Babcock offers advice on how to best apply Hayekian ideas to debates about social reform.

Grant Babcock
Philosophy & Policy Editor

Grant Babcock is the Philosophy and Policy Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and a scholar of political philosophy. He is especially interested in nonviolent action, epistemology of the social sciences, social contract theories and criticisms thereof, and finding libertarian‐​compatible responses to cultural problems.

In last week’s column, I tried to parse out what Hayek actually said about norms, laws, and ethics. Now that we have a more nuanced picture of Hayek’s position, I’m going to discuss how Hayekians should deal with people who point out deficiencies in the way things are. Good Hayekians, I will explain, should engage with social critics on the merits of their claims, not offer reflexive judgement in favor of the status quo.

In philosophy, there is a thought experiment called “Neurath’s boat,” which W. V. O. Quine (1908–2000) explains like this:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.

Neurath’s boat is meant to illustrate how some philosophers think we should approach improving our knowledge about the world. Hayek’s approach to social institutions is similar enough to the Neurath’s-boat approach to knowledge that I think introducing a similar metaphor will help us talk about being good Hayekian libertarians. Let’s call the metaphor “Hayek’s raft.” Boats seem to imply direction and progress, and I want to avoid that implication, hence “raft.”

Hayek’s raft is a metaphor for the collection of interlocking of laws and norms that frame and to a large extent constitute human society. It has the following properties:

  • Everybody lives in the raft, and unwittingly helps to maintain and expand it as they go about completing their daily business.
  • No one architect designed the raft. In the past people have replaced chunks of the raft with new components, some of which were designed, and many of which were ad hoc hacks that stuck around for one reason or another. For the most part, the structure has been improvised.
  • There is no schematic diagram or map of the raft. You learn how to get around by following others.
  • Through experience we have learned that the raft is actually pretty resilient to localized modifications, though there are limits and the raft has broken seriously before, to disastrous effect.
  • Some chunks of the raft are just sort of getting in the way of people going about their business. If we demolish them, the raft seems to hold together just fine, and for many people, life gets easier.
  • Other chunks of the raft are load‐​bearing, and trying to demolish them causes huge chunks of the raft to collapse, letting in water. Sometimes this means people get soggy and miserable, other times it means mass drowning.
  • We aren’t always sure which parts of the raft are load‐​bearing and which parts aren’t before we try to demolish or replace them.

You’re going about the business of living in your little corner of Hayek’s raft when one day when someone comes running up to you. Something is terribly wrong, they say. A large chunk of the hull of the raft is rotten. It looks like it has been rotten for a very long time, and a lot of people are getting hurt when they need to pass through that section of the raft. Your help is needed to fix the problem. At least some of the rot seems to be caused by the pooling of water leaked from other parts of the raft—would you check your part to be sure it’s watertight? And would you help replace the rotten section of the hull so the people using that section of the raft don’t get hurt?

In that scenario, what should a good Hayekian do? Probably the first thing is to go and verify, as best as you can, whether you’ve been informed correctly. Then you should consider the chances that making the requested changes will cause the raft to come apart, and decide whether that’s a risk you’re willing to take.

What you absolutely should not do is tell the person: Don’t you know we live in Hayek’s raft? This large rotten area you’re talking about—can’t you see that replacing it could drown us all? And how would you even know a rotten area from a sturdy one? No one knows exactly how this raft is holding together, and no one can predict with certainty what the full effects of all those changes would be. I can’t believe how reckless you are!

Now, I don’t want to take this analogy too far. In the story I told, someone told you part of the hull is rotten, i.e., that it doesn’t work. In ethical discourse, what someone is going to tell you is that “part of the hull,” that is, a substantial subset of the customs, conventions, etc. that we depend on to deal with other people and to live our lives, is morally wrong. Saying that something is morally wrong might not be exactly the same thing as saying it “doesn’t work.” Maybe it “works,” but for what is the problem.

My point is this: No matter what you do, you can’t escape risk entirely. You can only ever mitigate risk through careful effort or trade off one risk against another. That’s true in business, and it’s also true in living morally. Being a good Hayekian means recognizing that leaving things as they are isn’t necessarily the least morally risky choice. Hayek gives us reason for caution, but knowing we need to be cautious does not let us abdicate our duty to examine the merits of the claims of people attacking society’s laws and customs. The only way to know if the arguments being presented warrant overriding Hayekian concerns is to engage with those arguments.

You may come out of that investigation with the conclusion that changing problematic practices isn’t worth incurring the sorts of risks Hayek identifies. But it’s uncharitable and irresponsible to use Hayek as an excuse to avoid engaging critically with rationalist criticisms, instead throwing around dismissive terms like “iconoclasm,” “arrogance,” and “pretension.”

Put another way, Hayek has put a weight on the scale, but knowing that tells you nothing about which way the scale tilts. You need to know what’s on the other side of the scale, as well as what other weights might be on the side with Hayek’s. You can’t rush to judgement.

In my first weekly column, I mentioned that Hayek is on the edge of the libertarian tradition, brushing shoulders with Edmund Burke, the great conservative thinker. The biggest difference between Burke and Hayek—apart from Hayek being a much more rigorous, systematic thinker—is that where Burke wants us to trust tradition because doing so usually works for the best, Hayek advises only that we don’t throw out all our traditions at once and try to start fresh, as ocurred, for example, during the French Revolution.

In “The Errors of Constructivism,” Hayek writes:

The proper conclusion from the considerations I have advanced is by no means that we may confidently accept all the old and traditional values. Nor even that there are any values or moral principles, which science may not occasionally question. The social scientist who endeavours to understand how society functions, and to discover where it can be improved, must claim the right critically to examine, and even to judge, every single value of our society. The consequence of what I have said is merely that we can never at one and the same time question all its values. Such absolute doubt could lead only to the destruction of our civilisation and – in view of the numbers to which economic progress has allowed the human race to grow – to extreme misery and starvation. Complete abandonment of all traditional values is, of course, impossible; it would make man incapable of acting. If traditional and taught values formed by man in the course of the evolution of civilisation were renounced, this could only mean falling back on those instinctive values, which man developed in hundreds of thousands of years of tribal life, and which now are probably in a measure innate.

That strikes me as good advice, and following it will keep a Hayekian from sliding into Panglossian conservatism.

Hayek was certainly one of the great theorists of spontaneous order the world has ever seen, but he wasn’t right about everything. I think he’s overly mysterian about the operation of norms and for that matter the operation economic institutions. Some of the time, we do know roughly what ends a rule serves, even an evolved rule, and sometimes those ends aren’t good. Moreover, I think Hayek’s attempts to provide a standard for judging individual norms are fairly uncompelling and too skeptical about our ability to discern good from evil. It should be possible to recognize the way our norms are interconnected and how they are the product of an evolutionary process and still avoid Hayek’s amoral mode of judging individual values only by their coherence with the larger system.

In fact, we need a standard of value to tell us that we ought to avoid the “extreme misery and starvation” that Hayek seems to decry in the above quote. While Hayek has a lot to say about the potential consequences of throwing out all our norms and starting fresh, he has very little to say, and less that’s compelling, about how we should judge those consequences. Good Hayekians need to keep these limitations of Hayek’s thinking in mind.

Next week, I’ll discuss what Hayekian lessons rationalists need to take to heart.