Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Heir to Hayek?

What with Glenn Beck popularizing F.A. Hayek and The Road to Serfdom, not to mention Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, any sensible conservative would be looking around for more red meat to throw on the barbie.

Look no further. I think I just found the heir to Hayek. His name is Alasdair MacIntyre.

The common theme with Beck and with Goldberg is that the root of all evil is the Progressive movement that flourished at the turn of the 20th Century, especially in the decade just before World War I. And as many writers remind us, for instance Tiffany Jones Miller today on NRO, the Progressives all went to school in Germany in the half century before 1900. They came back with a Prussian faith in bureaucracy, in Hegelian progressive evolution, and government social insurance programs just like Bismarck's.

The trouble with Hayek is that he is not so good with the sound bites, meaty phrases that encapsulate his ideas for a popular audience.

But now I am reading Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue and many parts of it read like Hayek, only better. Chapter 8 is entitled "The Character of Generalizations in Social Science and their Lack of Predictive Power."

OK, the title is not too pungent. But MacIntyre tackles the Hayekian theme that social scientists do not possess the predictive knowledge of natural science.

The fact is that social scientists long for the predictive power of natural science and they often act as if they have, or are about to, realize that goal. In fact they cannot, because of the peculiar relationship between the individual and society. We individuals want to to be "in some degree opaque and unpredictable." This is necessary, for

each of us... aspires to preserve his independence, his freedom, his creativity, and that inner reflection which plays so great a part in freedom and creativity, from invasion by others.

But if we are to execute long-term projects of creativity we need to operate in a social environment that provides predictability.

We are thus involved in a world in which we are simultaneously trying to render the rest of society predictable and ourselves unpredictable.

In this environment it is likely that knowledge about the social realm will be "characteristically, and for the most part" rather than universal law-like predictions. This means that organizational success and predictability are mutually exclusive. If I want to execute on a creative project I would have to create a predictable organization. But a predictable organization is not good at executing on a constantly changing creative goal.

Since organizational success and organizational predictability exclude one another, the project of creating a wholly or largely predictable organization committed to creating a wholly or largely predictable society is doomed and doomed by the facts about social life.

Now comes the clincher.

The effects of eighteenth-century prophecy have been to product not scientifically managed social control, but a skillful dramatic imitation of such control. It is histrionic success which gives power and authority in our culture. The most effective bureaucrat is the best actor.

Now, is not MacIntyre making exactly the conservative case against Obamism? Do not liberals always and everywhere create a skillful dramatic imitation of social control. Except when something real happens, like an oil spill, and it turns out that dramatic imitation is not quite the same thing as effective action?

We know already that the welfare state is bound to fail in a vast burial mound of unfunded liabilities, about $100 trillion at the last count. It is based on confident predictions that you can predict the shape of rational bureaucratic programs decades of into the future, completely disregarding the fact that people will start to use their unpredictable cunning to game the system, to use its predictability and its bureaucratic rules against it.

But you knew that.


  1. What has caused the crisis of capitalism that we are witness to is the vastly decreased real buying power of the middle class over the last 30 years that was buttressed for a time by an inflated consumer credit market with artificially cheap prices, now buttressed again with a sovereign debt crisis. When real wages are depressed against GDP for 30 years in a consumer driven economy, where is demand SUPPOSED to magically materialize from? All this mess is due to the union busting and offshoring started by the Reaganites and fulfilled by the three terms of Bushes.

  2. Anonymous 2 here.

    It is not a crisis of capitalism, but a crisis of socialism we are witnessing. That is why European states are backpedalling like crazy. they have created a ponzi scheme of entitlements which suppress economic health, even as it depends on economic health to survive. They are bankrupt and can't meet pension costs. Even as they packpedal, the Dems rush headlong over the cliff. US companies hesitate to hire, because they don't know what further burdens the government will saddle them with. The same is true of Europe.

    But it was Dostoevsky who first pointed out that socialism cannot work because people first and foremost want freedom, even if it means self-destruction. An orderly, predictable life is unbearable. Just read "Notes from the Underground", his entire argument is presented there. Then read "The Petty Demons". That book was written in the 19th century, but the portrayal of a revolutionary cell contained therein exactly parallels the communist party in Stalin's Soviet Union. Too bad we became illiterate just when we needed to know this stuff!

  3. "Now, is not MacIntyre making exactly the conservative case against Obamism?"

    I think it would be incorrect to view MacIntyre as making a "conservative case" against Obamism. While Macintyre is likely against Obamism, he is also against Bushism and any other form of partisan politics, as it is not the true form of politics of persons in a community striving for human flourishing via a shared commitment to the good life for man. Further, as Hayek argued he was no conservative, in a different way Macintyre would argue that he is no conservative either. If you ever get to his work "Whose Justice, Which Rationality" you will see Macintyre, rightfully, slam the intellectual forebearer of modern conservatism Edmund Burke stating "when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead." In other words mere appeals to the good ole days are just that, appeals to sentimentality which are impotent in the face of a problem requiring the exercise of the virtues.

    There are conservatives, libertarians, and even some republicans who recognize the problems we face, particularly amidst our financial profligacy, but we lack the virtues necessary to deal with them. Thus, when republicans-conservatives are in power, we still get TARP, bailouts, etc.

    However, I do think you are on to something in viewing the similarities between Hayek and Macintyre (both were former socialists).

  4. @ Anonymous 2

    Anonymous provides an excellent account of the economic folly that led to the current crisis of capitalism.

    The problem in Europe is not a 'crisis of socialism', most European nations were social democracies that followed the UK's lead into embracing the 'third way' and the vogue for deregulation that followed. The financial crisis is a mere glimpse of the kind of chaos that would ensue if the libertarian/free market project were to see fruition.

    European states are 'backpedaling' because they have put themselves at the mercy of the markets and are clinging resolutely to an economic model that is fast losing its lustre - the Washington consensus - and it should be very clear where liberalization and deregulation leads us by now.

    And to take recourse to Dostoevsky - a novelist - and assert that his writings express something about the inherent tendencies of the human beings is pure foundational, philosophical nonsense. The most hubristic behaviorist would not profess to 'know' that freedom - and abstract and contentious topic - the primary motivation for all human action.