Some of the problems in the interpretation and assessment of The Fatal Conceit were evident in Viktor Vanberg's presentation of his paper on "The Darwinian Paradigm, Cultural Evolution, and Human Purposes: On F.A. Hayek's Evolutionary View of the Market," which has been published online as an article for the Journal of Evolutionary Economics. Here's the abstract:
"The claim that the Darwinian paradigm of blind-variation-and-selective-retention can be generalized from the biological to the socio-cultural realm has often been questioned because of the critical role played by human purposeful design in the process of cultural evolution. In light of the issue of how human purposes and evolutionary forces interact in socio-economic processes, the paper examines F.A. Hayek's arguments on the 'extended order' of the market (capitalism), in particular with regard to their policy implications. Its focus is on the tension that exists in Hayek's work between a rational liberal and an agnostic evolutionary perspective. A reconstruction of his arguments is suggested that allows for a reconciliation of these seemingly contradictory views.""Rational liberalism" is Vanberg's term for Hayek's promotion in much of his writing of the classical liberalism of Hume and Smith as a "conception of a desirable order" (Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, University of Chicago Press, 1967, p. 160). In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek presents himself as a political philosopher arguing for classical liberalism as an ideal that indicates "desirable directions of development" (5). Rather than provide a detailed program of policy, he is concerned to indicate how particular policies should be guided by "some general conception of the social order desired, some coherent image of the kind of world in which the people want to live" (114).
This seems to be contradicted, however, by the "evolutionary agnosticism" that Vanberg sees in Hayek's Fatal Conceit. Evolution selects for survival and reproductive success, Hayek claims, and through cultural group selection, the groups that adopted the moral rules supporting the extended order of cooperation tended to have larger populations and greater wealth than those groups that resisted the extended order. Now, as a consequence of this evolution, accelerating over the last three hundred years, the market order supports the largest human population and greatest wealth that has ever appeared in human history. But in this evolution, "our desires and wishes are largely irrelevant" (134), and "there is no reason to suppose that the selection by evolution of such habitual practices as enabled men to nourish larger numbers had much if anything to do with the production of happiness" (69). Hayek even uses italics in stating his general denial that evolution conforms to our moral desires: "Evolution cannot be just" (74). Evolutionary success does not conform to moral goodness. "I do not claim," Hayek observes, "that the results of group selection of traditions are necessarily 'good'--any more than I claim that other things that have long survived in the course of evolution, such as cockroaches, have moral value" (27).
Far from satisfying human desires, Hayek argues, the evolution of civilization has required that human beings adopt abstract rules for an extended order of cooperation based on market exchanges among strangers motivated by self-interest, even though this frustrates the instinctive desires of human beings for living in small tribal groups in which social order is based on solidarity and altruism in serving shared common ends with known individuals. Hayek compares his argument here to Freud's argument in Civilization and Its Discontents, in which the cultural evolution of civilized norms requires the repression of the deepest instincts of human nature (Fatal Conceit, 18).
There seems to be a clear contradiction here--between arguing for liberalism as a desirable order and arguing that the evolution of a liberal order does not conform to human desires. To overcome this contradiction, we might suggest that The Fatal Conceit is not an genuine expression of Hayek's thought, because of the influence of Bartley's editing. But as Vanberg indicates, the general argument of The Fatal Conceit can be found in Hayek's Hobhouse lecture--"The Three Sources of Human Values"--published in 1979 as an Epilogue to the third volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty. As in The Fatal Conceit, Hayek there insists that the evolution of the extended order that constitutes civilization does not necessarily conform to our desires. "Man has been civilized very much against his wishes. It was the price he had to pay for being able to raise a larger number of children" (1979, 168). I agree with Vanberg about this, and I would add that even in The Constitution of Liberty (particularly in chapters 2-4), we can see the general argument of The Fatal Conceit.
This apparent contradiction in Hayek's writing points to a problem in any evolutionary defense of liberalism--such as mine! How can we defend the liberal order of extended cooperation as desirable, while conceding that the evolutionary process through which that liberal order has emerged has not been directed to the fullest satisfaction of human desires?
Vanberg resolves this contradiction by distinguishing two kinds of human desires: "what is at stake here is not a conflict between 'man's wishes' per se and the order of the market, but a conflict between different kinds of human desires, between desires that are served by the cooperation in small groups and desires that can be better satisfied in the extended order of the market. Even if the market frustrated certain kinds of human wishes, it was able to prevail because it offered a more attractive environment for people to live in than the alternatives."
I agree with this. Although Hayek did not elaborate and emphasize this point as much as he should have, he did distinguish two fundamental levels or kinds of desire:
"Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once" (Fatal Conceit, 18).Hayek worries that the appeal of socialism to our instinctive desires to live in small communal groups will destroy civilization by applying the concrete rules of solidarity appropriate for small groups to the extended order that requires abstract rules of exchange. But notice that he also sees the need to protect the intimate life of families and small groups based on love and personal commitment from the impersonal rules of a market order.
Spontaneous ordering works best for social coordination where the tasks are very complex and where they involve large numbers of people who interact anonymously. But deliberate organization works best for those tasks of social coordination that are simple enough and involve such a small number of people interacting face-to-face and sharing a common purpose that they can be planned out by deliberate design. The family is one of the social institutions that works best as a deliberate organization rather than as a spontaneous order. It is important, then, Hayek explains, that we neither apply the rules of the market to family life nor apply the rules of family life to the market.
Family life serves at least three functions in satisfying our evolved natural desires for sexual mating, parental care, and familial bonding. Parental care provides for human offspring who have evolved needs for adult care to secure their existence, their nourishment, and their social education, which make possible their growth into healthy adults. Even childless families satisfy the evolved human desires for spousal love and kinship ties.
Hayek's idea of "living in two worlds at once" points to the need for the family as an institution in which children can learn the moral rules for both the micro world of face-to-face interactions and the macro world of anonymous interactions in the extended spontaneous order of society.
The Hayekian insight is that families are best situated to do this because of their advantage in knowledge and incentives. The intimacy of the family allows parents to have an intimate knowledge of each child's individual character and situation that allow parents to teach them their social lessons--by both explicit instruction and implicit example--in a manner that is suitable for the individual child. At the same time, parents (normally) have a love for their children that gives them the incentives to care for their children's rearing in a way that is specially designed for them. No extended order of spontaneous cooperation could provide either the knowledge or the incentives that arise within the intimate experience of families.
The reasons that justify private families--because parents have the most knowledge of their children and the strongest incentives to care properly for their children--are comparable to the reasons that justify private property, because private property owners have the knowledge and the incentives to care best for that property.
Steve Horwitz has elaborated a Hayekian view of the family, which was the subject of a previous post.
Living both in families and in extended market orders illustrates what Hayek means by living in two worlds. The purpose of The Fatal Conceit is to explain why we must learn to live in two worlds by explaining the evolution of the moral rules that sustain those two worlds. Thus, the book is primarily a book on the evolution of morality, and particularly the liberal morality of the extended market order. The basic question it tries to answer, Hayek says, is "how does our morality emerge, and what implications may its mode of coming into being have for our economic and political life?" (8).
On the one hand, there is the instinctive altruistic morality of familial bonding and group solidarity that evolved genetically among our hunter-gatherer ancestors, which was adapted for life in small foraging groups of family members and friends intentionally acting for common ends. On the other hand, there is the acquired commercial morality of private property, exchange, saving, honesty, and contract that evolved culturally after the development of agriculture and urban life allowed human beings to live in large settlements, which was adapted for living in an extended order of market exchange in which strangers could cooperate with one another for mutual benefit without knowing or caring for one another and without intentionally acting for common ends (34, 67, 70, 80-81, 118-19, 130, 134).
The whole history of civilization over the past 10,000 years, Hayek argues, is a history of cultural evolution moving from the primitive morality of small groups shaped genetically for foraging bands or tribes to the civilized morality of extended orders of cooperation shaped culturally for market exchange binding together great multitudes of individuals unknown to one another but collaborating spontaneously for the benefit of all. Thus, the modern liberal order that has made possible the explosion of population and wealth over the past few centuries is the consummation of millennia of cultural evolution.
The critical turning point in this cultural evolution from altruistic morality to commercial morality was the development of moral rules of private property--or "several property" as Hayek prefers to call it. Once individuals could own and exchange property, they could develop through exchange and specialization ever more extended networks of productive collaboration that would be mutually beneficial for all the participants. This makes human civilization possible, as well as the modern emergence of the global commercial order that sustains the unprecedented growth in population and wealth that we have seen in recent centuries.
Consequently, the modern scorn for the morality of private property that began in the modern world with Rousseau and continues with the socialists threatens to destroy civilization.
Hayek's argument for classical liberalism in The Fatal Conceit thus displays at least three remarkable features, in identifying liberalism with civilization, morality, and evolution. Rather than being a recent development in human history, liberalism is seen by Hayek as the condition for all civilization, understood as the extension of order through market exchange beyond primitive families and small groups. Liberalism is also seen as rooted in a distinctive morality--the commercial morality of trade based on the bourgeois virtues of honesty, reciprocity, prudence, and tolerance. And liberalism is seen as the product of a largely spontaneous evolutionary history.
I agree with most of this. But I do have seven criticisms.
1. Although I agree with Hayek about the tension between the primitive morality of small groups and the civilized morality of the extended order, I think he exaggerates this when he assumes a Freudian conception, in which the moral instincts must be repressed by moral culture. This is the "mismatch" theory of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby that was stated by Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty (40): our genetically evolved brains are adapted for the Stone Age and not for modern civilized life as shaped by cultural evolution over the last few thousand years. The primary weakness in this position is the assumption that Karl Marx was right about hunter-gatherers being communists, because they had no experience with private property or trade.
While Hayek generally assumes that trade did not exist at all until the last few thousand years of human history, he sometimes admits that there is some evidence of trade going back hundreds of thousands of years (Fatal Conceit, 11, 16-17, 29, 38-45, 60, 133). "Some specialization and exchange may already have developed in early small communities guided entirely by the consent of their members. Some nominal trade may have taken place as primitive men, following the migration of animals, encountered other men and groups of men" (38).
I agree with Matt Ridley that Adam Smith was right in arguing that the "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange" is a human propensity going deep into human evolutionary history and thus is probably instinctive, even though that instinctive propensity has been elaborated by the cultural evolution of the extended order. Some of my posts on this can be found here, here, and here.
2. In order to sharply separate cultural evolution from biological evolution, Hayek makes the strange assertion that biology is nothing more than genetics. In The Evolution of Culture in Animals, John Tyler Bonner argued that culture is "as biological as any other function of an organism, for instance respiration or locomotion" (10). Hayek rejects this and declares: "What is not transmitted by genes is not a biological phenomenon" (25). Although genetics is certainly fundamental for modern biology, it's hard to understand Hayek's claim that all of biology beyond genetics is not really biology.
Most importantly for evolutionary liberalism, this would ignore the important advances in recent decades in the biological study of culture in explaining animal behavior. Human beings are not the only animals who show cultural learning and cultural traditions. Moreover, much of Darwin's work--particularly in The Descent of Man--embraced cultural evolution.
In contrast to Hayek, it would be reasonable to say that the biological science of evolution moves through four levels evolutionary inheritance--genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic. The only uniquely human level of evolution is symbolic, which includes the evolutionary transmission of ideas in moral and political philosophy, to which Hayek wanted to contribute through his arguments for liberal ideas. Ideas, Hayek declared, "govern evolution" (see The Constitution of Liberty, 6, 34-35, 103, 112-13, 411).
Some of my points here are elaborated in posts here, here, and here.
3. At the Freiburg workshop, I complained that in our discussions of cultural evolution nothing was being said about a crucial factor for human evolution--war. After all, many of the critical turning points in human cultural evolution were decided on battlefields. For example, if the Ottoman Empire had not been defeated in its attempt to conquer Western Europe, we might now be living under Sharia, and the Western evolution of liberalism might have been stopped. Or if the Nazis had won World War Two, or the Soviets had won the Cold War, this might have brought the end of liberalism.
Some of the people at the workshop responded by saying that war was no longer important, because now we settle most of our conflicts peacefully without war. But, of course, that begs the question. How can we be sure that the course of evolution towards liberalism cannot be reversed through the military success of illiberal orders?
In The Fatal Conceit, Hayek briefly acknowledges the importance of war, but then he doesn't explain how this fits into his evolutionary theory. He recognizes that evolution by group selection has often been bloody and that evolution has often been decided by military conquest. He also suggests that "the greater military strength of commercially organized people will often have accelerated the process" of the evolution of extended order by group selection (121, 130). Didn't the global emergence of the liberal order in the 19th century depend crucially on the power of the British Empire enforced by the British Navy? Hasn't the global expansion of trade since World War Two depended on the Pax Americana enforced by the military power of the United States?
Hayek also admits that in time of war, a large civilization can and must be organized by a central plan directed to a common end shared by all (19-20, 63). But he doesn't reflect on the implications of this--that in a total war socialist planning is possible and desirable.
Should we assume that the economic power of a liberal order can be translated into military power? Or should we assume that liberal culture promotes declining violence and peaceful cooperation (as Steven Pinker suggests)?
Some of my posts on these points can be found here, here, here, here, and here.
4. Although Hayek presents The Fatal Conceit as a work of evolutionary ethics, he never clearly explains the grounding of his ethics. Sometimes, he seems to accept the fact/value dichotomy in claiming that he is making a purely factual argument without value judgments (27-28). But at other times, he seems to be endorsing the "morals of markets" (67, 81, 130).
I think the most reasonable position for Hayek would have been to state his evolutionary ethics as based on hypothetical imperatives rather than categorical imperatives: if human beings want to fulfill the full range of their desires, they need to combine--even if in some tense balance--the altruistic morality of small groups and the commercial morality of extended orders. Although we cannot prove that the commercial morality of civilization is justified, we can observe that because of the natural propensity to better one's condition, "people will usually choose civilization if they have the choice" (134).
I have written a post on the hypothetical imperatives of natural goodness.
5. Hayek is famous for arguing that a "free society" cannot be a "just society," because the coercive allocation of resources according to some judgment of moral merit or just deserts would destroy freedom. In The Fatal Conceit, he repeats that argument in his criticism of the idea of "social justice" and in his claim that the evolution of the extended order must be morally indifferent, because "evolution is not just." But this contradicts his claim that the rules of the extended order are moral rules and that those rules enforce justice.
Hayek writes: "the justice that political authority must enforce, if it wants to secure the peaceful cooperation among individuals on which prosperity rests, cannot exist without the recognition of private property: 'Where there is no property, there is no justice,' is a proposition as certain as any demonstration in Euclid: for the idea of property being a right to anything, and the idea to which the name of injustice is given being the invasion or violation of that right; it is evident that these ideas being thus established, and these names annexed to them, I can as certainly know this proposition to be true as that a triangle has three angles equal to two right ones" (34).
What Hayek implies, but does not clearly say, is that while distributive justice is appropriate for small groups, commutative justice is appropriate for the extended order. Here, again, we must learn to live in two worlds. And while distributive justice is not appropriate for the extended market order, some of the wealth created by that order will be voluntarily redistributed by its individual owners through their personal charity, and thus, Hayek observes, we can "gratify our instinctive longing to do visible good" (81).
Moreover, the "morals of the market" are altruistic in their effects as promoting the common welfare, even though their intentionality is not altruistic (81, 117-19).
6. Only in passing does Hayek indicate that the benefits of the extended market order include not just "material comfort" but also "advanced culture" or "spiritual civilization" (122, 126). Although the bourgeois life of market exchange is often scorned for its vulgar materialism, this ignores the fact that the highest expressions of human excellence are found not in primitive groups but in civilized communities based on extended market exchange.
So, for example, the openness of ancient Athens to Mediterranean trading networks made it possible for Athens to become a center of intellectual exchange and cultivation that supported the life of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, although they denigrated commerce and thus denied the economic conditions for their life. Hayek points this out, but without giving it the emphasis it deserves (11, 45-47, 109-110). He also might have noted that while Plato criticized Athenian democracy, he also recognized that the openness of Athenian democracy made it possible to live the philosophic life.
This kind of thinking can support an aristocratic liberalism, by which the liberal market order is understood as securing the conditions for moral and intellectual excellence.
Some of the posts elaborating these points can be found here and here.
7. As I indicated in my previous post on Naomi Beck's presentation at the Freiburg workshop, I agree with her in criticizing Hayek for not reading Darwin and considering his theory of cultural evolution. Remarkably, Hayek in The Fatal Conceit dismisses Darwin as having nothing important to say about cultural evolution, although Hayek never cites Darwin, and thus leaves the reader with the suspicion that Hayek never read Darwin (23-24, 26, 70, 107-108, 146-47).
Darwin's Descent of Man offers an elaborate account of the evolution of morality that should have been important for Hayek. Darwin presents the evolution of morality as moving through three interacting levels--natural instincts, cultural traditions, and individual reason. To me, this seems more reasonable than Hayek's attempt to deny instinct and reason in elevating culture as the only ground of morality. That was one of my arguments in my paper for the Freiburg workshop.