The Problem with the “Even Hayek…” Problem

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 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?

  • Aeon Skoble

    It’s a common fallacy.

  • I share Steve’s annoyance at the common misinterpretations of Hayek, from the left and from the right.

    But, then again, someone who is concerned that people avoid cartoonish misinterpretations of their political philosophy, probably shouldn’t let people, well, make cartoons of their political philosophy.

    • Vlad Tarko

      Come on, that cartoon is awesome! 😛

    • adrianratnapala

      However simplistic the cartoon is, it makes really clear that the target of “The Road to Serfdom” is central planning, not the welfare state. And by central planning we mean a kind of mid 20th century political idea that is now nearly as thoroughly discredited as actual tolalitarianism. The cartoon makes Hayek look like a moderate.

      update: target … *is* central planing, not *is not the* . Doh.

    • Sean II

      Funny…and there’s usually not enough of that around here. But let me break the mood by defending a) the “misinterpretations”, and b) the cartoon.

      a) If you turn on the TV and see two clowns with communications degrees yammering about “Hayek” and “Keynes” on some red vs. blue talk show, then shame on you if you expect a subtle exploration of intellectual history. Same goes for rap videos on youtube.

      Those names have passed into the common political vocabulary as a kind of shorthand. “Hayek” = “intervention leads to more intervention, and if you don’t watch out, bad news for freedom – maybe even bad news for some of those non-economic freedoms lefties like”. “Keynes” = “when things go wrong the problem is not enough demand, and so the solution is: the more broke you seem to be, the more you need to start spending.” About 80% of the time, when you hear those names used in normal conversation, that’s how they are used.

      Of course that shorthand doesn’t begin to capture the full range and scope of either man’s work, because that is not what it’s meant to do!

      As it turns out, the shorthand serves its purpose pretty well. The thing normal people mean when they say “Hayek” is more or less correct. Intervention does tend to require further intervention later on, and you can’t mess too much with economic freedom before you start limiting social freedom as well (example: “Pot is legal, yeah. But I can’t get a city business license, boo!” – 10,000 guys in Colorado).

      And the thing people mean when they say “Keynes” is an accurate description of current government policy. Every time things get shitty, the state really does use that as an occasion to spend more money, and someone always says “per Keynes, this isn’t a splurge, it’s a strategy.”

      So the shorthand is not wrong on the level at which it is typically used. (Granted, there is a problem when you get to the boundary between regular folks and intellectuals, because what you have there is a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals whose reach exceeds their grasp. They only know Hayek or Keynes in shorthand terms, but they’re spouting off like they understand much more. So, you know, to hell with those guys.)

      b) My defense of the cartoon is simple. Information is expensive (and my god, was it ever expensive when that booklet was printed). Not everyone does this intellectual shit for a job or a hobby. Most people don’t, in fact. But if you care about ideas, at some point you have to simplify them for mass consumption by non-intellectuals. Of course you lose something in the bargain, but you also gain something as well. That’s true whether we’re talking about the Bible, or Das Kapital, or General Theory, or Road to Serfdom, or The Problem of Political Authority, etc. Hell…even Fifty Shades of Grey is getting a movie, no doubt because tens of millions of people find it too demanding in book form.

      The point is: the sacrifice of subtlety for reach is deliberate, and when we snicker at the cartoon, we miss the point. The world was in acute danger of sliding into no-joke, no-hyperbole totalitarianism back then. It was thus also in dire need of libertarian propaganda. We would be huge dicks if, looking back from the safety and comfort of know, we made fun of Hayek for allowing that cartoon to be published in his name.

      • adrianratnapala

        Was he even aware of the cartoon? One of the forewards to a later edition seems to say he wasn’t aware of the Readers Digest edition, but what happy with it anyway.

        Which makes me wonder what was going on with intellectual property in those days.

  • sympathia

    I sympathize with the outrage against misrepresentation of positions of persons in philosophy. It’s one of the most abhorrent things. But contemplate for a moment: are these the sort of people that you take seriously in their philosophical musings? If they are not serious, can we ever engage in “loose speech?”

    • Sean II

      “It’s one of the most abhorrent things.”

      Er, is it though? We all expect to be misunderstood a thousand times a day – at work, among friends, at home, with our kids, etc. And that, in the course of sending and receiving relatively straightforward, simple messages.

      So anyone who thinks he’s gonna write a 600-page treatise on some complicated and contentious topic without being misunderstood, he gets no sympathy from me.

      Puppy murder, that’s abhorrent. World wars, abhorrent. Lacking a nuanced grasp of Hayek or Rawls, not really in the same class I think.

  • David Friedman

    Keynes gets a similar treatment from the right–converted from an interesting thinker into a sort of left stereotype. I have a copy of _The Road to Serfdom_ with a glowing endorsement on the back by Keynes.

    • Sean II

      Oh, you mean an endorsement of the book!

      For a minute I thought Keynes must have written in an endorsement of serfdom itself, no doubt thanks to my many years of being bombarded by crude stereotypes about him.

  • Don Arthur

    Coming from a left-liberal perspective, I was surprised how much in Hayek there was to agree with. And it was discouraging to find how few people on the right were interested in talking about it

  • Benkarkis

    Misrepresentation is an enormous issue. Objectivity is difficult.

  • Aeon Skoble

    It’s not just the misrepresentation, it’s the bizarre appeal to authority: if Hayek supported X, you’re wrong to oppose X — even if you have good, independent reasons to oppose X, and even if you can show that Hayek may have erred in not seeing why X is a bad idea.

  • Vlad Tarko

    There’s something that should be mentioned regarding Hayek’s apparent endorsement of the welfare state: he was making a conditional argument. Having established that socialism leads to serfdom (in *The Road to Serfdom*), he’s now asking (in *The Constitution of Liberty*): IF you’re going to have a welfare state, how should it be organized such that it doesn’t get you along the “road to serfdom” in the same way that socialism does? And his answer is that you can have as much of a welfare state as you want as long as you keep the rule of law in place (i.e. you don’t implement discriminatory laws against groups defined in one way or another). In a nutshell, the logic of his argument is that if the state doesn’t relate differently to different groups, there’s not going to be that much of an incentive for whatever groups exist to rent-seek and try to get privileges against others. So, he’s not necessarily endorsing the welfare state, but trying to figure out which versions of the welfare state are the least dangerous.

    • I’m not sure that was his only condition. I’m pretty sure Hayek was sympathetic towards things like a minimum guaranteed income, not just as second-best, but as first-best solutions. Even earlier than 1944, in some of his economics writing, he supported income transfers to help those hurt the most (he argued that these should be paid out of previous fiscal surpluses). The fact that he went back and forth on some of these issues is evidence, as well (e.g. Greg Ransom told me that Hayek’s views on universal healthcare, originally sympathetic, were changed by Milton Friedman).

  • It’s not just Hayek, but other libertarian economists that we wouldn’t necessarily think of grouping under “bleeding hearts.” For example, when I read Calculus of Consent I was, in one sense, surprised, because it’s not really the public choice theory you read most about (e.g. voters don’t have an incentive to inform themselves; politicians have an incentive to cater to rent-seekers; etc.). Rather, it’s entirely about how collective action can solve externality problems and how to approach an efficient allocation of resources through collective action. This isn’t the side of Buchanan that you hear a lot about — at least, I wasn’t really acquainted with that argument until I actually read Calculus of Consent. It’s really much more sophisticated that some people lead on to believe. And you’re right, a lot of it has to do with how Buchanan is portrayed by people on the right.

  • Tobi

    They might even learn something about how the world works in the process. Sigh…a guy can dream, can’t he?

    Come on Steve, even Hayek would say that a lot of what people do is blind and unconscious rule following 😛

  • mark stubbs

    Just curious, why should one leave the 3rd volume of LLL behind?

  • TracyW

    Adam Smith gets used the same way.
    But I don’t think this is confined to any particular group – look at media misrepresentations of political decisions.

  • Pingback: Krypto-Anarchismus | Freiheit verstehen()

  • Pingback: Crypto-Anarchism | Freiheit verstehen()