traditional moral norms. This is important for Hayek's distinction between "true individualism" and "false individualism."

That true individualism affirms the value of the family and all the common efforts of the small community and group, that it believes in local autonomy and voluntary associations, and that indeed its case rests largely on the contention that much for which the coercive action of the state is usually invoked can be done better by voluntary collaboration need not be stressed further. There can be no greater contrast to this than the false individualism which wants to dissolve all these smaller groups into atoms, which have no cohesion other than the coercive rules imposed by the state, and which tries to make all social ties prescriptive, instead of using the state mainly as a protection of the individual against the arrogation of coercive powers by the smaller groups.

Quite as important for the functioning of an individualist society as these smaller groupings of men are the traditions and conventions which evolve in a free society and which, without being enforceable, establish flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable to a high degree. The willingness to submit to such rules, not merely so long as one understands the reason for them but so long as one has no definite reasons to the contrary, is the essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of rules of social intercourse; and the readiness ordinarily to submit to the products of a social process which nobody has designed and the reasons for which nobody may understand is also an indispensable condition if it is to be possible to dispense with compulsion. (SADR, 66-67)


Hayek sees this free society as emerging for the first time in the ancient Greek world. In Greek antiquity, "freedom" originally meant "not being a slave"--that is, not being subject to the arbitrary will of a master. And, thus, we could say that liberty or freedom could be understood as "the state in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another" (CL, 11-20).

But then Hayek leaves us wondering why human beings resist being enslaved. If slavery is not natural, if normal human beings are not naturally adapted for submitting to the arbitrary will of others, that suggests a natural propensity for self-rule and for resisting being dominated by others. Some evolutionary scientists--like Christopher Boehm--explain this as an instinctive propensity shaped in the evolution of our hunting-gatherer ancestors, among whom there was a tense balance between the natural desire of an ambitious few for dominance and the natural desire of the subordinate many to resist tyrannical dominance. The establishment of agrarian states allowed for unprecedented oppression of subordinate individuals by ruling elites. But, then, Boehm argues, the emergence over the past few centuries of liberal capitalist societies has restored some of the freedom from oppression enjoyed by ancient foragers while combining it with all the benefits of modern civilization.

This suggests to me that rather than seeing the free society as the repression of the evolved natural desires shaped in prehistoric human societies, we should see it as providing the fullest satisfaction of those desires.

A few of the many posts on related themes can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

4 comments:

Lemniscate said...

I don't believe there is a contradiction between believing "social animals organize their social lives according to abstract rules rooted in their evolutionary instincts" and believing a free society represses some of these instincts in a certain way, unless one believes all abstract social rules must be compatible with all evolutionary instincts. Different societies will have repressed/enhanced different instincts to differing degrees -- perhaps even genetic changes along these lines have occurred. Those more successful on a large scale enhanced the instincts of ownership, trade and autonomy, eventually allowing for a sophisticated catallaxy. They may have also required a suppression of the instinct for consciously determined distribution of resources, especially when applied on a large scale. It is not that a free society represses many primitive instincts, but it may repress (or channel in appropriate directions) some.

Troy Camplin said...

Humans are paradoxical animals. We are, for example, simultaneously xenophobic and xenophilic. Only one of these contributes to the creation of a civilized society. One of these must be supressed. Hayek was half right.

Alberto said...

IMHO, both sides are right. Obviously, there are adaptations that are tribal, most of them. Particularly, envy, that is deletereous for the development of a society where creativity is promoted by the market. This article explores the idea that envy is a kind of hidden free rider detection mechanism in the context of a tribal society, and is perceived as social justice, but it is a maladaptation for a wider society:

Article

In the other side, we may have supersocial adaptations. Besides the natural desire to fight opression, no matter he context where this oppression appears, it is necessary a mechanism for supertribal cohesion, I believe that the appeal of the universal brotherhood of the christian menssage would not be possible without the preexistence of a supertribal instinct. (Islam and Judaism promote more a supertribal society rather than a universal brotherhood).

It may be the case that we are the descend of very few thousands of survivors in very harsh conditions 50.000 years ago. During this period an intense auto-domestication (in words of Matt Rydley) may took place. A consciousness of brotherhood may also have appeared supperpossed to the tribal instincts. The consideration for strangers in the human species has no paralel in any other social specie. This may have been a consequence of the pressures of the bottleneck. It is know that species like the cheetah that suffered a severe bottleneck are extraordinarily docile. The observed ultimate game results in humans may be a consequence of this process too.

ultimate game

Alberto said...

I wrote a higly speculative post about the latter:

Kin, Kindness and a stone-age savior