Thursday, February 3, 2011

Thoughts on Intro and Chapter One

Good afternoon. Here are some thoughts on Intro and Chapter One, as well as your thought-provoking posts. As I indicated in my earlier post, this is my first time doing a blog-based discussion, so please let me know if you'd prefer a different format, earlier postings, etc. and I will try to respond to consumer demand! I think it's easiest if I comment in general, rather than on individual posts, since many of you are hitting on the same, hard questions. But if I don't answer to your satisfaction, please let me know.

First, as a disclaimer, while I have indeed read a fair amount of Hayek, thought about his writings a lot, and grown to admire him (full disclosure!), my word is not final. There are disagreements among experts, and I'm not (yet) an expert.

So, here goes.

Several of you commented on Hayek's rational (rather than emotional) emphasis. I think Hayek does well to emphasize that there is also an emotional argument for freedom; that's just not the one he is making. I like to say that Ayn Rand plays such a role – getting people worked up about attacks on liberty, so that they can then read more serious philosophy (e.g. Robert Nozick) and economics (e.g. Hayek/Mises and Public Choice). There. I've offended the randians.

Ah, here is an oft-repeated motif in Hayek's writings. In a way, Hayek is dancing on a fine line, not just for this, but generally. Yes, he is an economist (and a social theorist, as he himself points out when he mentions the limits of technical economics) – and thus in a position to talk about the shortcomings of all-encompassing theories, attempts at social engineering, and experts. But, of course, as he's saying that, he's making this claim…as an expert! I think the resolution of this is to be found in Hayek's cognitive theory, and his general writings on the knowledge problem – knowledge is incomplete and scattered throughout society, so we do our best, and market mechanisms, along with social institutions, gather that incomplete knowledge so we can use it. But Hayek is at all times aware of "the limits of the human mind" and his own limits. So, while specialization does work in specific areas of human activity (division of labor, comparative advantage!), beware the specialist who tells you how to live your life and how to organize society in its last detail of engineering.

This is why, I think, his writings can be so frustratingly vague. He will never give us a full blueprint of the perfect society… simply because he knows he can't do so, and this – along with all other attempts at engineering a perfect society – will fail. He is simply trying to set up a "statement of general principles," and, as we'll see in later chapters, a space within which individuals can thrive and a society can emerge. This opens him, of course, to charges of being simplistic or vague. But I think he doesn't think he can do any better than talk about the framework.

Likewise, I've often made the claim that Hayek is a "three-beer natural rights theorist" (Garrett, btw, you made some comments about deontological aspects; may I address those as we go forward, as I think some answers will emerge in future chapters)? That is, I suspect that if you went out to the local pub with Hayek, after three drinks he'd make the claim that freedom is good because it's good. Period. But he's too cautious, and knows he himself might be wrong about his beliefs and assertions. So he makes, instead, an epistemological and utilitarian argument. More on that later.

More will emerge on coercion, but I wanted to comment on a thread of comments involving the possibility of economic coercion. The two main examples given were monopoly and overtime. I think Hayek would reject both these cases as examples of coercion; yes, they restrict courses of action – but they are not the imposition of the arbitrary will of one person over another. Yes, they present limits on opportunities and choice, but so do many things, whether in the natural or economic world. I can't fly, but that is not coercion. I can't afford a million-dollar toy, but that is not coercion. I have to work in order to obtain something from you, and I can't obtain it without work (that would be coercion on my part) … but that does not coerce me. So, if you offer a contract to me that involves overtime, I am free to reject it – or I might decide that it's better to take a bad contract than not work. But you are not coercing me. Likewise, a monopolist does not coerce me. The monopolist, in order to make a profit (or just survive) must still respond to consumer demand, and must thus still find a place on the demand curve to set a price. And I might decide that I value what the consumer offers, and be willing to pay for it – at more than I'd like. But the monopolist is offering a good or service that I want, and I'm ready to pay for. It would be coercion to force the monopolist to change the price to what somebody else deems "proper." Then again, monopolies can only survive if government coercion keeps them around.

I've rambled along, so I'll simply suggest we come back to this. Liberty is not, for Hayek, the only good. But it's the highest political good, because it allows for all others, and because it serves the best epistemic (knowledge-generating and –transmitting) function. But we'll return to that.

I don't want to go on for too long, so I'll leave you with a question about the "liberal paradox": for Hayek, the only acceptable use of coercion is the prevention of coercion. Sounds like a catch-22, no? We'll return to this.

Eager for your meta-comments on my comments. Have a good discussion tonight, NW


  1. Thanks for your comments and for joining us this semester. Your knowledge will be hugely beneficial as we tackle this book.

  2. Dr. Wenzel,

    Thank you for being willing to join us in our discussion of "The Constitution of Liberty" this semester. I am immensely excited to have your feedback on the book and our thoughts on Hayek's writing.

    Here is a quick recap of today's meeting (from my perspective) so you have an idea what topics were most heavily discussed:

    The beginning of the discussion started with thoughts on Hayek's definitions of "liberty" and "coercion". It was mentioned that he appeared to be a little vague about these concepts (as you warned he might) but the general consensus seemed to be that it was a good start and we hope for more clarification in future chapters.

    The idea of what is and what is not coercion was heavily discussed. Examples of employer-employee coercion was brought up. Is threatening to fire a worker if they don't put in overtime coercion? What about if the employer demands sexual favors? It was put forward that this is not true coercion as there are alternatives to the worker even if fired. However, this sort of economic coercion is an attempt to impose ones arbitrary will on another, or as Hayek says " avoid greater evil, he is forced to act not only to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another." This seems to come down to subjective preferences then: is getting fired or having to sleep with your boss a "greater evil"? Based on this definition, coercion would have to be a subjective concept. I suppose this is the part where Hayek is deliberately, and maddeningly, vague. He is smart enough to know he doesn't have all the answers.

    Perhaps you have more thoughts on coercion, or perhaps we should bide out time until it crystallizes a bit more in future chapters?

    Also brought up was property rights as being key to conflicts between people and being related to coercion. Some members viewed property rights in the Lockian idea of natural rights, others as God-given, others as axiomatic, and still others from a biological perspective. This is probably out of the scope of what the Introduction and Chapter 1 covered, but are important (I believe) to the concept of coercion and liberty. But that is my personal opinion from my Mises readings coming out...

    That is the better part of what we discussed, and if I missed anything crucial I'm sure someone else can fill it in.

    "“Existence, faculties, assimilation—in other words, personality, liberty, property—this is man. It is of these three things that it may be said, apart from all demagogic subtlety, that they are anterior and superior to all human legislation.”
    --Frederic Bastiat, "The Law"