Hayek and Nietzsche: Perhaps Not Partners in a Cross-Century Anti-Equality Plot


Kevin Vallier at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian site looks askance at The Nation's attempt to weigh down F.A. Hayek and the Austrian economics project with Nietzsche, in a delightful demolition, which I'll excerpt choice bits and pieces of below with commentary. He starts by stating Nation author Corey Robins' goal–to declare Nietzsche and the Austrians brothers in a plot to valorize aristocratic values as the only legitimate moral values.

(1) For Robin to draw an interesting, sound and illuminating connection between Nietzsche and the Austrians (specifically Mises and Hayek), he must establish two claims: (i) that Nietzsche and the Austrians share the relevant, important views (in this case, a radical subjectivity about "value") and (ii) that they were unique in sharing these views. Robin fails to establish either claim…..

All the marginalists, of course, not just the Austrians through whom Robins wants to attack modern libertarianism by slamming their motives, were subjective-value types. (That is, all modern economists are, at this point.)

suppose we scrutinize one of Robin's most well-developed and specific claims, namely that there is an interesting and illuminating connection between Nietzsche's and Hayek's view about the importance of great men setting out new forms of valuation for social development. Even here the argument fails. The only passages from Hayek that can even be construed out of context to support this argument is Hayek's claim in The Constitution of Liberty that synchronic (simultaneous) inequalities of wealth can work to the benefit of the least-advantaged over time because the luxury consumption of the rich paves the way for manufacturers to create cheaper versions of the same goods and market them to the masses. But Hayek's discussion here is in no way an endorsement of an aristocratic system of values, or an endorsement of the claim that aristocrats should somehow be the moral model for society as a whole, or that only some people can live or deserve to live full, flourishing lives.

Robin places a lot of weight—way too much–on Hayek making the observation that often times market innovations that make everyone's life better in the long run start as being only for the rich, who can afford to patronize them during their early, expensive stages. Vallier teases this out well

Robin is wrong that Hayek only cares about the "freedom of that unknown and untapped figure of invention" because he misreads Hayek when Hayek says, "What is important is not what freedom I personally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things beneficial to society." The unknown person is not necessarily an elite entrepreneur, or even probably an elite entrepreneur….

Robin: "Deep inside Hayek's understanding of freedom, then, is the notion that the freedom of some is worth more than the freedom of others." But as I've already argued, in the passage Robin refers to, Hayek has confined his focus to the general effects of the richer members of society using their market freedom to buy luxury goods. Hayek elsewhere repeatedly emphasizes that through a system of general, predictable rules, all will benefit, both in terms of wealth and freedom….

Robin's conclusion: "Still, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that though Nietzschean politics may have fought the battles, Nietzschean economics won the war." Austrian economics just isn't in any important or illuminating way Nietzschean. There is no evidence of direct influence, which Robin acknowledges, so his entire argument must rely on identifying unique conceptual and ideological commonalities. But as we have seen, Robin fails to do so.

How and why do bright writers like Robin get to this point, Vallier wonders?

Robin's work is continually plagued by his desire to impose a good guy/bad guy narrative on the history of ideas. Every non-leftist is somehow an enemy of equality. That same flaw pervades this essay. The argument is too complex and poorly executed because Robin knew where he wanted to go ahead of time. Somehow Hayek was going to end up an enemy of equality. Lo and behold, via an extremely tenuous connection with Nietzsche, he is.

Further, many of Robin's arguments are guilt-by-association (Mises and Hayek with Nietzsche and Hayek with Pinochet at the end). That's a bad way to do intellectual history because it leads us to focus on personal flaws rather than the development and interplay of ideas.

As Vallier points out, you don't have to be a Hayekian or Austrian or libertarian to understand that Robin is doing some slipshod intellectual history-as-prosecutorial-brief.