Liberty Matters

Anarchism and Rationalism

In my initial response essay I claimed that Molinari’s anarchism was an example of what F. A. Hayek labeled “false individualism.” In their subsequent essays, David Hart and Roderick Long have both taken issue with this characterization.
A lot of what David and Roderick have to say is intended to call into question the particular individuals and nationalities to which Hayek applied his distinction. David, for instance, claims that significant strains of “radical” individualism (which I assume he equates with Hayek’s “false” individualism – more on this later) existed in both Britain and France, and so Hayek’s diagnosis of this condition as a prototypically French malady must simply be a product of his “terminal Anglophilia.” Roderick, meanwhile, criticizes Hayek on what seem to be precisely the opposite grounds -- for including some British figures in the category of false individualists and some French figures as true individualists. So, according to David, Hayek is being too much of a nationalist in the way he applies his distinction, and according to Roderick, he’s not being nationalist enough. 
Long also says that Hayek was wrong to describe Mill and Spencer as false individualists. And I think he’s probably right about Mill. Spencer, on the other hand, is a tougher case. I believe that Spencer, like Mill, is best thought of as a kind of liberal utilitarian []  That is, he is someone who held utility to be the ultimate moral criterion distinguishing between right and wrong, but who did not think that we should appeal directly to the principle of utility as a decision procedure to guide our individual behavior or public policy.[1] Like Mill, Spencer believed that matters of public policy ought to be decided on the basis of respect for individual rights, though, again like Mill,[2] he clearly saw these rights as grounded in utilitarian considerations. Famously, Spencer thought that our fundamental right is specified by the “Law of Equal Freedom”: “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”[3]
I think that there is a good case to be made that there is, at the very least, a strong streak of “constructivist rationalism” in Spencer’s understanding and justification of this principle. But before that case can be made, we need to ask a question that – surprisingly – neither David nor Roderick really addresses in their critiques of Hayek’s essay. Before we can know whether Hayek is misapplying the labels of  “false individualism” and “constructive rationalism,” we need to know just what these terms mean.
For Hayek, the “dominant feature” of false individualism is its “Cartesian rationalism.” By this latter phrase Hayek seems to mean “an exaggerated belief in the powers of individual reason” that tends to generate “contempt for anything which has not been consciously designed by [reason] or is not fully intelligible to it.”[4] The rationalist believes that social order must be the product of deliberate design, and that social orders that were not so designed, or that cannot be understood by the light of individual reason, should be knocked down and built up again from scratch, when and if doing so seems likely to produce a more rational social order.
The first thing to note, then, is that Hayek’s “false individualism” or “rationalism” is a category that applies not to types of social orders as such, but to ways of thinking about social orders. Anarchism, as such, is neither rationalist nor anti-rationalist. It might (“typically,” Hayek probably ought to have qualified) be the product of rationalist thinking. But it is the thinking that is rationalist or not, not anarchism itself. Minarchism, too, could be the product of rationalist thinking, and I suspect that Hayek would have found a good deal of rationalism in both Rand’s and Nozick’s arguments for the minimal state.
The second thing to note is that Hayek characterizes rationalist thinking as marked not just by a faith in reason, but by a faith in individual reason. What does he mean by this? Hayek explains by contrasting the rationalist’s view of reason with that of the true individualist, for whom
human Reason, with a capital R, does not exist in the singular, as given or available to any particular person, as the rationalist approach seems to assume, but must be conceived as an interpersonal process in which anyone's contribution is tested and corrected by others.[5]
I like to think of the contrast this way: For the rationalist, we can arrive at the Truth about social orders just by locking ourselves away in our closet and thinking about it hard enough. We should read books, yes, and think about what other people have said and arguments they have given. But at the end of the day, we ought to have full confidence in the beliefs at which we arrive through the use of our reason. And, if others disagree – even if most others disagree – then so much the worse for those benighted masses. The discovery of truth, for the rationalist, is an individual process of thinking, not a social process of testing.
So, back to Spencer. Roderick is certainly right that the great bulk of Spencer’s work is dedicated to showing how social order can arise without conscious direction, and in this respect Spencer certainly looks like someone in whom Hayek would find much to admire. But at the level of moral foundations, things look rather different. For Spencer, thinking about the moral foundations by which existing social institutions ought to be tested is explicitly analogized to thinking about geometry – which, I suppose, is a subject that one really could adequately understand by locking oneself away in the closet and thinking hard enough about it. Just as in thinking about geometry we use our “geometric sense” to discover certain indisputable truths from which other truths may be derived, “so it is the office of the moral sense to originate a moral axiom, from which reason may develop a systematic morality.”[6]
The truths with which reason provides us, moreover, are certain and absolute. Thus:
Nature’s rules … have no exceptions. The apparent ones are only apparent; not real. They are indications either that we have not found the true law, or that we have got an imperfect expression of it.[7]
Either society has laws, or it has not. If it has not, there can be no order, no certainty, no system in its phenomena. If it has, then are they like the other laws of the universe—sure, inflexible, ever active, and having no exceptions.[8]
How is this related to rationalism? Well, consider the analogy with geometry again. The Pythagorean Theorem is not a mere rule of thumb. It is an absolute, universal, exceptionless principle. And we know this because it was logically derived from a set of equally absolute, universal, and exceptionless principles. If we run into something that appears to be a counterexample, then the correct inference is that we must have made a mistake, either in our identification of the case as an apparent counterexample to our principle, or in the derivation of the principle itself. But true geometric principles, like true moral ones, admit of no exceptions.
For Spencer, then, Reason (with a capital “R,” as Hayek would say), gives us an absolute and exceptionless moral foundation, and Reason allows us to derive from that foundation a series of equally absolute and exceptionless subordinate principles. And should those principles conflict with common opinion, or existing social practice, it is common opinion and practice that must give way.
Now compare this with Molinari’s argument for anarchism. As we have noted, Molinari’s argument for anarchism proceeds on the basis of a few simple economic principles: 
That in all cases, for all commodities that serve to provide for the tangible or intangible needs of the consumer, it is in the consumer’s best interest that labor and trade remain free, because the freedom of labor and of trade have as their necessary and permanent result the maximum reduction of price.[9]
And that
the interests of the consumer of any commodity whatsoever should always prevail over the interests of the producer.
From which it follows, Molinari claims, that 
the production of security should, in the interests of the consumers of this intangible commodity, remain subject to the law of free competition.
And thus that
no government should have the right to prevent another government from going into competition with it, or to require consumers of security to come exclusively to it for this commodity.
And what is the status of this conclusion? Is it put forward as a hypothesis to be tested empirically? Should we try anarchism out, see how it works, and wait until the data is in before making any final judgments regarding its merit? 
Far from it. Notice the striking parallel with Spencer in Molinari’s response to the suggestion that the market for security might be different from other markets.
It offends reason to believe that a well established natural law can admit of exceptions. A natural law must hold everywhere and always, or be invalid. I cannot believe, for example, that the universal law of gravitation, which governs the physical world, is ever suspended in any instance or at any point of the universe. Now I consider economic laws comparable to natural laws, and I have just as much faith in the principle of the division of labor as I have in the universal law of gravitation. I believe that while these principles can be disturbed, they admit of no exceptions.[10] 
Anarchism must work because economic theory tells us so, and economic theory consists of natural laws that have no exceptions. End of story.
There might be nonrationalist ways of getting to anarchism. John Hasnas’s work seems to me to be a prime example.[11] But Molinari’s work pretty clearly falls into the rationalist camp.
A final note. As I mentioned at the outset of this essay, David Hart seems to equate Hayek’s “false individualism” with “radical” liberalism. He goes onto suggest that Hayek’s own version of “true individualism” is insufficiently capable of recognizing the injustice of long-existing institutions like slavery, mercantilism, and so on. “This makes Hayek’s view of existing institutions and traditions,” he says, “look quite complacent and uncaring of the rights and liberties of ordinary people.”
But I think that this characterization of Hayek’s view paints him in an unfairly conservative light. The conservative position is one from which Hayek famously distanced himself in his essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.”[12] But this essay is only the most popular expression of a theme that runs throughout his work: We have good reason to give qualified deference to evolved moral principles, but not to be slavishly constrained by them. Thus in The Constitution of Liberty, he writes that
[I]t is, in fact, desirable that the rules should be observed only in most instances and that the individual should be able to transgress them when it seems to him worthwhile to incur the odium this will cause.… It is this flexibility of voluntary rules which in the field of morals makes gradual evolution and spontaneous growth possible, which allows further modifications and improvements.[13]
The tenability of this nuanced position is more than I can defend in this space, but it is a theme that Gerald Gaus has explored more deeply in several important papers.[14] Whether Hayek’s position is (sufficiently) radical is, I suppose, a different question. It seems to me that Hayek’s moderation is mainly epistemic in form. We have good reason to think that the conclusions of our own reason are highly imperfect and that evolved social institutions may embody more wisdom than we are capable of recognizing. Is this counsel of epistemic modesty incompatible with political radicalism? I suppose I don’t think so. Indeed, given the inherent dangers of political radicalism, and the humanitarian disasters to which it all-too-frequently leads, it strikes me as especially good advice for the political radical to take to heart.

[1] See Spencer’s discussion in chapter 3 of Social Statics (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1970), online at: CHAPTER III.: The divine idea, and the conditions of its realization. </title/273/6199>. As Spencer writes there, “It is one thing … to hold that greatest happiness is the creative purpose, and a quite different thing to hold that greatest happiness should be the immediate aim of man” (61).
[2] David O. Brink, “Mill's Ambivalence About Rights,” online at: <>.
[3] Spencer, Social Statics, chapter VI, p. 95, online at: Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed, (London: John Chapman, 1851). Chapter VI.: First principle. </title/273/6226/932885>.
[4] “Individualism: True and False” in Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Social Statics, Introduction, “The Doctrine of the Moral Sense,” online at: </title/273/6167/932703>.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] “The Production of Security.”
[10] Ibid.
[11] See his “Toward an Empirical Theory of Natural Rights,” online at: <>, and “The Obviousness of Anarchy,” online at: <>.
[12] Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
[13] Ibid., pp. 123-24.
[14] See his “The Evolution of Society and Mind: Hayek’s System of Ideas,” online at<>, and his “Social Complexity and Evolved Moral Principles” online at <>.