Dogmatism is bad. If someone calls you dogmatic, an ideologue, he implies that you are irrevocably wedded to your ideology and your belief system. You refuse to consider stringent counterarguments and quibbling counterevidence. Instead of taking into account the arguments for and against, say, the support of a subsidy for the—surely incredibly important—chip industry, you, the dogmatist, proclaim that subsidies per se are reprehensible, illegitimate, or inefficient. Or all three things at once.

Proponents of the market economy have often been accused of being dogmatic. They’ve been called “ideologues.” And there certainly are free market ideologues. There are dogmatists who are committed to market fundamentalism. These people, if they want a government at all, hold that the government shall be constrained to very basic functions.

But it is not the content of your beliefs that makes you a dogmatist. Whether you’re a dogmatist depends on how you arrive at your conclusions and how your overall belief system is constructed and also adapted in light of new arguments and new evidence. This implies that when two people have the exact same beliefs about what the state ought to do, one may be a dogmatist while the other is not. What matters is not the content of our beliefs but its derivation and defense.

However, that is often misunderstood. When you hear critics denounce people like Ludwig von Mises or Milton Friedman as dogmatists, the case is often inspired and defended by the observation that they have radical views, that is, allow only for a minimal government (of course, Mises is more radical than Friedman). This is not to say that there may be no arguments that support the allegation that some adherents of free markets are dogmatic, nor is it to say that all those who label thinkers such as Mises as “dogmatists” rest their case (exclusively) on the radicalness of the political position. All I say is that, in my experience, it too often happens that people confuse radicalism for dogmatism.

Perhaps a case in point is the reception of an interesting quote by Hayek. In the Road to Serfdom Hayek opined that “probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rough rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez-faire.” Read carefully! What Hayek says is that it is the wooden insistence that was so damaging, not the principle of laissez-faire as such (and it seems that some have misread Hayek’s words to mean the harm was done by the principle of laissez-faire, and not by the wooden insistence on it). It is true that the Hayek of 1944 rather rejected laissez-faire—the later Hayek, though, would take a different position, noting in a preface from 1976 that, back then, he “had not wholly freed [himself] from all the current interventionist superstitions.” But irrespective of Hayek’s own political position, his quote about laissez-faire suggests that the issue is not laissez-faire, that is, the policy conclusions or the content of our beliefs, but the way we defend them and deal with counterarguments—our “wooden insistence,” or the dogmatism, is the issue.

This is a lesson to hold dear. I agree that we ought not be dogmatists. However, I am convinced that you can be a staunch and radical proponent of laissez-faire without being, by any means, a dogmatist and ideologue. I mean this as more than a logical possibility. I think very practically that insights from the liberal strands of political philosophy but also from political economy undergird such a laissez-faire position.

Arguing this would probably demand writing another blog entry—or rather a book. So, I just want to close by pointing out the logical corollary of holding radicalism and dogmatism separate. And this is that those who eschew radicalism, embrace “the middle-of-the-road” and always demand to check each case on its own merits may well be the true dogmatists.

Anyways, you can be a radical supporter of laissez-faire without being dogmatic at all. And perhaps you should be!


Max Molden is a PhD student at the University of Hamburg. He has worked with European Students for Liberty and Prometheus – Das Freiheitsinstitut. He regularly publishes at Der Freydenker.