What Would Hayek Do?


Over at National Review's The Corner, Jonah Goldberg continues the bickering between libertarians and conservatives over Hayek's corpse by asking, "Am I crazy for thinking that Hayek, for example, would have pretty serious problems with the idea [of gay marriage]? Hayek wrote eloquently about the useful authority of culture and the dangers of a social-engineering state seeking to crush the organic arrangements of society. It seems to me that the conservative argument against gay marriage is often the true Hayekian one."

Ironically, Goldberg is following an argument sketched years ago by Jonathan Rauch (whose excellent National Journal columns are archived on Reason Online here), whom Goldberg has dismissed thusly: "Yes, he's brilliant and well-respected, and he has some very conservative views. But he is also gay. And on gay issues -- much like Sullivan -- his sexuality often seems to inform his views more than his conservatism."

In The New Republic in 1996, during the debate over the awful Defense of Marriage Act, Rauch argued that Hayek, whom he admires greatly, would indeed have been in the conservative locker room on this issue. Rauch wrote, "The Hayekian view argues strongly against gay marriage. It says that the current rules may not be best and may even be unfair. But they are all we have, and, once you say that marriage need not be male-female, soon marriage will stop being anything at all. You can't mess with the formula without causing unforeseen consequences, possibly including the implosion of the institution of marriage itself."

However, I think Rauch and Goldberg are mistaken. Hayek is ambivalent on many things (and inscrutable on many others). But as I argued in this 1996 piece for Reason, attempts such as The Defense of Marriage Act--and current attempts to keep states from having to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states--exemplify an anti-Hayekian view toward social evolution.

"F.A. Hayek defined a free society as one in which people "could at least attempt to shape their own li[ves], where [they] gained the opportunity of knowing and choosing different forms of life." Hayek emphasized that such individual empowerment is absolutely necessary to maintain an "extended order" vibrant enough to generate opportunities for its members. It is the means by which society adapts to constantly changing circumstances, needs, and desires. He also underscored that the outcomes of such a "discovery" mechanism would not always be "good" or "just," in either a moral or utilitarian sense, but that trying to "wrest control of evolution…only damages the functioning of the process itself."

While stressing that social institutions--themselves the result of an evolutionary process-- cannot and should not be simply thrown out and redesigned at will, Hayek insisted that we run terrible risks when we seek to limit the choices people make. That's because the act of choosing is the very basis of a flourishing society.

… [The Defense of Marriage Act] is designed to foreclose governmental recognition of gay marriage. It is a misguided attempt to define for all time an institution that is constantly, if slowly, evolving. Its supporters may think they can stop social evolution in its tracks and enforce a singular vision of the good society. But such people misunderstand the very nature of a free society and its dependence on choice and change.

The whole piece is online here.