Last week in my Constitutional Economics class we discussed Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (1960). My favorite chapter in that book is Chapter 2, “The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization.” Hayek argued that “Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable; we want it because we have learned to expect from it the opportunity of realizing many of our aims. It is because every individual knows so little, and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it. Humiliating to human pride as it may be, we must recognize that the advance and even the preservation of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen. These accidents occur in the combination of knowledge and attitudes, skills and habits, acquired by individual men and also when qualified men are confronted with the particular circumstances which they are equipped to deal with. Our necessary ignorance of so much means that we have to deal largely with probabilities and chances.” (p. 29)
Over at Coordination Problem today I posted on Buchanan’s note “Order Defined in the Process of Its Emergence” and linked to a recent lecture by Russ Roberts on emergent order in economics. Both of these talk about the role of discovery in the spontaneous ordering of economic activity.
In the class discussion on Monday, I suggested that Hayek — who claims to be following the Humean project of ‘using reason to whittle down the claims of Reason’ — is building a case for liberalism based on the idea of finding the appropriate framework for social interaction that enables us to live better together by both coping with our ignorance and exploiting the unique knowledge that each of us possesses throughout the system. “Rights speak” is not invoked by Hayek, and while constitutional contract is discussed, the pure logic of social contractarianism is not what underlies his framework (though there are those curious passages about his similarities with Rawls that might suggest otherwise). Instead, there is an argument that begins with our ignorance, and the necessity of finding rules that treat men as they really are, and yet enable them to realize the creative powers of a free civilization.
In your opinion does the argument work?