Responding to Simon Griffiths: What can the left learn from Friedrich Hayek?

Simon Griffiths, author of Engaging Enemies: Hayek and the left, has written a post on the LSE Politics and Policy blog asking what the left can learn from Hayek.

Motivated by an article by a group of Occupy activists in the FT, which argues that Hayek can inform a left-wing critique of capitalism, Griffiths outlines three lessons for the left. His points are interesting, and in my view he correctly identifies a key flaw in Hayek’s thought. Ultimately, however, any attempt to appropriate Hayek’s thought in this way quickly runs into problems.

Overall, I believe Griffiths makes a dubious contribution to post-Hayekian thought. The lessons Griffiths think the left can learn from Hayek require a ‘pick and choose’ approach that does little to further our understanding of Hayek. Nor can much be learnt from the fragments of Hayek’s thought Griffiths isolates to support his position.

The problem for the authors of the Occupy article is that there is nothing in Hayek’s work to justify the kind of statism they imagine it does. Either social-democrats and social-liberals must pick out pieces of Hayek’s thought so isolated from it in its entirety that they are not at all useful, or we adjust what we mean by social-democracy and social-liberalism to such an extent that they become indistinct from Hayek’s liberalism.

Despite his references to Hayek’s social theory and concern with knowledge, Griffiths also runs into problems in framing Hayek’s concern as solely with the market, and trying to extrapolate from this lessons for those who see a much bigger role for the state than Hayek ever did.

Griffiths’ first point is that the market is not the sole institutional mechanism we have to solve the dispersal of knowledge:

Understood socially, knowledge can be shared by people taking action to overcome the limits of their individual perspectives. [Founding editor of Red Pepper magazine Hilary] Wainwright’s work is full of examples of organisations – trade unions, women’s groups and co-ops – that have come together to pool knowledge in order to solve collective problems that cannot be solved by the market or by remote bureaucrats.

This is a straw man – Hayek may have viewed price signals rather than central state planning as the basis of spontaneous economic order, but his conception of spontaneous order encompassed the economy and society as whole. He therefore places value on other institutions and third sector groups within the social catallaxy. Another problem is that Wainwright’s concern – the pursuit of social justice – is for Hayek at best misguided and intellectually incoherent, and at worst a serious threat to spontaneous social order.

Griffiths’ second point is that the state has a role to play in guiding and shaping spontaneous orders. There are three possibilities here, all of which are problematic.

First, the left could see a role for the state in directing spontaneous orders towards particular goals. But Hayek’s philosophy is firmly not teleological – moreover, Hayek’s is an argument against the ability of the state to set particular end goals in advance. So it would be inconsistent to accept Hayek’s social theory but hold that the state is able to direct spontaneous orders. Second, the direction the left would go in – towards a socially-just order – undermines the notion of spontaneous orders entirely. Third, the “framework” Griffiths refers to could simply require state institutions to uphold the rule of law, within which spontaneous orders can develop and flourish. But it’s not clear why this offers any support to the left. Hayek’s repeatedly argues that social order is not designed by one mind of group of minds, which rules out it being much more substantial and prescriptive than that.

The most useful point – and one that Hayek accepted – was that the state can act where it is subject to competition, such as in the provision of public services. But in referencing Gamble’s focus on trial and error processes, the left may be able to learn more from Karl Popper than Hayek.

Griffiths’ third point, which relates to Hayek’s views on freedom, is the one I find most interesting:

For some on the left, however, while Hayek was right about the importance of these freedoms, his views are incomplete because he never explained why freedom is valuable to us. This must be because of our desire to act autonomously. In order to do this, we need certain resources – food, shelter, and education, for example. The state is crucial in providing these. Market freedoms are important, but so is the autonomy needed to pursue them. Hayek’s argument for freedom can end, not simply with a case for the free market, but with an account of those resources needed to make freedom valuable to us.

This has long been my problem with Hayek’s thought – the answer is that freedom’s value is probably limited to its role in supporting and sustaining social order, but he doesn’t offer a cogent and clear account of it. One consequence of this is that Hayek gives no explanation for why individuals should follow the social rules and inherited social traditions upon which his ‘catallaxy’ is based.

But while Griffiths’ point here is at first persuasive, he inserts into a gap in Hayek’s thought something that simply isn’t there. Asserting that Hayek must have viewed “our desire to act autonomously” as the reason to value liberty, he extrapolates an argument for the state to provide housing, education and welfare. The lack of a basis for this means there is little the left can learn from Hayek in this regard.

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2 responses to “Responding to Simon Griffiths: What can the left learn from Friedrich Hayek?

  1. Joshua

    Nicely done. I thought on the last of Griffith’s points you could have pointed out the absurdity of suggesting governments have a crucial role in providing food, housing and education. That is, you highlighted the extrapolation to a point that hayek never made, but did not take him to task for thinking government is necessary.

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  2. One can take Griffiths argument as being fundamentally about Hayek or about what useful might be developed from his thought. Clearly they’re related projects, and if one sufficiently misunderstands Hayek then the former project is a bit of window dressing. But I don’t think Griffith’s focus is on deepening our understanding of Hayek, but rather looking for ways that Hayek can make a contribution to left preoccupations. For myself I found this framing preoccupation with left and right unhelpful because it turns the discussion into well worn grooves when it might open up new territory. I tried to sketch out what I mean here.

    I think Hayek’s thinking points in interesting directions which he never developed because of his ideological preoccupations. Of course as people we’re all entitled to our preoccupations, but for me it mars the power of Hayek’s thinking that he didn’t follow his insights quite where they led. He was seeking to support a particular position in all his writings that I know of with the possible exception of his excursion into psychology in the 1950s.

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