Thursday, January 31, 2019

Naomi Beck on Hayek (3): Individual Agency and Judgment in the Evolution of Liberalism

The cultural evolution of liberalism does not preclude, but rather presupposes, genetic evolution and individual judgment.  As I have often argued on this blog, we need to move through three levels of analysis to explain the evolution of liberalism: the genetic history of human nature, the cultural history of human traditions, and the individual history of human judgments.

In Darwinian Conservatism, I suggested that one can see the complex interaction between these three levels in Hayek's writings.  So, for the study of morality, we need to move through moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments.  And for the study of law, we need to move through natural law, customary law, and positive law.

And yet, sometimes Hayek elevates cultural evolution in a way that seems to deny the importance of innate instinct, on the one hand, and individual rational agency, on the other.  This makes Hayek appear incoherent in ways that are rightly criticized by Naomi Beck.  Ultimately, however, a careful reading of Hayek shows his reliance on the three levels of evolutionary analysis.

Hayek explains: "Tradition is not something constant but the product of a process of selection guided not by reason but by success," in that the practices of those groups that are most successful tend to prevail over the practices of those groups that are less successful.  Therefore, tradition "changes but can rarely be deliberately changed.  Cultural selection is not a rational process; it is not guided by but it creates reason" (LLL [3], 166).  But, as Beck notes, this contradicts Hayek's claim that ideas govern evolution:  "The belief that in the long run it is ideas and therefore the men who give currency to new ideas that govern evolution, and the belief that the individual steps in that process should be governed by a set of coherent conceptions, have long formed a fundamental part of the liberal creed" (CL, 112).  After all, Hayek devoted his life to propagating liberal ideas with the hope that these ideas would influence cultural evolution, even if only slowly and indirectly.

Hayek sees the critical turning points in the evolution of different economic orders as coming from the actions of individual "pathbreakers":
"There can be little doubt that from the toleration of bartering with the outsider, the recognition of delimited private property, especially in land, the enforcement of contractual obligations, the competition with fellow craftsmen in the same trade, the variability of initially customary prices, the lending of money, particularly at interest, were all initially infringements of customary rules--so many falls from grace.  And the law-breakers, who were to be path-breakers, certainly did not introduce the new rules because they recognized that they were beneficial to the community, but they simply started some practices advantageous to; them which then did prove beneficial to the group in which they prevailed" (LLL [3], 161).
Here Hayek recognizes individual agency in cultural evolution, in that individuals acting for their self-interest discover the advantages of trade, which can then be favored by group selection when it is beneficial for the group.  He seems to think that "bartering with the outsider" arose first only in the last few thousand years of human history.  But if Richerson, Boyd, Tooby, and Cosmides are correct, it arose much earlier--perhaps hundreds of thousands of years earlier--and thus the propensity for trade could have become innate through gene-culture coevolution.

Hayek also sees that liberalism requires some individuals to exercise deliberate control of the general order of society, although it's limited to the formulation of abstract rules.  He writes:
"Reason is merely a discipline, an insight into the limitations of the possibilities of successful action, which often will tell us only what not to do.  This discipline is necessary precisely because our intellect is not capable of grasping reality in all of its complexity.  Although the use of abstraction extends the scope of phenomena which we can master intellectually, it does so by limiting the degree to which we can foresee the effects of our actions, and therefore also by limiting to certain general features the degree to which we can shape the world to our liking.  Liberalism for this reason restricts deliberate control of the overall order of society to the enforcement of such general rules as are necessary for the formation of a spontaneous order, the details of which we cannot foresee" (LLL [1], 32).
Beck quotes the first two sentences in this passage--on the limits of reason--as contradicting Hayek's effort to design a "constitution of liberty" to promote a free society (150).  But the last two sentences in this passage indicate how Hayek's account of the limits of reason allows for the deliberate design of a liberal order, albeit only at a very general level of rules without any specification of details.  And so, for example, the framers of the American Constitution could design a "higher law" in the Constitution, establishing "a hierarchy of rules or laws, where those possessing a higher degree of generality and proceeding from a superior authority control the contents of the more specific laws that are passed by a delegated authority" (CL, 178).

Hayek's insistence on the superior wisdom of cultural traditions that are not the products of rational design provokes Beck's criticism that he is promoting a cultural relativism and fatalism that contradicts Hayek's promotion of liberal ideas to guide cultural evolution.  But this ignores Hayek's claim that in cultural evolution, there is "certainly room for improvement," and "we must constantly re-examine our rules and be prepared to question every single one of them," although our critical questioning must always be constrained by our cultural history (LLL [3], 167).

The need for the critical scrutiny of the rules that emerge from cultural evolution should be evident, Hayek observes, if for no other reason than that "there has so often been coercive interference in the process of cultural evolution" (FC, 20).  So Hayek seems to agree with those evolutionary theorists who argue that "self-interested agents create, maintain, and modify group-functional culture," and they do this either coercively or collaboratively (Singh et al. 2016).

So, again, Hayek's evolutionary liberalism is best understood as a complex interaction of natural history, cultural history, and individual judgment.


Singh, Manvir, Luke Glowack, and Richard W. Wrangham. 2016. "Self-Interested Agents Create, Maintain, and Modify Group-Functional Culture." Behavioral and Brain Sciences e52.

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