Liberty Matters

The Gallic Menace

I want to second what David H. has said about Hayek’s distinction between “true” and “false” individualism, and to add a few points.
Even on its own terms, Hayek’s distinction doesn’t make sense geographically.  He hails as one of the leading figures of true, or British, individualism a French writer, Tocqueville, while tossing such British writers as Bentham, Mill, and Spencer into the category of false, or French, individualism on the mere grounds that they were influenced by the French.  The scoring system seems suspect.
I’m also not sure how Locke, who based his theory of revolution on a doctrine of natural rights ascertainable by reason, gets into Hayek’s anti-rationalist category.
Leaving all that aside, however, let’s consider some of the thinkers that Hayek consigns to the category of “rationalistic individualism,” which, he claims (without evidence) “always tends to develop into the opposite of individualism, namely, socialism or collectivism.”
Two of the groups he includes in this category are the Encyclopedists and the Physiocrats (all apparently lumped together as though homogeneous).  Consider, then, Voltaire, one of the most celebrated members of the first group, and Turgot, one of the most celebrated members of both.  
Voltaire’s 1733 Philosophical Letters,[1] also known as Letters on England or Letters on the English Nation, is a sustained defense of English cultural traditions and political institutions, as against their French counterparts; this makes him an odd figure to cast as a French Anglophobic villain.  Moreover, in a famous passage from that same work Voltaire writes:
Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact business together, as though they were all of the same religion, and give the name of Infidels to none but bankrupts; there the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends upon the Quaker’s word. At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; that man has his son’s foreskin cut off, and causes a set of Hebrew words – to the meaning of which he himself is an utter stranger – to be mumbled over the infant; others retire to their churches, and there wait the inspiration of heaven with their hats on; and all are satisfied.
Here Voltaire portrays social order as arising neither from a shared ideology nor from top-down direction, but rather from institutions that give individuals an incentive to interact peacefully and cooperatively.  Is this constructivist rationalism?  
Admittedly Voltaire has more statist moments as well, including his praise for allegedly “enlightened despots” like Frederick II of Prussia; but given Hayek’s praise for the allegedly “liberal dictatorship” of Augusto Pinochet of Chile, this is hardly a point he could afford to press.  And at least Voltaire doesn’t praise the blessings of war, as does Hayek’s hero Adam Ferguson.  Most real-life thinkers are too complex and variegated, I think, to fit neatly into the narrow categories Hayek is offering us. 
As for Turgot, bear in mind that he campaigned for property rights and free trade well before Adam Smith did, and that his account of economic value is a much closer forerunner of Austrian subjectivism and marginalism than is Smith’s.  Consider, too, that in response to the charge that defenders of free markets are “men of system,” Turgot replies, in his 1759 elegy “In Praise of Gournay,”[2] that the free marketer 
would rather have had the right to lay this reproach at the door of the principles against which he fought, since his whole doctrine was founded on the complete impossibility of directing, by invariant rules and by continuous inspection a multitude of transactions which by their immensity alone could not be fully known, and which, moreover, are continually dependent on a multitude of ever changing circumstances which cannot be managed or even foreseen.
It’s hard to imagine a more Hayekian passage – and a more complete repudiation of constructivist rationalism – than this.  In the spirit of calling French fries “freedom fries,” perhaps we should call French liberals “freedom liberals.”
And what of Mill and Spencer, whom Hayek tosses out of the true liberal canon on the grounds of perfidious Gallic influence?
In Utilitarianism Mill rejects the idea that we should try to figure out the right principles of conduct merely by reasoning about them, pointing out instead the benefits of relying on the results of accumulated human experience.  One of the central themes of Mill’s On Liberty is that we cannot trust an individual’s reason to ascertain the truth, except against the background of a free marketplace where ideas are tested both in debate and in practice.  In The Subjection of Women Mill rejects the inherited-wisdom-of-mankind defense of male supremacy – but on the grounds that male supremacy did not emerge from such a competitive context.  Is this constructivist rationalism?  (I don’t mean to deny that Mill has his constructivist moments; but these are surely lapses from, not expressions of, his central insights.  Mill is clearly a proto-Hayekian in many ways.)
As for Spencer, his entire œuvre is devoted to explaining how social order arises without conscious direction.  In “Specialized Administration,”[3] for example, he writes:
Up to quite recent days, Language was held to be of supernatural origin. That this elaborate apparatus of symbols, so marvellously adapted for the conveyance of thought from mind to mind, was a miraculous gift, seemed unquestionable. No possible alternative way could be thought of by which there had come into existence these multitudinous assemblages of words of various orders, genera, and species, moulded into fitness for articulating with one another, and capable of being united from moment to moment into ever-new combinations, which represent with precision each idea as it arises. The supposition that, in the slow progress of things, Language grew out of the continuous use of signs – at first mainly mimetic, afterward partly mimetic, partly vocal, and at length almost wholly vocal – was an hypothesis never even conceived by men in early stages of civilization; and when the hypothesis was at length conceived, it was thought too monstrous an absurdity to be even entertained. Yet this monstrous absurdity proves to be true. Already the evolution of Language has been traced back far enough to show that all its particular words, and all its leading traits of structure, have had a natural genesis; and day by day investigation makes it more manifest that its genesis has been natural from the beginning. Not only has it been natural from the beginning, but it has been spontaneous. No language is a cunningly-devised scheme of a ruler or body of legislators. There was no council of savages to invent the parts of speech, and decide on what principles they should be used. Nay, more. Going on without any authority or appointed regulation, this natural process went on without any man observing that it was going on. Solely under pressure of the need for communicating their ideas and feelings – solely in pursuit of their personal interests – men little by little developed speech in absolute unconsciousness that they were doing anything more than pursuing their personal interests.
Is this constructivist rationalism?  And what of the following passage, from Spencer’s Illustrations of Universal Progress?[4]
The whole of our industrial organization, from its main outlines down to its minutest details, has become what it is, not simply without legislative guidance, but, to a considerable extent, in spite of legislative hindrances. It has arisen under the pressure of human wants and activities.  While each citizen has been pursuing his individual welfare, and none taking thought about division of labour, or, indeed, conscious of the need for it, division of labour has yet been ever becoming more complete. It has been doing this slowly and silently: scarcely any having observed it until quite modern times. By steps so small, that year after year the industrial arrangements have seemed to men just what they were before – by changes as insensible as those through which a seed passes into a tree; society has become the complex body of mutually-dependent workers which we now see. And this economic organization, mark, is the all-essential organization. Through the combination thus spontaneously evolved, every citizen is supplied with daily necessaries; while he yields some product or aid to others. That we are severally alive to-day, we owe to the regular working of this combination during the past week; and could it be suddenly abolished, a great proportion of us would be dead before another week ended. If these most conspicuous and vital arrangements of our social structure, have arisen without the devising of any one, but through the individual efforts of citizens to satisfy their own wants; we may be tolerably certain that the less important arrangements have similarly arisen.
(This last passage is reminiscent of Bastiat on the “feeding of Paris.”  Is Bastiat a true or false liberal, by Hayek’s lights?)  The thinkers Hayek is so intent on rejecting, then, are in many cases pioneers of his own ideas.
Let me close with a trio of quotations, all making inter alia the same point – that the experience of the American colonies during the revolutionary war, with the British government no longer in control and the new American one not yet well established, prove the viability of spontaneous order generally and of anarchism in particular:
a) Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.... Government is no farther necessary than to supply the few cases to which society and civilisation are not conveniently competent; and instances are not wanting to show, that everything which government can usefully add thereto, has been performed by the common consent of society, without government.... For upwards of two years from the commencement of the American War, and to a longer period in several of the American States, there were no established forms of government. The old governments had been abolished, and the country was too much occupied in defence to employ its attention in establishing new governments; yet during this interval order and harmony were preserved as inviolate as in any country in Europe. There is a natural aptness in man, and more so in society, because it embraces a greater variety of abilities and resource, to accommodate itself to whatever situation it is in. The instant formal government is abolished, society begins to act: a general association takes place, and common interest produces common security.... So far is it from being true, as has been pretended, that the abolition of any formal government is the dissolution of society, that it acts by a contrary impulse, and brings the latter the closer together. All that part of its organisation which it had committed to its government, devolves again upon itself, and acts through its medium. When men, as well from natural instinct as from reciprocal benefits, have habituated themselves to social and civilised life, there is always enough of its principles in practice to carry them through any changes they may find necessary or convenient to make in their government. In short, man is so naturally a creature of society that it is almost impossible to put him out of it.b) I am glad to see that the terror at disunion and anarchy is disappearing. Massachusetts, in its heroic day, had no government – was an anarchy. Every man stood on his own feet, was his own governor; and there was no breach of peace from Cape Cod to Mount Hoosac. California, a few years ago, by the testimony of all people at that time in the country, had the best government that ever existed. Pans of gold lay drying outside of every man’s tent, in perfect security. The land was measured into little strips of a few feet wide, all side by side. A bit of ground that your hand could cover was worth one or two hundred dollars, on the edge of your strip; and there was no dispute. Every man throughout the country was armed with knife and revolver, and it was known that instant justice would be administered to each offence, and perfect peace reigned. For the Saxon man, when he is well awake, is not a pirate but a citizen, all made of hooks and eyes, and links himself naturally to his brothers, as bees hook themselves to one another and to their queen in a loyal swarm. c) Pursuing the same plan of punishing by the denial of the exercise of government to still greater lengths, we [the British parliament] wholly abrogated the ancient government of Massachusetts. We were confident that the first feeling, if not the very prospect, of anarchy would instantly enforce a complete submission. The experiment was tried. A new, strange, unexpected face of things appeared. Anarchy is found tolerable. A vast province has now subsisted, and subsisted in a considerable degree of health and vigor for near a twelvemonth, without Governor, without public Council, without judges, without executive magistrates. How long it will continue in this state, or what may arise out of this unheard-of situation, how can the wisest of us conjecture? Our late experience has taught us that many of those fundamental principles, formerly believed infallible, are either not of the importance they were imagined to be; or that we have not at all adverted to some other far more important and far more powerful principles, which entirely overrule those we had considered as omnipotent. I am much against any further experiments, which tend to put to the proof any more of these allowed opinions, which contribute so much to the public tranquility.
The first two quotations are from Thomas Paine[5] and Ralph Waldo Emerson[6] respectively.  No doubt Hayek would dismiss both Paine and Emerson as constructivist rationalists, but they hardly sound it here.  
The third quotation, though, is from Hayek’s own beloved Edmund Burke – and not from his anarchistic Vindication of Natural Liberty, whose sincerity is debated,[7] but from a public speech in Parliament urging conciliation with the colonies lest they come to enjoy the orderly benefits of anarchy too much.[8]  It’s hard to make Matt’s Hayekian charge of constructivist rationalism stick against anarchism when one of Hayek’s favorite exponents of spontaneous order concedes the effectiveness of anarchism as an instance of such order. Endnotes 
[1] Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX. <>. Quote from THE PRESBYTERIANS. </title/666/81909/1937074>.
[2] David Gordon, ed., The Turgot Collection: Writings, Speeches, and Letters of Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune (Auburn AL:Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2011), ch. 5; online:<>.
[3] Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, introduction by Albert Jay Nock (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981). Chapter: SPECIALIZED ADMINISTRATION (1871). </title/330/119774/2420311>.
[4] Spencer, Illustrations of Universal Progress (1865), ch. 10; online:<>. See also Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, introduction by Albert Jay Nock (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981). Chapter: THE SOCIAL ORGANISM (1860). </title/330/119773/2420253>.
[5] Paine, The Rights of Man (1791-92); online: The Writings of Thomas Paine, Collected and Edited by Moncure Daniel Conway (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894). Vol. 2. Chapter I. Of society and civilisation. </title/344/17368/1556488>.
[6] Emerson, “Speech on Affairs in Kansas” (1856); online :The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 12 vols. Fireside Edition (Boston and New York, 1909). Chapter: SPEECH at the Kansas relief meeting in Cambridge, Wednesday. evening, September 10, 1856. </title/1961/123102/2477508>.
[7] For my own view, following Isaac Kramnick, see: <>.
[8] Burke, "Conciliation with the Colonies" (1770); online: Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999). Vol. 1. Chapter: Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq., on Moving His Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies. </title/796/20357/1365301>.