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Overcoming the Contradictions of Liberal Democracy: Sociobiology and Social Engineering: Pedro Schwartz
7 paragraphs found.

Democracy is an unstable system that often does disservice to individual liberty. With this stark assertion I want to pose two problems that have been with the friends of democracy from the very earliest times—going back to the Athenian followers of Pericles when traduced by Plato, to Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill when concerned with the enlargement of the franchise, down to Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan when proposing remedies for the demagoguery of our day. The first is that government of the people, by the people, for the people has more than once been on the point of perishing from the Earth. The second is that democracy, though the political corollary of individualism, has in practice often tyrannized the individual. One explanation for the recurring instability and frequent oppressiveness of democratic politics is that they are due to the natural attrition of human arrangements. A better answer is that they are the consequence of systematic flaws in our political systems. Democracy as practiced is flawed. Democratic life is beset by paradox. These imperfections must be brought into the open and remedied if we want liberal democracy to survive.


There are many sources of paradox in our democracies. I will turn my attention to four, which I want to deal with in this and the next few essays.

  1. 1. The first one is that the ideals of individualism and citizenship may be discounted as not fully in harmony with our human nature; in fact, they may be rejected as not natural at all.
  2. 2. The democratic vote may result in communal decisions that nobody wants, as coming at the expense of personal preferences; the nation, though the natural venue for popular sovereignty, may often be the source of stifling tribalism.
  3. 3. Thirdly, the confusion of wealth with freedom and poverty with serfdom will tempt many to portray formal liberties as an in-egalitarian sham.
  4. 4. And last, money, which Hayek saw as 'one of the greatest instruments of freedom ever invented by man', repeatedly suffers from financial disorders that endanger liberty, as the crises of the 1930s and the first decade of the present century show.
Hayek's three sources of sociability

The Freudian idea that the institutions of the free society inevitably clashed with the true nature of man was subtly changed by Hayek. The text to be read and reread in this regard is his pithy "Epilogue" to Law, Legislation and Liberty,6 titled "The three sources of human values" (1982). It is there Hayek rejected the general view that human institutions were either of biological or of rational origin.

Culture is neither natural nor artificial, neither genetically transmitted nor rationally designed. [... ] The structures formed by traditional human practices are neither natural in the strict sense of being genetically determined, nor artificial in the sense of being the product of intelligent design. (Hayek, page 155)


For more on Friedrich Hayek's writings, including his Law, Legislation and Liberty, see the EconTalk podcast episode Boudreaux on Reading Hayek.


Thirdly, Hayek did not deplore the emergence of rules that disciplined human nature, much to the contrary: "Freedom was made possible by the gradual evolution of the discipline of civilization which is at the same time the discipline of freedom" (page 163). This is what led Hayek to say that "the morals which maintain the open society do not serve to gratify human emotions" (page 160). The reason why many institutions of the modern world are misunderstood or indeed rejected by modern man is that indeed they are not 'natural', nor are they 'rational' in the sense of being consciously devised for a defined purpose.


One must remember that one of the reasons why Hayek wrote this Epilogue was to correct "the errors of sociobiology". For Hayek, that school was mistaken in believing that the customs and the institutions of human beings could be 'reduced' to their genetic nature, that is to say, biologically deconstructed. Also, one must not forget that the purpose of Volume I of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, titled "Rules and Order" was to reject what he called 'constructivism,' the belief that it was rational and possible to design institutions from scratch as if they were the artificial limbs Freud so tellingly described. In sum, the principle on which Hayek based his analysis of institutions was that encapsulated in Adam Ferguson's famous phrase that "nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design."7


Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty Volume 3: The Political Order of a Free People. The University of Chicago Press, 1982.