One of the topics toward the end of a recent week-long discussion of Hayek was the phenomenon we named the “Even Hayek…” Problem. This is when people criticize libertarians and free market types more generally by pointing to the various tasks Hayek thought were legitimate functions of government and then say “See? Even Hayek thought [some government activity] was okay.” For the critics, this becomes a way to dismiss ideas more radical than Hayek’s by saying, often explicitly, “even a libertarian like Hayek isn’t that radical/crazy.” It’s also an example of the “Gotcha Game” that plagues so much political discourse today.
At that Hayek discussion we talked about the reasons Hayek gave the state more leeway and about whether more radical libertarians can use Hayek’s ideas to come to more libertarian conclusions than he did. I think, as I’ve argued before, that there is a “Hayek in Hayek” who is more radical than the one that appears on the page. But that’s actually not the point I want to make here.
What I find interesting is that the “Even Hayek…” trope seems to surprise so many folks on the left. After reading quotes from Hayek defending a minimum income and the other pieces of the welfare state he was okay with, a leftist friend of mine asked me in disbelief if those quotes were in fact accurate, as if one had to check with Snopes.com to see if Hayek really defended a minimal welfare state. That level of surprise and incredulity is the real problem with the “Even Hayek…” trope.
It indicates that these sorts of leftist critics often have no clue about Hayek’s work. All they “know” about him is that people with views like mine respect him a lot, and because such people are not very sophisticated thinkers, that probably means Hayek isn’t too sophisticated either. And because free market types are incapable of critically assessing the work of the people who they find interesting, not only must Hayek be wrong, he also must be arguing for every position held by the Tea Party. In fact, this friend referred to Hayek as my “idol.” You can only imagine how well that sat with me, especially given the various ways I’ve criticized his work over the years.
Anyone who has even cursorily read any of Hayek’s major political works would know that he defended elements of the welfare state, and treating those passages with the incredulity normally accorded Facebook links about how staring at women’s breasts for 10 minutes a day is good for men’s health is a sign of a big hole in one’s education.
Finally, let’s not let the right-wing off the hook here either. Certainly one of the reasons that critics might think that Hayek is radical and unsophisticated is the way his ideas get abused by his so-called friends on the right. Using Hayek to defend policies he would not have supported or run counter to his worldview and, in doing so, oversimplifying him to the point of turing him into the equivalent of a right-wing talk radio host is just asking for the “Even Hayek…” Problem. And it does make me wonder how many of Hayek’s conservative defenders have really read “Why I am Not a Conservative.” Both sides do a huge disservice to the sophistication, nuance, and insight of Hayek’s thought, and its power for understanding the social world, by turning him into an ideological football.
I’m all in favor of criticism of libertarian thinkers, but I really wish that Hayek’s critics on the left and his friends on the right would take the time to actually read Hayek (and other major libertarian thinkers) and recognize the sophistication of their arguments. It’s been good to see the degree to which this is happening in philosophy. Perhaps one good thing to come from the “Even Hayek…” phenomenon could be that having seen that Hayek isn’t who they imagined, Hayek’s critics and his friends might find it worthwhile to pick up The Constitution of Liberty or Law, Legislation, and Liberty (though feel free to leave the third volume behind) and see what all the fuss is about.
They might even learn something about how the world works in the process. Sigh…a guy can dream, can’t he?