The Moral Glue


The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, by F.A. Hayek, London: Routledge, 224 pages, $33.00

John Stuart Mill said that the logical development of human knowledge is the opposite of its historical development. Logically, we should begin with a definition of what we are talking about, state its fundamental premises, and then deduce corollaries in successively more specific areas. Historically, however, we are much more likely to begin with isolated specifics that interest us for one reason or another, eventually begin to see parallels between them and some other specifics, start to group these together, then discover the fundamental premises that underlie them all, and finally give it all a name. Thus mankind may start off with herbal remedies for sickness and with mixing other substances for other purposes, and eventually end up with chemistry.

Logically, The Fatal Conceit should have been the first of Friedrich A. Hayek's books, for in it he lays the foundation of much that is found in his other works—his general theory of man and human interactions and of the intellectual perceptions and misperceptions of these interactions. Once having understood Professor Hayek's underlying assumptions, we could then move on to better understand such general studies of Western government as his Law, Legislation, and Liberty and afterwards such more specific works as The Constitution of Liberty and The Road to Serfdom. On the economic side, we could proceed from Hayek's general writings on the role of knowledge to his earlier, more specific technical work on capital. However, it would have been completely inconsistent with his own overall vision for Professor Hayek to have proceeded in this mechanistically rationalistic way.

As it is, we can simply welcome this fuller development of the premises inherent in the many works that constitute the Hayekian legacy. Moreover, we have a special reason to welcome it, as it is chronologically the first book to appear in a projected series to be called The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek—though it is numbered Volume 12, Part 1.

The Fatal Conceit contains nothing startlingly new and yet my copy is heavily marked up on almost every page. For those already familiar with Hayek, it is a work of clarification. For those unfamiliar with his writings, it is an excellent introduction, not only to his thought but also to the opposite views which give the book its title. Certainly, if one were teaching a course on Hayek, The Fatal Conceit would be the perfect first assignment.

Not all libertarians will welcome Professor Hayek's clarification of his premises. The "reason" which is so important to some libertarians—even to the point of naming a magazine for it—has a very limited role in Hayek. Indeed, that limitation is a central part of his thesis that evolved patterns of human interactions are usually superior to deliberate designs imposed by "reason." The superiority of capitalism to socialism is only a special case of this broader principle.

Many libertarians would argue that there are explicit analytical reasons why capitalism is preferable to socialism and that it is for these explicit reasons that they prefer it. Otherwise, as a writer in a recent issue of The Cato Journal expressed it, it would be necessary to agree with Ronald Dworkin's characterization of belief in evolved orders as "a silly faith." However, the dichotomy between faith and reason omits the basis for many—probably most—decisions.

Someone may prefer one brand of shoe over another, not because he has blind faith or because he has rationalistically investigated the complexities of shoe construction or the anatomy of the human foot, but simply because one brand feels more comfortable than the other. Similarly, long before Austrian economics or even Adam Smith explained the superiority of market forces over politically imposed economic policies, one could (not unreasonably) have preferred the marketplace simply because of its demonstrably better results.

Hayek's transcendence of the faith-reason dichotomy goes beyond empirically based choices. He argues that the evolutionary survival of some cultural patterns at the expense of competing cultures is an important mechanism for the selection of patterns that work better—even when the reasons why they work better have not been understood by either the winners or the losers in the competition. To discard whatever cannot justify itself before the bar of reason—in the explicitly articulated sense of the philosophic rationalist—would be to throw away most of civilization itself, not just the marketplace. The "fatal conceit" of what Hayek calls "hubristic reason" is fatal in just this sense.

Repeatedly, Hayek makes clear that what he sees at stake in these apparently arcane methodological issues is nothing less than the survival of civilization. The moral glue that makes it all stick together cannot be justified—or, more important, perpetuated—on the basis of articulated, syllogistic rationality of the sort demanded by intellectuals. He says: "The starting point for my endeavor might well be David Hume's insight that 'the rules of morality…are not conclusions of our reason.'" Morals, according to Hayek, "are not a creation of man's reason but a distinct second endowment conferred on him by cultural evolution."

Hayek relies heavily on tradition—"that which lies between instinct and reason"—to preserve civilization. But he also recognizes that there are limits to such reliance on tradition, just as there are limits to the domain of explicitly articulated rationality. He says: "I do not claim that the results of group selection of traditions are necessarily 'good'—any more than I claim that other things that have survived in the course of evolution, such as cockroaches, have moral value." What he does believe is that "an understanding of cultural evolution will indeed tend to shift the benefit of the doubt to established rules, and to place the burden of proof on those wishing to change them."

One reason why no particular system of morality is deemed to be categorically and timelessly "good" by Hayek is that the kind of morality most conducive to the well-being of small communities such as families and tribes is radically different from the kind of morality needed to preserve vastly larger aggregations, such as nation-states and civilizations. He argues that the former are instinctively more attractive to us, not only because of deep roots in our ancestral past, but also because of their continuing importance in our dealings with those who are nearest and dearest to us.

The instincts of "solidarity and altruism," the sense of cooperation and consensus, the commonality of specific goals and of the efforts to achieve them, are at the heart of the small group. But the large nation-state or a vast civilization cannot be coordinated in this way. Hayek therefore sees socialistic movements, which tend to think of themselves as being in the vanguard of progress, as being instead a throwback to a more primitive society whose emotional appeal is still with us. He says: "I believe that an atavistic longing after the life of the noble savage is the main source of the collectivist tradition."

The vast civilizations now necessary, not only for our current levels of well-being but even for the physical survival of the huge populations its productivity makes possible, run on entirely different principles, of which the marketplace is only one. Fundamentally, such an "extended order," as Hayek calls it, runs on rules—rules within which individuals largely selfishly seek their radically differing goals. Such a pattern of human interactions can "give little satisfaction to deep-seated 'altruistic' desires to do visible good," according to Hayek. Its benefits, though many, are largely systemic and therefore emotionally unsatisfying to those who want to see themselves "make a difference" in the lives of others.

Hayek was once charged by Joseph A. Schumpeter with excessive generosity to his adversaries—an indictment to which few intellectuals have been subject. However, while Hayek recognizes the cynical manipulation of words and emotions for political purposes by those on the left, such phenomena are not essential to his critique of their position. According to Hayek, "The higher we climb up the ladder of intelligence, the more we talk with intellectuals, the more likely we are to encounter socialist convictions." This is because "intelligent people will tend to over-value intelligence, and to suppose that we must owe all the advantages and opportunities that our civilization offers to deliberate design rather than to following traditional rules." To Hayek, socialists are just a special case of the fatal conceit of rationalists. "Although this is an error, it is a noble one," he says.

Perhaps. But Hayek's conception is a nobler one. It accepts our limitations and all that they imply, including a self-denying discipline in place of the self-indulgent moral one-upmanship of the left.

Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is the author of numerous books, including most recently A Conflict of Visions and Compassion Versus Guilt.