Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Debating Hayek's Atavism Thesis at George Mason University

 I recently participated in the Invisible Hand Seminar at George Mason University, which is directed by Daniel Klein of the Economics Department.  The Economics Department at GMU is one of the best places for studying Austrian School Economics.  Klein directs an Adam Smith Program, in which graduate students study The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.

The title of my presentation was "The Darwinian Evolution of Smithian and Hayekian Liberalism."  A large part of my presentation was an argument against Friedrich Hayek's Freudian theory of capitalism as requiring the cultural repression of the evolved instincts of human nature that favor socialism.  Hayek agreed with Karl Marx and Lewis Henry Morgan that originally human beings lived in primitive communism.  As I have indicated in many posts on this blog, I think Adam Smith was closer to the truth in his claim that the commercial society is rooted in  "a certain propensity in human nature"--"the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another"--and that this natural propensity to trade must have appeared among our prehistoric ancestors.

We had a lively discussion of this issue in the seminar.  Afterwards, Klein sent me these comments:
"I and others were provoked by your criticism of Hayek with respect to the atavism thesis. I take you to be accentuating that liberalism suits the natural instincts of man, while Hayek accentuates that liberalism does not suit the natural instincts of man. I think your discussion nicely highlights the tension here, that Hayek cannot coherently insist on too great an unsuitableness, for otherwise he loses whatever warrants he has for judging liberalism more desirable than the alternatives."

"I think the proper posture is some-ways-suitable, some-ways-unsuitable, and, on the whole, liberalism beats the alternatives. I haven’t gone back and reread Hayek’s “The Three Sources,” but I don’t understand him to be proposing to make custom the sole legitimate source. I understand him to be bending the rod the opposite way to get it straight, thus emphasizing the need to repress and rechannel certain natural instincts. I think that liberals need to better sort out which natural instincts need attention, and whether we should aim at repressing them or rechanneling them."

I agree with Hayek that there can be some tension between "two worlds"--the world of intimate, face-to-face interactions in families and small groups and the world of impersonal and abstract interactions in the extended order of markets.  But I don't agree with Hayek's claim that while the first world is part of our evolved instinctive human nature, the second world is a cultural invention that requires the repression of the first world's instincts.  I believe that the evidence for trading networks among our prehistoric ancestors appears hundreds of thousands of years ago, and therefore the propensity for trading and reciprocal exchange is probably instinctive for us.

While Hayek generally assumed that trade did not exist at all until the last few thousand years of human history, he occasionally admitted that there was some evidence of trade going back hundreds of thousands of years (Fatal Conceit, 11, 16-17, 29, 38-45, 60, 133).  He wrote: "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).  This weakens his claim that trade was a recent cultural invention with no instinctive roots.

Klein questions my interpretation of Hayek as arguing that the liberal social order is rooted in purely cultural traditions that are contrary to human instincts.  But in his "Three Sources of Human Values," Hayek seems clear in affirming that liberalism must be grounded only in human tradition, and not at all in human nature or human reason.  He wrote:
"The transition from the small band to the settled community and finally to the open society and with it to civilization was due to men learning to obey the same abstract rules instead of being guided by innate instincts to pursue common perceived goals.  The innate natural longings were appropriate to the condition of life of the small band during which man had developed the neural structure which is still characteristic of Homo sapiens. . . . It would probably be more correct to equate these 'natural' instincts with 'animal' rather than with characteristically human or good instincts.  Indeed, the general use of 'natural' as a term of praise is becoming very misleading, because one of the main functions of the rules learned later was to restrain the innate or natural instincts in the manner that was required to make the Great Society possible.  We are still inclined to assume that what is natural must be good; but it may be very far from good in the Great Society.  What has made men good is neither nature nor reason but tradition. . . ." (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 3, p. 160)
If the Great Society--the liberal social order--requires a cultural repression of human nature, because it cannot satisfy the natural human desires, why would we want to prefer this to a socialist social order that conforms to human nature?

I have written many posts on Hayek's atavism thesis.  One post includes links to the others.


Kent Guida said...

Delighted you had another opportunity to persuade Dan and the rest of the GMU audience on this most important point. I understand that your revisionist interpretation of Hayek will be a tough sell with this otherwise very receptive group, but if you keep at it with your characteristic tenacity, they will eventually see the light. Looking forward to a reply from

Larry Arnhart said...

I don't have much to add now to the dozen or so posts that I have written on the Hayek atavism thesis. If the folks at GMU have the time to read some of these, I would be interested to see their response.

As you say, this is a crucial issue for the classical liberal argument, because it raises the question of whether liberalism can be rooted in human nature or not.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Mises suggested that the socialist impulse originates in a primitive revenge fantasy. Altruism evolved. Our emotions evolved over millions of years. During most of those years our anthropoid ancestors lived in small groups of closely-related individuals. Just as the appetite for sweet or fatty foods once enhanced survival and reproductive success when humans could more easily locate vitamins and protein than calories, envy at one time contributed to survival and reproductive success. Modern humans inherit many appetites that do not enhance survival and reproductive success in the modern social environment. In an isolated small group, my ugly friends and I might enhance our chances of reproductive success if we knock a few teeth out of Brad Pitt's pretty face or if we sabotage the consistently successful hunter. In a mass society the payoff matrix changes. I will get caught and killed before I eliminate enough people more handsome than I am to have a chance to impregnate Angelina Jolie.
Perhaps envy inspires altruistic punishment. Perhaps the payoff matrix shifts toward altruistic tolerance as the number of strangers one encounters between birth and death increases. In other words, both jealousy and generosity are instinctive, with generosity toward strangers evolving as societies grew larger.

Kent Guida said...

Hayek's thesis has amazing reach. It has become an article of faith, readily accepted and rarely questioned. One comes across it at every turn.

Here is Leda Cosmides using it in very good Cato forum on "socialism and human nature" along with John Tooby and Jonathan Haidt:


Roger Sweeny said...

Where do you think Joseph Henrich's The Secret of Our Success fits into this? Henrich argues that human evolution has been characterized by gene-culture co-evolution. We have evolved to be successful in bands that passed knowledge, techniques, tools, customs, beliefs, etc. down through time. These bands were NOT primarily composed of close kin and had significant contact with other bands who were, among other things, sources of possible mates.

I wasn't thinking of the Hayek atavism thesis when I read it recently but the book seems to be at least somewhat contra.