Fukuyama on Hayek: Great, But He Didn't Realize That Governments Are People, Too


No Salma, but that's still a pretty good look

The New York Times, perhaps in penance for its news pages characterizing F.A. Hayek one of those "long-dead authors" whose "long-dormant ideas" have until recently been found mostly on "dusty bookshelves," gave some Book Review space over the weekend to Francis Fukuyama for a respectful assessment of the Nobel Prize-winning economist. I'll reproduce the end bit here, since it has the most contentious claims:

A second critique of Hayek has tended to come from the right. He is necessarily a moral relativist, since he does not believe that there is a higher perspective from which one person can dictate another's ends. Morality for him is more like a useful coordinating device than a categorical imperative. But surely the Western tradition that Hayek celebrates is as concerned with virtue as with freedom, whether from the standpoint of Christianity or that of classical republicanism. One searches in vain through this or any of his other books for a serious treatment of religion or the moral concerns that animate religious­believers.

In the end, what drove people on the left crazy about Hayek back in the 1950s is the same thing that makes him appealing to a Glenn Beck today. Hayek made the slipperiest of slippery slope arguments: the smallest move toward the expansion of government would lead to a cascade of bad consequences that would result in full-blown authoritarian socialism. If anything, however, the history of the past 50 years shows us that the slippery slope has all sorts of ledges and handholds by which we can brake our descent into serfdom and indeed climb back up. Voters in the United States and Europe took seriously the arguments about the dangers of big government and reversed course after the 1980s. Indeed, the pendulum swung so far backward that financial markets were left dangerously unregulated prior to the financial crisis. President Obama's return to "big government" didn't last more than a year before it was met with fierce ­resistance.

In the end, there is a deep contradiction in Hayek's thought. His great insight is that individual human beings muddle along, making progress by planning, experimenting, trying, failing and trying again. They never have as much clarity about the future as they think they do. But Hayek somehow knows with great certainty that when governments, as opposed to individuals, engage in a similar process of innovation and discovery, they will fail. He insists that the dividing line between state and society must be drawn according to a strict abstract principle rather than through empirical adaptation. In so doing, he proves himself to be far more of a hubristic Cartesian than a true Hayekian.

More on Fukuyama's review by Cato's David Boaz.

Reason on Hayek here, including this wide-ranging 1977 interview in which he discusses his news-to-George-Soros problems with Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, his relationship with John Maynard Keynes, and his prescient hopes for pre-Thatcher England. Sample on the latter:

That change was long overdue

Reason: Is Britain irrevocably on the road to serfdom?

Hayek: No, not irrevocably. That's one of the misunderstandings. The Road to Selfdom was meant to be a warning: "Unless you mend your ways, you'll go to the devil." And you can always mend your ways.

Reason: What policy measures are currently possible to reverse the trend in Britain?

Hayek: So long as you give one body of organized interests, namely the trade unions, specific powers to use force to get a larger share of the market, then the market will not function. And this is supported by the public because of the historic belief that in past the trade unions have done so much to raise the standard of living of the poor that you must be kind to them. So long as this view is prevalent, I don't believe there is any hope. But you can induce change. We must now put our hope in a change of attitude.