Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Naomi Beck on Hayek

Naomi Beck's Hayek and the Evolution of Capitalism (University of Chicago Press, 2018) is the first book-length study of Hayek's evolutionary argument for liberalism.  It is a vigorous critique of Hayek's reasoning.  As indicated by a previous post (here), I first met Beck and heard her critique of Hayek about five years ago in Freiburg, Germany.  Reading her book confirms my first assessment of her reasoning:  some of her criticisms of Hayek are persuasive, but some are not.  Her book is valuable because it forces me to clarify my points of agreement and disagreement with Hayek in developing my own evolutionary argument for liberalism.  This will be the first of a series of posts on Beck's book.

Beck's general conclusion is that "the theory of cultural evolution he advanced provides perhaps the clearest example of his resistance to question his basic convictions," which shows an "ideological commitment" to free market capitalism that is "more a matter of faith than a well-founded position" (156).

In response to this claim, one might ask: Does she ever question her basic convictions about the moral, economic, and political failures of liberal capitalism? The answer is no.  The best way to question one's convictions is to acknowledge the good objections to those convictions and then to try to reply to those objections.  Thomas Aquinas's mode of "disputation" shows this: for each question he takes up, begins by stating the best objections to his answer and ends by replying to each objection.  I have found that sometimes Aquinas is so good at stating the objections that the objections can seem more persuasive than his replies!

As Beck indicates, Darwin was like Aquinas in recognizing and replying to objections: Darwin "was particularly careful not to dodge difficult questions that presented a challenge to his theory" (113).  In On the Origin of Species, Darwin began the sixth chapter by observing: "Long before having arrived at this part of my work, a crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader.  Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory" (1859, 171).  He then devotes five chapters to answering the objections to his theory.

In contrast to Darwin, Beck never questions her convictions, because she is silent about all of the obvious objections to her position.  The only possible exception to this comes in an endnote in her book. She criticizes Hayek for refusing to take seriously the problem of how the growth in population and wealth promoted by capitalism must inevitably lead to the exhaustion and misuse of natural resources.  She thinks that Garrett Hardin explained the fundamental problem well in his essay on "The Tragedy of the Commons":  when people have free access to  a common limited resource, their self-interest will move them to exploit the resource until it is depleted (122).  But then in a e one-sentence endnote to this passage, Beck writes: "Hardin's interpretation of the commons as a kind of no-man's land instead of a common pool resource collectively governed by its users was strongly criticized, most notably by the Nobel Laureate Eleanor Ostrom (1990) and subsequent scholarship" (164, n. 1).  The reference is to Ostrom's Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, which makes a Hayekian argument for how people can manage common resources for the good of all through the spontaneous evolution of cooperative institutions without any need for governmental coercion.  Beck never explains or replies to Ostrom's argument.  At the end of her book, Beck repeats Hardin's assertion of "the impossibility of infinite growth in a finite world" (159), while remaining silent about Ostrom's objection.

All of Beck's argumentation against Hayek is weakened by this refusal to answer any of the good objections to her reasoning.  And yet, as I have said, she does expose some problems in Hayek's position, which she rightly identifies as making two primary claims:
"First, because the rules of the free market are not the product of rational design, they surpass our capacity for social planning.  And second, these rules conflict with natural impulses, such as solidarity and altruism, which have evolved during the long period of small group existence, but which are not compatible with the profit-driven rules underlying the anonymous market interactions that have made the 'Great Society' possible.  Together, these claims were supposed to form a decisive refutation of all 'socialist' aspirations to improve society through planned reforms.  But Hayek's theory suffers from incoherencies, lack of supporting evidence, and also disregard for the theories that inspired it.  He hoped to demonstrate with evolutionary arguments that 'socialists are wrong about the facts' (1988 6; italics in the original), namely they misunderstand the origins of modern civilization and what is required to preserve it.  Yet his own evolutionary analysis took such extensive liberties with respect to the principles that have guided this mode of reasoning since Darwin, that to inscribe it within this scientific tradition, as Hayek intended, seems ill suited. Consequently, his alleged scientific, facts-based defense of capitalism loses its bite" (4-5).
So I see here four general kinds of criticisms:  Hayek's reasoning is said to show (1) incoherencies, (2) lack of supporting evidence, (3) a disregard for the evolutionary theories that he invokes, and (4) consequently, his alleged scientific facts-based defense of capitalism fails to show how it solves all the problems it creates.

I will be writing a series of posts on all of these criticisms.  But here at the beginning, I will point to one oddity about Beck's overall position in this book.  Hayek's general argument is that socialist central planning through the public ownership of the means of production must fail in any modern large society, because no extended order of society can be organized without a system of market prices.  Since Beck is such a thorough critic of Hayek, the reader expects her to end her book by declaring that Hayek is wrong, because socialist central planning works.

Oddly, however, she doesn't say that.  She does say that "Hayek most definitely did not defeat socialism with the help of evolutionary arguments" (159).  But then she says that "while total social planning might have the consequences he described, limited socialist interventions of the minimal kind might actually improve people's lives" (153).  So Hayek is right about the failure of "total social planning"?  And what exactly does she mean by "limited socialist inventions of the minimal kind"?  She doesn't say.

I do think she's right about the incoherence of Hayek's "socialism-as-atavism" thesis, as I will explain in my next post.

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