In a blogpost titled “Hayek on the Two Orders,” Gene Callahan approvingly quotes the following passage from Hayek and admonishes market advocates not to forget or overlook the important insight within:
If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once. – The Fatal Conceit
All well and good, and familiar to readers of Hayek. But then Callahan follows up with some commentary and things get increasingly murky:
I think this achieves just the right understanding of the balance we ought to seek between market and non-market orders. The market is a wonderful institution, which can achieve marvelous economic efficiency. Economic rationality, on the large scale, is impossible without markets, as Mises and Hayek so wonderfully demonstrated. And yet, markets can easily crush the “more intimate groupings.” Markets, especially at the local level, must be subject to social control, lest that crushing proceeds unchecked. Market advocates should remember both halves of Hayek’s insight!
The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson in humility which should guard against him becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society [and destroying] a civilization which no brain designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.
– F.A. Hayek
They say that Hayek’s insight also applies to libertarians and, for example, our attempts to “force” free trade and unregulated labor markets on “society.”
Guilds, poor laws, and limits on trade also grew from the free efforts of millions of individuals, did they not? Well, no, actually they didn’t — at least not insofar as they attempted to use the state to impose the preferences of some on others by force!
Libertarians, of course, have no quarrel with voluntary associations and such voluntary actions as charity and boycotting. But… guilds and labor unions have tended to employ the state to impose their preferences on others; poor laws were historically and are by definition instruments of state policy; and limits on trade have historically been imposed on us by the state. There is nothing free or voluntary about them.
This post is excerpted and adapted from the concluding chapter of my dissertation, wherein I addressed two related objections to libertarianism in general and to my account of Aristotelian liberalism in particular: utopianism and gnosticism, the latter being sort of a theological version of the former. Does the theory of virtue ethics and natural rights described in my dissertation represent an impossibly high standard of ethical excellence? On a related note, is it foolishly impractical given the current shoddy state of the world? And is the ideal society suggested by my nonstatist conception of politics and severe critique of the state an impossible goal? Even if it is achieved, will it ring in a perfect world of peace, love, and happiness without violence, misfortune, and suffering? Naturally, my short answer to all of these questions is “No.”
First, I wish to answer the charge of gnosticism that might be leveled by followers of the political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Voegelin is very popular in certain conservative and communitarian circles, particularly those averse to philosophical systems and principled, as opposed to practical or pragmatic or “realist,” politics.1 I should know; I studied political science and philosophy at Louisiana State University where Voegelin had been a prominent professor. Indeed, LSU is home to the Eric Voegelin Institute for American Renaissance Studies. I was introduced to the work of Voegelin by Professor Ellis Sandoz, a student of Voegelin himself and the director of the institute.
Gnosticism, as Voegelin uses the term, essentially means a “type of thinking that claims absolute cognitive mastery of reality. Relying as it does on a claim to gnosis, gnosticism considers its knowledge not subject to criticism. As a religious or quasi-religious movement, gnosticism may take transcendentalizing (as in the case of the Gnostic movement of late antiquity) or immanentizing forms (as in the case of Marxism).” Now, does that sound like it applies to libertarianism, much less Austro-libertarianism? Rather, it makes me think in particular of the constructivist rationalism, criticized incisively by Friedrich Hayek, that arose out of the Enlightenment and pervades various forms of modern statism.
In his political analysis, Voegelin uses the term to refer to a certain kind of mass movement, particularly mass political movements. As examples, he gives “progressivism, positivism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, communism, fascism, and national socialism.”2 In his view, the consequences wrought by these movements have been disastrous. With few and only partial qualifications, I do not disagree. What makes them gnostic are certain similar characteristics they share with the original Gnostic religious movement of antiquity. Before listing the main characteristics, it first bears pointing out that even the broad libertarian movement as a whole might not yet qualify as a mass movement. However, as Voegelin points out, “none of the movements cited began as a mass movement; all derived from intellectuals and small groups,”3 so contemporary libertarianism and Aristotelian liberalism are not off the hook yet! With regard to the following list, Voegelin cautions that the six characteristics, “taken together, reveal the nature of the gnostic attitude.”4
In Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, Voegelin writes: “Gnosis desires dominion over being; in order to seize control of being the gnostic constructs his system. The building of systems is a gnostic form of reasoning, not a philosophical one” (p. 32). It can never be an attempt to understand being at it is? I think Voegelin makes a spurious generalization here. When one reads further, it becomes apparent that he makes this mistake at least in part because he believes in a Christian Beyond that is not amenable to (human) reason. ↩
Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1968 ) p. 61. See also, Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1952 ). ↩
Voters in Madison, Wisconsin recently approved a measure asserting that corporations do not have constitutional rights.
The measure correctly asserts that only individuals have rights. But then it proceeds to state that corporations do not. This is collectivism at its finest. A corporation doesn’t act. People act. Although the “corporation” doesn’t have rights as an entity, each and every owner of the corporation does. The owners exercise those rights by having agents (the management) act on their behalf. When we speak of a corporation acting, this is merely an abstraction from the individuals involved. As Stephan Kinsella has explained, corporations are nothing more than a series of contracts enabling a large number of people to work together toward common goals.
This resolution, though purporting to support individual rights, is in reality opposed to such rights because it claims that these rights somehow disappear when the individuals who have them choose to use them in a coordinated manner.
I am on the board of the Austin, Texas-based Foundation for a Free Society, and one of our objectives is to put out professional, artistic, catchy videos that communicate the philosophy of liberty in a succinct and fun manner. This video is one of our latest projects and was recently featured on LewRockwell.com. If you think this is a cool idea, why not become a donor to F4FS? Trust me, it’s a GREAT cause. F4FS has been a great supporter of the student group I am involved in, the Libertarian Longhorns, and I can heartily commend them to you.
Isn’t that fantastic? Share it with your friends, maybe you’ll be able to teach them about liberty soon…