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.

NEXT: Scratch That Old Joke

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  1. In Thomas Jefferson’s case, you could have just left “Race” as informing his position more than his liberalism.

    Which raises an interesting point- if Sullivan and Rauch can’t have arguable positions because of their orientation, how is Goldberg somehow immune? I mean, unless Goldberg is a complete asexual (one can dream), his “orientation” should disqualify his views in the same way it appearently disqualifies Sullivan.

    Before I go, I would like to thank s.m. koppelman for making my point for me- Arguments should be debated on their merits, rather than dismissed due to the attributes of those making said arguments. (Though I can’t shake the feeling he thought he was rebutting me- what a card! 🙂

  2. the government vests in clergy the power to marry. Why?

    As a token power to keep the clergy quiet while the mercantilists assumed the political power of the state machine.

    However marriage is defined and executed, there’s relatively little money in it. It serves as a nice distraction for sharp-minded moralists of all stripes, and keeps them from messing with the state’s conquest of productive capacity.

  3. From PrestoPundit:

    “Would Hayek approve gay marriage? Worth noting — portions of Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit were written by the editor of the book — who happened to have been gay — when Hayek fell ill before the final completion of the manuscript. There has yet to be a full scholarly accounting of these non-Hayek passages in the book, which can be found throughout the text.”


  4. Before we get too deep into this thread, maybe it would be good for lawyer types to lay out the pros and cons of marriage versus civil union, etc.
    I mean with a shrinking number of folks getting married, what is it saying about the value of marriage?

  5. Not to get too snarky here (especially since I may have my facts wrong), but didn’t Hayek dump his wife of a couple of decades when he found out the girl he’d wanted since he was a teenager was now available and interested?

    Seems to me (If I’m right), he had a “flexible” view of marriage.

  6. Hayek is all about the organic wisdom of institutions, which includes the idea that institutions incorporate their own capacities for self-criticism and adaptation.

    In the case of marriage, we have a massive network of “little platoons” (yeah, not Hayek’s, I know) embodying the culture’s wisdom on marriage: churches of different faiths and denominations. I would say the following government actions would be anti-Hayekian:

    1) Government forces all churches to marry gay people regardless of a given church’s own teachings on the subject. This is not on the table, but we would need to oppose it if it were.

    2) Government forbids churches to marry gay people regardless of a given church’s teachings on the subject. This is exactly the conservative program.

    The following would not be anti-Hayekian:

    Government recognizes the change in views of mediating institutions (churches et al) regarding marriage and continues to follow their lead on the matter.

  7. “2) Government forbids churches to marry gay people regardless of a given church’s teachings on the subject. This is exactly the conservative program.”

    Care to back this statement up?

    AFAIK, this is all about legal marriage; no clergy required whatsoever, only a good ol’ justice of the peace. Clergy-ducks at the Church of Man-Duck Unification are already free to hold whatever ceremony they see fit.

  8. It’s a little difficult to tell the difference between evolution and decay while it is happening.

    I cannot speak for Hayek, nor do I want to, but with respect to social institutions like marriage it seems best to allow government policy to lag behind social change. If the people decide policy should change they have the ability through their elected legislatures to make that happen. The change may not be what the advocates of a given social change wish to see if the reason it is made is to head off efforts by another branch of government to impose a different policy on the country.

    This is the context of the Defense of Marriage Act, a piece of legislation that many if not most of its supporters would have considered not worth their time 20 years ago. 20 years ago there seemed scant danger that any court would decide that an understanding of the legal definition of marriage that had prevailed for centuries was suddenly an impermissable violation of either the state or federal constitution. Today that danger is evident.

    Personally I regard the idea of gay marriage with distaste, and would be very happy never to have to discuss the subject in the context of government policy. The legal status quo is just fine with me, but if the country decided to go in a different direction I would see that as at most a defeat, not a catastrophe. Attempts by any court to substitute its views for those of the people acting through their elected representatives are a different matter altogether.

  9. Rob: You are absolutely right that churches can “marry” gay people in religious ceremonies. (But what is it with you conservatives and the bestiality references? Do you take these positions because you need society to hold you back from fulfilling urges that, frankly, just don’t afflict the rest of us? I mean, a duck? What’s the appeal there?)

    Here is the tradition: the government vests in clergy the power to marry. Why? Because churches embody a set of wisdoms in civil society, and those wisdoms are taken to be especially pertinent to matrimony. The government says, You lead, we’ll follow.

    Many churches have clearly changed their understanding (wisdom) of who can appropriately join in matrimonial unions. That is to say, civil society, through its institutions, is evolving in a thoroughly Hayekian way – from the bottom up. DOMA and the post-Goodridge statements by President Bush are a declaration that “We won’t follow even though we did before. We will substitute a political injunction for civil institutions.”

  10. All this “rational debate” over same-sex marriage is theatre of the absurd. I’m all for tolerance, but c’mon people, take a good look between your legs and then try to convince us that a square peg really does belong in a round hole…

    I think the McDonalds Hot Coffee lawsuit had more merit than this drivel.

    Oh and Selma Hayak is one Hot Little Number, right?


  11. Yes, Fredrick Douglas is brilliant, well-respected, and has some very american, patriotic views. But he is also black. And on slavery issues- much like Sojouner Truth- his race seems to inform his views more than his patriotism.

  12. Yes, Thomas Jefferson is brilliant, well-respected, and has some very american, patriotic views. But he is also a Virginia plantation owner. And on slavery issues – much like Geo. Washington – his profession seems to inform his views more than his patriotism.

  13. Yes, Jonah Goldberg is brilliant, well-respected, and has some very libertarian, lassiez-faire views. But he is also a smartass GOP opinion drover. And on libertarian issues much like Ann Coulter, his sense of partisan competitiveness seems to inform his views more than even his common sense.

  14. Sorry. More to the point:

    Yes, Thos. Jefferson is brilliant, well-respected, and has some very liberal, patriotic views. But he is also a Virginia plantation owner. And on slavery issues- much like Geo. Washington- his profession seems to inform his views more than his liberalism.

  15. perhaps because i’m incredulous at the line of argument, i’m going to ask the forum to attack the issue systematically.

    can anyone articulate the costs of legalizing gay marriage? what is lost? what is jeopardized?

    i have a feeling this list is trivial, but i’d like to hear it from a conservative.

  16. Why do people insist on arguing about semantics of intention when the intuitive intention is clear, Rob?

  17. Good thing Hayek didn’t own slaves. Think of the arguments around here !!!!

  18. John Locke owned slaves (sort of); if that helps. 🙂

  19. Hayek is now the infallible prophet?
    sorry, but he is not an ethicist or anthropologist.
    The simple fact that our society has destroyed marriage is ignored. Marriage to have a child is not needed– the government will sppport the mom and kid, or pay for her abortion if the mom is lazy or the guy runs away.
    Easy divorce means moms can no longer trust that they can stay home and raise kids: they’d better keep an independent income just in case he finds a new chick.
    And, of course, promiscuity as normal behavior makes it no longer necessary to marry at all.

    Gay marriage is, however, based on a false premise: that men and women are completely interchangable, and that gender can be chosen, and is a meaninless intellectualy construct.
    Biologically, this is a false assumption.
    And basing laws on utopian ideas instead of biological reality will be a disaster.

  20. Nancy Reyes,

    I couldn’t agree more. Society has also callously & thoughtlessly destroyed such ancient institutions as slavery and polygamy. Slaves should obey their masters and women should submit to their husband. We should also go back to using thy, thou, thine and smite. Thou woulds’t concur ?

  21. the government vests in clergy the power to marry.

    Well, not really. A church wedding does not make you husband and wife in the eyes of the law. For that you need a marriage license, issued by the state.

    Conversely, you don’t need a church wedding to be legally married if you have a marriage license. In some states, you don’t need either a license or a wedding, so long as the two of you have lived together as if you were husband and wife for a set period of time (common law marriage).

    Nobody should be, and as far as I know nobody is, talking about laying a finger on religion, but using the ambiguous term “marriage” certainly gives that impression. If people would just stop using the word “marriage” to refer to legal marriage, and reserve it for religiously consecrated marriages, an awful lot of heat would go out of this argument.

    I see no reason that we couldn’t just rename the current “legal” marriage as a civil union or whatever, open it up to any couple, and be done with it. We can fight later about whether to license polygamy and bestiality.

  22. For whoever wanted to hear some conservative arguments against gay marriage, here is an incomplete list of such arguments. You can read many more conservative arguments if you google on “Stanley Kurtz marriage” and if you go thru various conservative opinion sites.

    – Homosexual males will commit adultery on average more openly and at much higher rates than do heterosexuals. This will help to legitimize adultery and result in even higher divorce rates since heterosexuals are far less emotionally able to countenance adultery from their mates on average.

    – Homosexual male married couples will not have kids (by adoption or rented womb) at as high a rate as heterosexuals do. This will make their use of spousal benefits cost more per amount of benefit that flows to children. Higher costs for spousal benefits will reduce total benefits provided by employers and hence decrease the benefits that flow to children.

    – Some heterosexual males will come see marriage as a gay and feminine thing and will be less willing to enter into it. This will reduce the presence of fathers in families.

    – There is a slippery slope. Once homosexual marriage is legalized why stop there? Why should group marriage, marriage between brothers and sisters (especially if they are too old to reproduce), and marriage with children be against the law? What argument can be advancd against each of those other forms of marriage that will not be seen as just old-fashioned tradition and bigotry?

  23. Can I talk about the monetary benefits thing for a minute?

    Something that’s starting to happen (on my state tax dollars, naturally) is that some Chicago city offices are offering “married” benefits to homosexual couples. This, personally, doesn’t bother me — partially, I think they’re trying to attract good employees.

    What gripes me about the situation is that many unmarried heterosexual couples are now skating in on the insurance benefits. since the standard seems to be not whether you’re married, but whether you’re living together.

    From what I understand, the number of unmarried heterosexual couples living together outnumbers homosexual couples living together 10-1. From a strictly $ standpoint, if this is the way it’s going, I’d much rather have ONLY recognized unions get insurance and close this loophole.

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