Monday, October 10, 2011

Hayek and Hobbes

I recently expressed an affinity for the social views of F.A. Hayek, noting that this position might appear to be difficult to reconcile with my fondness for the writings of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

Hobbes is most famous for his contention that without a strong central authority societies disintegrate into conflict:

[D]uring the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war, as is of every man against everyman ... In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. [Leviathan (Basil Blackwell, 1960), p. 82.]

The common power of which Hobbes speaks is conceived as a sovereign individual or group of individuals which is granted supreme power to act 'in those things which concern the common peace and safety.' The sovereign - so conceived - is the source of all law, and rights are a matter of legal definition.

There are obviously conflicts here with the views of Hayek. Hobbes had a major influence on the 19th and 20th-century tradition of legal positivism and the command theory of law, a tradition of thought to which Hayek was steadfastly opposed. Hayek accepted that the idea of law as a command is appropriate in systems of regulation applied to administrators and government officials, but if it is applied to the population at large then everyone is reduced to the status of unpaid servant of the state.

Hayek felt that healthy ideas of the rule of law were undermined in the later 19th century by proponents of legal positivism. The dangerous idea that whatever the government does is right and legal led to the perversion of the Rechtsstaat into the Kulturstaat and to various forms of totalitarianism. It also led to the acceptance of ideas of 'social justice' (involving, amongst other things, the redistribution of private wealth). Hayek believed that laws should not involve arbitrary elements and should be process-based and not directed at particular individuals or towards particular ends. His purpose was to delineate a private sphere where individuals are free to act without fear of coercion by government.

Fundamental to Hayek's position is his rejection of the view that order needs to be created by a sovereign authority. For order arises spontaneously, and any imposed order will - because no central orderer can ever have or process the required information - necessarily be inefficient and oppressive. But I think it's fair to say that Hayek also had a strong belief in individual freedom as a value in itself.

The major threats to individual freedom in Hayek's day were secular totalitarian ideologies (and social democracy which had - as he saw it - a tendency to drift in a totalitarian direction). For Hobbes, however, the main threat was social chaos, but also religious ideologies. Hobbes' sovereign (unlike religious authorities) was not concerned with the private lives of its subjects. Secular totalitarian threats were just not there in 17th-century England, and it is a mistake to see Hobbes as some kind of proto-fascist. Arguably he was just as concerned to protect human freedom as Hayek - and he was certainly opposed to totalitarianism.

Strangely, the tenor of Hobbes' thinking seems quite close to that which led to the development of game theory, one of the most significant new tools of 20th-century economics (and pioneered by Hayek's friend Oskar Morgenstern). Hobbes' suggestion that the individual should first seek peace, but, if betrayed and attacked, is justified in availing himself of 'all helps and advantages of war' to defend himself, approximates to the famous 'tit-for-tat' strategy which generally outperforms other strategies in the 'prisoner's dilemma' game. In one-off versions of the game, the outcome Hobbes predicted occurs and everybody loses (though tit-for-tatters lose less badly than others). But in iterated versions of the game, where artificial agents interact (in what could be seen as a model of society), pockets of spontaneous order and cooperation develop and thrive (providing evidence to support a Hayekian view).

I recognize the reality of spontaneous social order, though I suspect it is not quite so robust as Hayek assumes. As Hobbes (and Hayek in fact) knew from first-hand experience, civil disorder and war are real dangers, and something like Hobbes' sovereign, with strong and undisputed power, may be a necessary condition for peace in many contexts. Certain societies, especially highly cohesive ones with strong systems of morality in place, may be able to exist for long periods without the need for such an authority but history shows that civil conflict can erupt unexpectedly.

Both Hobbes and Hayek saw themselves as men of science, but appreciated also the other dimensions of human culture and the contingency of history. Both men were responding in their work to what they saw as the key social problems of their times in a rational, unsentimental and entirely secular manner. Hobbes' outlook is less colored by religious or metaphysical ideas than that of most of his contemporaries; and, of all the European neo-liberals, Hayek was probably the closest in spirit to logical empiricism, the anti-metaphysical and rigorously secular movement - exemplified in the Vienna Circle - which sought to replace obscurantist philosophies and religions with a view of the world based on science and a new understanding of logic and language.

Who cares about the compatibility or incompatibility of the thought of these two men? Why is the issue even worth raising? Because, I suggest, their differences bring to the fore very important questions about might and right, pragmatism and morality, ends and means.

I have the sense that - for better or for worse - Hayek's thinking retained traces of philosophical idealism, and this may have been what drove him to attempt to justify (certain types of) law on non-legal grounds and to place such an emphasis on human freedom. But the important questions are not what Hayek (or Hobbes) thought about this or that, but rather about what is, and what is not, the case.

Facts and values are intertwined in all discussions of social philosophy, and, if any progress is to be made, they must - no easy task! - be disentangled. The factual questions may be resolved through empirical research and reason, but questions of value will, I suspect, always remain contentious.


  1. Interesting comparison.

    If liberty is liberty within law (as Hayek insisted), then law is necessary for liberty. In which case, what are the conditions of law? Law is not mere force and violence but force and violence directed to the ends of peace and justice in a commonwealth. Which is what Hobbes was defending. If so, it seems that Hayek needs Hobbes.

    Does Hobbes need Hayek? Not sure, but I would say they shared the idea of liberty within law. Where freedom is spontaneous -- that is, consensual -- Hobbes's problem of authority does not arise. But since consensus only goes a small distance, Hayek's spontaneous solution has limited scope, as you suggest.

  2. Nicely put, Alan. There are meaningful points of comparison here but I am always aware of the potential pitfalls involved in comparing thinkers from different eras. One can only go so far.