Doublethink Redux

Friday, May 04, 2007

Raymund reminded me of a review of the second volume of the collected works of Friedrich A. Hayek that I saw recently at Arts and Letters Daily. The review starts out badly, but makes some decent points at the end.

What I want to discuss here is the following major philosophical error, from Hayek's The Fatal Conceit (or at least reviewer Roger Kimball's interpretation of the work), which I have seen crop up in other, non-economic contexts recently. Kimball first quotes Hayek:

The intellectuals' vain search for a truly socialist community, which results in the idealisation of, and then disillusionment with, a seemingly endless string of "utopias" -- the Soviet Union, then Cuba, China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Tanzania, Nicaragua -- should suggest that there might be something about socialism that does not conform to certain facts.
To which Kimball adds:
It should, but it hasn't. And the reason, Hayek suggests, lies in the peculiar rationalism to which a certain species of intellectual is addicted. The "fatal conceit" lay in believing that, by exercising his reason, mankind could recast society in a way that was at once equitable and prosperous, orderly and conducive to political liberty.
So far, this might want clarification, but it could be either a very good point or a very grave mistake.

By Kimball's account, it is, sadly, the latter. To make sure we know that reason is no path to freedom, he then follows up with this:
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the test of "a first-rate intelligence" was "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time" and still be able to function. In fact, that ability is as common as dirt. Look around.
I am not familiar enough with Hayek to know whether Kimball's interpretation of this aspect of his thought is correct, but the notion that reason has failed because socialism has failed is exactly the opposite of the lesson that the failure of socialism should have taught us!

Socialism did not fail because its proponents were "too rational". It was because they misapplied reason to the question "What constitutes a proper politics?" Although many socialist thinkers deserve some credit for the realization that how one answers this question depends on how one answers the antecedent question of what constitutes a proper ethics, none of them went far enough, because answering that question correctly necessitates dealing with many other more fundamental issues, as we shall see.

By contrast, another champion of capitalism, novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, epitomizes the correct approach to ethics, as I have noted before.
Very briefly, let us consider the essence of the conventional approach to the field of ethics. Most will claim that ethics is a set of arbitrary commands (e.g. meaningless social conventions or divine edicts) which may or may not happen to provide any practical guidance to an individual for furthering his own life. This is reflected in the fact that so many people face ethical dilemmas when what they regard as the moral conflicts with what they regard as the practical.

The reason for this common problem is that most ethical systems are formulated without regard to what man actually is or why he might need an ethical system to survive. Quite frequently, when man's nature is considered at all, it is man who is found wanting when his nature conflicts with the ethical system, rather than the validity of the ethical system coming into question. But then, when one accepts the arbitrary, one has placed it outside of rational consideration.

By contrast, Ayn Rand begins by asking what man is, and why he needs a code of morality. Using this approach, she sees right away that man, a rational animal possessed of free will, is a living being and as such must perform certain actions in order to survive. Because man does not have instincts, he must learn everything, including what these actions are.

And because reason allows man to keep track of countless individual concretes efficiently (as well as any important similarities) by means of concepts, it allows him to essentialize the countless similar existents he will face as he goes through life. In particular, man can evaluate various situations (and his actions) conceptually. The science of making such evaluations (and guiding them by considering the evidence for what he needs to live (and flourish) is ethics, or morality.
How this pertains to politics is best understood, furthermore, by considering this additional observation by Rand: Contrary to popular belief, a man on a desert island would not be "exempt" from morality. Rather, he would need it more urgently than ever. Why? Because morality does not apply only to how we treat others (the main focus of altruism), but because it provide guidelines for how we are to live, period.

Bearing that in mind, we see that how we function as part of a society is really a special category of morality. Specifically, the question that arises is: How can I benefit from the goods these other men have produced in an effort to further their own lives? Clearly, the answer lies in acquiring some of these goods for oneself. The means of doing so will boil down to two essential choices: (1) trade for them on mutually beneficial terms, or (2) simply take the goods from them.

The first option will promote the lives of each trading partner. The second will clearly harm that of the person who produced the goods (and ultimately that of both parties). Because the second option threatens the life of the other person, he must act to defend himself in order to live and prosper. Clearly, then, to "simply" take goods will require the use of force (or threat thereof) against the producer, as will any efforts by the producer to prevent this from happening.

A few things about simply taking goods are worth noting. The person who takes from the producer has (1) effectively negated whatever effort the producer spent producing the stolen items, (2) made certain future efforts on his part more difficult than they should have been, (3) ignored the wishes of the producer, and (4) added a great deal of uncertainty to any long-range plans he would have had.

The only way for the producer to be able to prosper will be to cause the person who would take the fruits of his labors to be unable to or to stop. Only the would-be expropriator has a choice in this matter, hence he can be said to initiate force against the producer, whose life requires that he retaliate, by doing whatever he must to remove the expropriator from the equation. In other words, he must use force in self-defense. This is, incidentally, the only moral use of force against another human being.

Clearly, then, those who wish to trade must protect themselves from those who wish to plunder. Furthermore, since plunderers can organize themselves (and men can be dishonest or mistaken about their own use of retaliatory force anyway), it is advantageous for the traders to organize themselves for mutual protection of their lives and their ability to live in accordance to their own best judgement.

Such an organization is known as a "government". Men who wish to live peacefully delegate their power to defend themselves to this organization, whose sole purpose is to protect their individual rights (i.e., their lives and all manifestations of the use of their minds to further their lives, such as speech and property). The only proper purpose of a government is the protection of individual rights.

Note that once one studies the question of why one must have a government at all in this way, it becomes impossible to entertain seriously the whole notion of socialism, which is based on the government taking over (and perfecting) the role of predator to deny the rights of all its citizens to dispose of their property as they see best fit to further their own lives! Furthermore, one sees that it is not only immoral, but impossible for a small handful of people to "plan" the lives of everyone else anyway.

On this last point, Andrew Bernstein, in The Capitalist Manifesto quotes economist George Reisman:
The overwhelming majority of people have not realized that all the thinking and planning about their economic activities that they perform in their capacity as individuals actually is economic planning. By the same token, the term "planning" has been reserved for the feeble efforts of a comparative handful of government officials, who, having prohibited the planning of everyone else, presume to substitute their knowledge and intelligence for the knowledge and intelligence of tens of millions, and to call that planning. (345) [bold added]
I suspect that Hayek would agree with this statement. His observation that economic activity organizes itself is simply a result of the fact that the self-interests of individuals do not conflict.

It is indeed a "fatal conceit" to imagine that one can guide the lives of millions, but it is not an example of the proper application of reason. It furthermore does not mean that reason is impotent as a guide to discovering the proper political organization of human society or that we must engage in "doublethink" in order to be true advocates of capitalism.

Hayek's or not, this last notion, by encouraging people to shade all or part of the sphere of politics from the light of reason, threatens to limit our ability to understand the true nature of capitalism, to appreciate its life-and-death significance, and most of all, to defend it as what it is: the only rational, moral, or practical system with which to organize human society optimally for our own sakes as individuals.

-- CAV


Jim May said...

The "fatal conceit" idea is one of conservatism's core principles, and is why conservatism is in essence a reaction against the Enlightenment and reason.

Gus Van Horn said...

Either I've become more rightly suspicious of conservatism in recent years (and so noticing tings like this), or this idea is cropping up a lot more often.

Or both.

Ergo said...

I think Hayek's criticism of reason specifically applies to the bureaucrats in government who indeed use reasoned planning and economic/mathematical theories to plan out an economy. I don't think Hayek was claiming that reason qua reason is impotent in guiding man's life as such.

The underlying premise of Hayek's criticism is that one man cannot do the thinking for millions of men. In other words, the men in government--despite their exemplary skills, reasoning, and qualifications--cannot presume to do the thinking for the millions of their countrymen. *THIS* presumption is the fatal conceit and the mechanism behind "planned" societies or "utopias" like the socialist states.

Admittedly, Hayek's criticism has been extended--unjustly, in my opinion--to criticize Objectivist politics as attempting to establish a similar utopia of reason. However, the error in this view is that Objectivism does not advocate men planning, thinking, or reasoning for others..atleast not by law or legal fiat, only by voluntary choice. Thus, an Objectivist society of reason would in fact let men be free to be irrational too, so long as no rights are violated and certain protections are not negated.

Gus Van Horn said...

This is about as good as I had hoped, but still, two things:

First, I think that some would criticize Objectivism on such a basis and yes, they would be wrong.

Second, I do not think the expansion of the criticism we wee here is specifically against Objectivism. (I am not sure whether you are saying that, but I am just being clear.)

When I close, I do risk the first possible "expanded criticism" when I say the following:

"[This] notion, by encouraging people to shade all or part of the sphere of politics from the light of reason, threatens to limit our ability to understand the true nature of capitalism, to appreciate its life-and-death significance, and most of all, to defend it as what it is: the only rational, moral, or practical system with which to organize human society optimally for our own sakes as individuals."

But of course, the only thing we should try to organize on a government level is how we stop criminals, because what is done here differs in kind from economic activity, whose planning we must allow individuals to take care of.

A rational view of "planning" thus takes into account what is being planned and by whom it can most effectively be planned.

johnnycwest said...

Isn't reason in service to a socialist centrally planned economy a stolen concept? The mental gymnastics of logical induction and deduction involved may be significant and appear to be reasoned, but shouldn't we come up with a better name for it? Perhaps Ayn Rand does - I have so much re-reading of her writings to do.

And Gus I agree - I am more aware of this idea of fatal conceit being discussed. We may be more sensitive to it, but I think that this is a symptom of the coming showdown between reason and faith and force - we appear to be moving toward a pivotal point in history as in Atlas Shrugs. I hope I am not sounding biblical here! - but human metaphors are shared by many schools of thought.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Isn't reason in service to a socialist centrally planned economy a stolen concept?"

I'm not sure what you mean by the question, since you could be speaking of reason as an existent or as a concept. Assuming the former (e.g., someone applies his rational faculty to his job in service of the state), I'd say that the action is immoral or mistaken. Assuming the latter (i.e., Is there something that "looks like" like rational thought being exercised by the "ants" in a socialist utopia?), I'd say the answer depends on context. You can have a person actually using reason as cited above or, conceivably, you could have a Bobby Fischer type of rationalism going on. But then, that's already been named, and isn't peculiar to socialism anyway.