Social Justice, Libertarianism

What Can Hayek Teach Us About Race?

[Editor’s Note: The following essay was written by James Padilioni Jr. as part of BHL’s “New Voices” program. James is the North American Vice Chairman of Students for Liberty, and a Ph.D student in American studies at the College of William and Mary focusing on the aesthetics and epistemology of identity construction.]

Libertarianism and racism is a topic that crops up repeatedly. Whether related to discussions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or debates over the causes of the Civil War, libertarianism as an American political movement in the 20th century has struggled to articulate a theory regarding questions of race that is conscious of history. Indeed, some libertarians even deny that any such historical contextualization is necessary since libertarianism is a theory about individual rights. A political theory stemming from self-ownership and the protection of individual liberty is incapable of racism, since, as Ayn Rand postulated, “racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”

WIth the US inmate population currently the world’s largest, mostly stemming from the failed War on Drugs’ disproportionate assault on African-American communities, I am sensitive to claims of institutionalized racism while equally skeptical, for public choice reasons, of the government’s ability to remedy these problems effectively. Martin Luther King captured this disappointment in his “I Have a Dream Speech,” lamenting:

When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men…would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

Critical race theory (CRT) examines the intersection of law, race, and power as it unfolded in American history, and as CRT legal scholar Roy L. Brooks wrote, it “focuses on the various ways in which the received tradition in law adversely affects people of color not as individuals but as a group. As a result, notes CRT founder Richard Delgado, “virtually all of Critical Race thought is marked by deep discontent with liberalism….” Libertarians who read CRT might like its skepticism about legislation, but might also think that CRT scholars’ deep skepticism about liberalism means that no productive discussion is possible.

However, Friedrich Hayek’s academic work can be read, too, as a critique of a type of liberalism, or at least a critical view of one branch of Enlightenment epistemology. Epistemology, the study of what’s knowable and how it can be known, forms the focus of Hayek’s intervention to Western philosophy. In his 1974 Nobel Prize acceptance speech “The Pretense of Knowledge,” Hayek warned that

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society — a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.

But more than merely cautioning against the pretense of knowledge, Hayek sketched out a genealogy of the Enlightenment, thus providing us with a family tree for locating its source. In “Individualism: True and False,” Hayek traced the origins of 20th century totalitarianism and central planning to the epistemology of 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes.  “Cartesian rationalism…always tends to develop into the opposite of individualism, namely, socialism or collectivism.” Distinguishing between Cartesian individualism and the individualism of the Scottish Enlightenment, he clarified that the former was a “product of an exaggerated belief in the powers of individual reason and of a consequent contempt for anything which has not been consciously designed by it or is not fully intelligible to it.” Hayek’s skepticism about this form of rationalism placed him in opposition to every technocrat  whose false confidence induces the will to design. For Hayek, the fatal conceit is the Enlightenment’s Achilles’ heel.

CRT identifies this same twisted rootbed of Cartesian epistemology as the source of the deep entanglement of racism within American liberalism. The Enlightenment pursuit of knowledge in the realm of political theory took its model from the preceding emergence of the scientific method during the 17th century. Anthropology, the study of man, branched into an important source of discussion with two limbs of scientific questioning – one concerned with biology, the other applying to ethics and politics. Over time these limbs twisted together, and though mangled grew reinforcing and strong. By Jim Crow’s dominance in the first half of the 20th century, the strength of this limb sustained the black body on full display as a teaching tool or macabre exhibit in a museum of ideological racism, converting the everyday landscape into a place of knowledge.

In “A Genealogy of Modern Racism,” Cornel West questioned the simplified Marxist explanation of racism as ideological superstructure on top of the economic base – or racism as a mere twig compared to the rocky soil of capitalist exploitation. Turning from Marx towards Foucault, West questioned  “the way in which the very structure of modern discourse at its inception produced forms of rationality, scientificity, and objectivity as well as aesthetic and cultural ideals which require the constitution of white supremacy” since the dawning of modernity. West identified Descartes’ fatal conceit as spurring the pretense of pseudoscientific race knowledge:

Descartes is highly significant because his thought provided the controlling notions of modern discourse: the primacy of the subject and the preeminence of representation. Descartes is widely regarded as the founder of modern philosophy not simply because his philosophical outlook was profoundly affected by the scientific revolution but, more important, because he associated the scientific aim of predicting and explaining the world with the philosophical aim of picturing and representing the world. In this view, the fruits of scientific research do not merely provide more useful ways for human beings to cope with reality; such research also yields a true copy of reality. Descartes’s conception of philosophy as a tortuous move from the subject to objects, from the veil of ideas to the external world, from immediate awareness to extended substances, from self-consciousness to things in space, and ultimately from doubt to certainty was motivated primarily by an attempt to provide a theoretical basis for the legitimacy of modern science.

The Cartesian trap in American history is embodied in Thomas Jefferson, who voiced a distinctively-American interpretation of the Enlightenment that continues to influence political, legal, and cultural institutions today. The author of the document claiming to express the “truths to be self-evident” also hypothesized in Query 14 of Notes on the State of Virginia that the difference between African and Anglo physical appearance was “fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance?” This line of questioning led to wild speculation into a whole host of issues, including if orangutans in Africa had sex with black women, and if a lack of forethought and rationality in blacks prevented them from making decisions “with more coolness or steadiness than the whites.” The 19th century pseudoscience of phrenology claimed the ability to know the character and mental abilities of an individual through the study of the shape and size of one’s cranium. Unsurprisingly, this “objective” research produced literature rendering African Americans biologically-incapable of the self-government a liberal republic required. It also associated blackness with a fundamental deformity that affected American aesthetics – the tropes, forms, and valuations of blackness in culture. Pictures of sheriffs in KKK uniforms and families in their Sunday best gleefully celebrating the public executions carried out in thousands of lynchings throughout the South and North bear grotesque witness to the entanglement of liberalism and racism in the context of US history. What at first seems paradoxical, upon a careful retracing is revealed to be an unintended consequence of bad epistemology. This offspring in the lineage of Cartesian rationalism births the “destroyer of a civilization” in Hayek’s admonition.

In Power/Knowledge, Michel Foucault defined the term episteme as “the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false. The episteme is the ‘apparatus’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterized as scientific.” If Cartesian epistemology is the basis for both Hayek’s central planning and Cornel West’s scientific racism, is there a potential for Hayekian CRT?

  • Jameson Graber

    To me this is great stuff. It’s nice to find other people who, like me, find Hayek appealing because of his critique of Western epistemology and its connection with political theory.

  • Aeon Skoble

    To the extent that CRT rejects classical liberalism, no. The move seems to be (I don’t mean that _you_ are doing this): Cartesian rationalism overreaches, pretense of knowledge etc., leads to the Terror, eugenics, scientific racism. Other products of enlightenment thought include individual rights that are conceptually prior to government, invisible hand, law of comparative advantage – those must also be connected to scientific racism, so we should jettison those also. Oddly, people who make this move think it entails Marxism, because dialectical materialism, despite this being a paradigm case of overreaching rationalism. See Stephen Holmes’ critique of CLS (which is a cousin of CRT), and Hasnas’ article on how to miss the point of the indeterminacy argument.

    • James Padilioni Jr

      I’m working on this part of the argument. Epistemology is one critique of CRT that we can agree about. But CRT does have more critiques of liberalism. But perhaps this is with historical reason.

      I think the case of Haiti and it’s relationship as a classical liberal republic – albeit black – that received very little amity from nations that were either operating on liberal principles already or liberalizing (the US, Britain). This, of course, was on account of the fear that the example Haiti represented could destabilize the slavocracies of other liberals. You see even abolitionists uneasy with the Haitian situation.

      When classical liberals discuss liberal revolutions of the 19th century, Haiti rarely comes up in the discussion. I think this is telling. I need to do more research to know exactly why. But CRT, and the collective memory of the African diaspora, *does* remember Haiti, and i think we need to try to understand that whole story before we agree to completely disagree.

      • Aeon Skoble

        There’s a related fallacy at work, versions of which appear in both CLS and CRT, somethig like this: states that have classical liberal institutions such as equality before the law, enforcement of contracts, and private property have historically also included slavery, therefore there’s something suspect about those institutions. Again, I’m not accusing _you_ of this, but you see it in Unger for example.

        • James Padilioni Jr

          No I understand. That’s why I think the Haitian example, since it’s grounded in time, would be illuminating for classical liberals to really look at how the transition of institutions towards a liberal republic was attempted, and why did it fail. One reason could be the epistemic breaks between the Yoruba Ifa religion that still dominated Haiti either in distinct form or in Voudun (mixed with Catholicism) and the epistemology of the *type* of liberal republic Haiti set up.

          The other reason could be more cultural and racial. I do know that the US didn’t recognize Haiti diplomatically for 60 years, and I can guess that this must have had some potential effects on trade. Again, I need to dig into this much more closely.

          • Since you mentioned Haiti, one thing I remembered from a while back, and just refreshed my memory on, is that post-independence Haiti was basically forced at gunpoint by France to pay reparations for the loss of the slaveholders’ property, i.e., the slaves. The original amount demanded was 150M francs, payable over 5 years, or 30M francs per year; the population of Haiti at the time was apparently about half a million, so this was about 60 francs per year per person. By comparison the total annual revenue of the French government at the time was about 30 francs per person (~900M francs for a country of ~30M people), so Haitians were being asked to pay twice the tax burden of France, going solely for reparations and nothing else.

            Haiti took out loans to pay the reparations, was unable to make payments, had to renegotiate the payment schedule to 30 years, and eventually end up taking over 50 years to retire its debt to France, at a total cost of 90M francs including principal, interest, and fees to French banks.

            By comparison the US paid France ~70M francs for the Louisiana Purchase (and in fact there’s a connection, since apparently the French sold it to the US in part to compensate for the impending loss of Haiti as a colony). So to sum up the fates of the two young republics: For a fairly large sum of money Americans got to double the size of their country and acquire both valuable agricultural regions and unimpeded river access from its heartland to the Gulf of Mexico. For a somewhat larger sum of money Haitians got the privilege of not being invaded and re-enslaved by France. Haiti certainly had (and has) lots of other problems, but I’m sure this didn’t help.

            (Wikipedia has the basic information on this topic, but the article doesn’t appear to be well sourced. The best source I could find online is the paper “Haiti’s Independence Debt and Prospects for Restitution” by Anthony Phillips, who apparently wrote it as a law review article while at the University of San Francisco.)

          • Sean II

            “Haiti certainly had (and has) lots of other problems, but I’m sure this didn’t help.”

            Your formulation is much too mild for my tastes, since it still invites people to ignore truths in favor of a feel good historical just-so story. Therefore let me say this:

            What’s wrong with Haiti today has NOTHING to do with any debt imposed on it (however wrongly) in the early 19th century. I should sooner accept the excuse of a failing grad student who begs mercy on the grounds that his grandma died…when he was five.

            70 years ago whole nations were destroyed by fire and bomb, and yet are glittering paradises today. Indeed, if given a choice between moving to Hiroshima on August 7th, 1945 or moving to Port au Prince anytime, ever, I’d take my chances in the atomic rubble. So would you. So would anyone.

            The trouble with Haiti, is Haiti.

          • Jod

            Brilliant analysis. And what, pray, makes the Hatians so bad?

          • Sean II

            Don’t play Haitian with me.

          • Akhibrass

            Yeah, glittering paradises ( of course this is base hyperbole) after receiving massive financial support from the US and their former colonies. Don’t play dumb, there is nothing “feel good” about the history of Haiti and its relationship with the West. What’s “feel good” is the tendency for individuals like yourself to completely ignore history when it comes to the situation in Haiti. A more apt metaphor would be to compare Haiti to a failing grad student who has had the ignominy of being blinded, amputated and gutted by their fellow students and then expected to finish studies at the same pace as those same students.

  • Matthew DeCarlo

    I. Love. This. Post. It’s really heartening to see another PhD student in a discipline unusual to libertarians (I assume) using Hayek to interrogate the theories they find important. I would definitely suggest looking at Burczak’s Socialism After Hayek (I’m working through it now) which uses credit rationing literature to essentially show how Hayek’s legal theory is blind to systemic racism. I think this rightly points to a big-C Conservativism in Hayek’s writings that bias him towards understanding received traditions as efficient and approximating through evolutionary process universally just solutions. (That’s Burczak’s characterization. I haven’t read Hayek enough to say that on my own.)

    Anywho, I would argue that a Hayekian critical race theory is not only possible, but is entirely necessary. Hayek’s ideas of spontaneous order provide a more epistemologically subjectivist structural explanation for understanding the influence of racist social institutions–whether formal or informal

    • James Padilioni Jr

      I’m glad to see you also find value in Hayek’s epistemology as being a good way to understand how racism can sprout out of institutions and within cultures. This kind of understanding is critical if one is going to try to construct some kind of cosmopolitan framework of ethics, I think.

      • Hayek’s notion of spontaneous order, like Po Mo gesture politics , is surely out of date- the truth is, in any Social process that does not throw away information, what we are talking about co-evolved complexity, of which nothing in advance can be predicated re. what is effectively computable or algorithmically verifiable or dynamically efficient or ‘Golden path’ optimal.
        Moreover, since the fitness landscape can’t be known in advance (otherwise, we wouldn’t have evolved to have epigenetic canalisation and ‘capacitance diversity’ for Preferences- i.e. Econ would be empty) there is no ‘well ordering’ principle for outcomes. Another way to say the same thing is that the set of Stalnaker-Lewis ‘closest possible worlds’ are impredicatively heteroclite. All that is solid melts into the air with a vengeance.
        Gintis has given a highly sympathetic but essentially damning criticique of Burczak, but the problems he highlights, with ref. to worker ownership, all have a ‘Market’ solution or Mechanism Design workaround provided the doctrine of Supervenience stays its all stultifying hand and co-evolved complexity is permitted to breathe free.
        W.r.t public signals like ‘Race’/ ‘Religion’/ Gender/ Education/ Mother Tongue- all of which are costly to disguise but cheap to pick up- Econ theory suggests that they will be instrumentalized for the purpose of Price, Wager or Service Provision discrimination- even in a Rawlsian world. Hayek, Von Mises, but also Nozick etc, can be seen as inflating ‘qwerty costs’ and introducing a Laspeyres bias towards Conservatism. However, Econ does not endorse this. The fact is- precisely because ‘Humanity’ and “Utility’ and so on, are all ‘co-evolved’- there is huge canalisation plasticity to match the sort of ‘capacitance diversity’ we value and which is the reason Racism or Misogyny or Homophobia or Credentialism or Casteism or whatever can have no place in the ethos of the Libertarian, bleeding heart or otherwise.
        Incidentally, Lord Meghnad Desai is an example of a “Hayekian Marxist’ of wholly empirical bent. K.V Velupillai’s work, which is above my head mathematically speaking, nevertheless could be a foundation for a totally different theory of Capital than the one Gintis or, indeed, Burczak, takes as foundational.

  • stevenjohnson2

    Hayek favored the Scottish Enlightenment as avoiding the epistemological catastrophe of Cartesianism? Using Hayek’s epistemological critique can usefully address questions of racism?

    It’s not clear at all that any of this is true. Herewith David Hume on race (link:

    “The second edition of David Hume’s Essays, Moral and Political (1742) appends these racist comments to his essay, “Of National Characters.” Note the criteria Hume uses to judge whether a culture is “civilized” or not.

    David Hume, “Of National Characters”

    I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant differences could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity, tho’ low people, without education, will start up amonst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”

    The more popular part of the essay is available here:

    Jonathan Israel’s studies of the Enlightenment provide a better perspective on the Scottish Enlightenment’s political tendency.

    • Roger Koppl

      Steven Johnson: Sure, Hume is totally on the spot for such “analysis.” His friend Adam Smith, however, saw deeper and avoided such errors. Indeed, one of the underappreciated themes of Smith’s Wealth of Nations is that seeming differences among individuals are a consequence of the division of labor and not a cause. This was really quite bold when you consider that his mentor and intellectual patron, Lord Kames, affirmed polygenism! Later, John Stuart Mill was very much the anti-racist. So the sort views on race that James puts forward are very much there in the liberal tradition and, in Smith’s case, the explicitly anti-Cartesian Scottish Enlightenment tradition Hayek esteemed so highly.

  • Roger Koppl

    James, I share Matthew DeCarlo’s enthusiasm for your overall project of examining institutional racism from a Hayekian perspective. I assume you are familiar with the work of Peart and Levy. If not: Read. Them. Now. Michelle Alexander is another obvious cite that you need to get to in the unlikely case that you haven’t done so already.

    FWIW, I gotta figure Aeon is right to suggest that you probably don’t want to represent yourself as a “Critical Whatever Theorist.” Speak to that audience. Take them seriously. Participate in the literature relevant to your field. Totally. There are extrinsic (tenure seeking) and intrinsic (truth seeking) reasons to do so. But labeling yourself “critical” whatever seems likely to just obscure your message.

    • James Padilioni Jr

      Thank you, Peart and Levy are wonderful! And Michelle Alexander is as well. I see these ideas emerging on both sides…but as for labels, I don’t describe as libetarian nor critical whatever for the reasons you mentioned. I am who I am, mostly a Hayekian Foucauldian if we must label me something lol.

  • Matthew Tanous

    Ok… I’m not sure where you even are going here. You assert a few times that there is this strain of “libertarian racism” due to Cartesian epistemology that resulted in a pretence of knowledge that still exists. But I see no quote or reference later than Jefferson.

    Can a libertarian be racist? Sure – a libertarian could technically be racist: cognitive dissonance is not impossible. But the vast majority of libertarians are NOT racist. This is simply an accusation that is handed down by opponents of libertarians – even to explicitly discourage libertarians of color. THAT I have seen myself – the “Why are you hanging around with these white libertarians/anarchists? They don’t care about you. They’re all secretly racist and just using you.” type nonsense.

  • I read “Critical Race Theory” and immediately thought “Crtical Theory” which is just a form of Communist propaganda targeted towards the young people who don’t understand the world around them but aren’t willing to learn about it.

  • I was aware that Hayek had said some foolish things- he was a Professor, all Professors talk nonsense most of the time- but the fact is that there have been many non-White totalitarian states throughout history where the State set prices and directly controlled resources. What Decartes wrote is wholly irrelevant. Few people read him then or now in the manner suggested in this essay.
    In America, slavery had a legal basis in descent from African slaves. In England and Europe, this was not the case. This does not mean there was no anti-Black racism in England, it just didn’t have a basis in Law.
    Thomas Schelling’s work shows how you can have ‘Institutionalized Racism’ in a free market even if there has been no history or legal basis for it. More generally, the theory of price discrimination (which only applies where there is a market failure) shows why a signal which it is easy to spot but costly to disguise (like color or gender) can be instrumentalized in a Racist or ‘Casteist’ or Misogynistic way.
    But, the Theory of the Second Best says we should be intervening in any case because there is a market failure.
    Cognitive biases, ‘preference falsification’, and availability cascades clustering around ienequitable or otherwise sub-optimal Schelling focal points can all be analysed as Market failures and it is an empirical matter to find policy prescriptions to improve Social outcomes.
    Hayek wasn’t a Hayekian most of the time- but this true of almost everybody who ever had one good idea. They said foolish self-contradictory things because they didn’t grasp how good their good idea really was.

  • jtlevy

    This is great stuff– thanks for contributing.

    • James Padilioni Jr

      Thank you for thinking so! 🙂 It was my pleasure.

  • Rj Jones

    James, if I were attempting to construct a Hayekian CRT, I’d probably take my initial cues from _The Road to Serfdom_ in which Hayek (loosely) draws together his critique of central planning and scientific racism. Consider, for example, the following passage:

    “We have seen that agreement on that complete ethical code, that all-comprehensive system of values which is implicit in an economic plan, does not exist in a free society but would have to be created. But we must not assume that the planner will approach his task aware of that need, or that, even if he were aware of it, it would be possible to create such a comprehensive code in advance. He only finds out about the conflicts between different needs as he goes along, and has to make his decisions as the necessity arises. The code of values guiding his decisions does not exist in abstracto before the decisions have to be made, it has to be created with the particular decisions. We have also seen how this inability to separate the general problem of values from the particular decisions makes it impossible that a democratic body, while unable to decide the technical details of a plan, should yet determine the values guiding it.

    “And while the planning authority will constantly have to decide issues on merits about which there exist no definite moral rules, it will have to justify its decisions to the people-or, at least, have somehow to make the people believe that they are the right decisions. Although those responsible for a decision may have been guided by no more than prejudice, some guiding principle will have to be stated publicly if the community is not merely passively to submit but actively to support the measure. The need to rationalise the likes and dislikes which, for lack of anything else, must guide the planner in many of his decisions, and the necessity of stating his reasons in a form in which they will appeal to as many people as possible, will force him to construct theories, Le. assertions about the connections between facts, which then become an integral part of the governing doctrine. This process of creating a ‘myth’ to justify his action need not be conscious. The totalitarian leader may be guided merely by an instinctive dislike of the state of things he has found and a desire to create a new hierarchical order which conforms better to his conception of merit, he may merely know that he dislikes the Jews who seemed to be so successful in an order which did not provide a satisfactory place for him, and that he loves and admires the tall blond man, the ‘aristocratic’ figure of the novels of his youth. So he will readily embrace theories which seem to provide a rational justification for the prejudices which he shares with many of his fellows. Thus a pseudo-scientific theory becomes part of the official creed which to a greater or lesser degree directs everybody’s action. Or the widespread dislike of the industrial civilisation and a romantic yearning for country life, together with a (probably erroneous) idea about the special value of country people as soldiers, provides the basis for another myth: Blut und Boden (blood and soil), expresses not merely ultimate values but a whole host of beliefs about cause and effect which once they have become ideals directing the activity of the whole community must not be questioned.

    “The need for such official doctrines as an instrument of directing and rallying the efforts of the people has been clearly foreseen by the various theoreticians of the totalitarian system. Plato’s ‘noble lies’ and Sorel’s ‘myths’ serve the same purpose as the racial doctrine of the Nazis or the theory of the corporative state of Mussolini. They are all necessarily based on particular views about facts which are then elaborated into scientific theories in order to justify a preconceived opinion.”

    • James Padilioni Jr

      This is good stuff, and yes I was thinking about the Road to Serfdom as being the same road to racism in the early 20th century. In the Us, the 1924 (I believe) immigration laws that put quotas on certain ethnicities coincides with the cementing of the one-drop rule throughout the states as well.