From the Quaint to the Bizarre: Jeff Friedman on Hayek
By Bryan Caplan
Back in the day, I was one of the research assistants for the Collected Works of Hayek. Frankly, the more I read, the less impressed I was. Among other things, Hayek spends a lot of time unconvincingly blaming socialism on what he calls “constructivist rationalism.” In a the latest issue of Critical Review, Jeff Friedman takes Hayek to task for this eccentric thesis:
On the rare occasions when Hayek (e.g., 1988, 59) actually names a “constructivist rationalist,” it is always a prewar figure such as Bertrand Russell or H.G. Wells. His unending polemic against “scientism” on the left lost any relevance once the reaction against the Holocaust and Hiroshima set in; the persistence of this polemic even after the advent of the New Left must have seemed to any left-wing reader of Hayek like a well-honed obsession, as it completely ignored the postwar left’s revulsion against authority, planning, and “conscious control.” Hayek’s notion that the left favors intervention in (or even the replacement of) markets by governments because it has transferred “to the problems of
society habits of thought engendered by the preoccupation with technological problems, the habits of thought of the natural scientist and the engineer” (Hayek 1944b, 20) long ago shifted from being quaint to being bizarre.
The bottom line is that there have been lots of different kinds of socialists. A few have the “scientistic” mind-set that Hayek attacks. But others – the vast majority, I’d say – are driven by a quasi-religious faith that socialism will somehow lead to a better world… or at least cut the “parasites” of the capitalist world down to size.
Friedman admits that if you selectively read socialists to prove Hayek’s point, you’ll find a little supporting evidence. But the thrust of the socialist position is quite different:
It is true that people on the left sometimes still couch their objections to capitalism in terms of its “anarchy.” But the specific things that these people think of as anarchic boil down, not to an absence of “order” per se (of the sort that could be remedied by “conscious control”); but to the presence of an unjust order — or, to take account of Hayek’s quibble about the phrase social justice, the presence of an undesirable order — an order of poverty and economic instability and unhappiness and inequality.
So why exactly do socialists imagine that abolishing markets is the cure for poverty and economic instability and unhappiness and inequality? I’d say the answer is fairly straightforward. Once you realize that the typical human being suffers from anti-market bias, it’s hardly surprising that a political movement would arise to carry this bias to its logical conclusion.