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catallaxy in technical exile

Freedom of speech and freedom of action in the framework of "several" property

with 10 comments

Note: This is a rehash of some ancient blogposts which I thought I should bring to a new audience.

An often under-appreciated aspect of Hayek’s thought is encapsulated in the following passage from The Constitution of Liberty:

    It is because we do not know how individuals will use their freedom that it is so important. If it were otherwise the results of freedom could be achieved by the majority’s deciding what should be done by individuals. … It is therefore not necessarily freedom that I can exercise myself that is most important for me … What is important is not what freedom I personally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things that are beneficial to society. This freedom we can assure to the unknown person only by giving to all …
    The undesigned that constantly emerge in the process of adaptation will consist … of new arrangements or patterns in which the efforts of different individuals are coordinated and of new constellations in the use of resources
    The process by which the new emerges is best understood in the intellectual sphere when the results are new ideas … Because we are more aware that our advances in the intellectual sphere often spring from the unforseen and undesigned we tend to overstress the importance of freedom in this field and to ignore the importance of freedom of doing things. But the freedom of research and belief and the freedom of speech … are significant only in the last stage of the process in which new truths are discovered … We have new ideas to discuss, different views to adjust because those ideas and views arise from the efforts of individuals in ever new circumstances who avail themselves in their concrete tasks of the new tools and forms of action they have learned.

The traditional argument for freedom of speech is an epistemic one. We need freedom of speech and thought and discussion because we can never be sure whether we are absolutely correct and therefore our views need to be exposed to other views and there needs to be a constant to and fro, with people testing out new things, adopting ideas which seem good and so on.

What Hayek is doing here is sketching out an epistemic justification for freedom of action within the context of private property (or what Hayek prefers to calls ‘several property’ because how people choose to reconfigure their property rights is very much an open-ended question given the flexibility of this social institution) which resembles the traditional epistemic justification for freedom of speech. This is quite in keeping with his theme that tacit knowledge tends to be ignored by intellectuals but is just as important as the abstract ideas we use in speech and discussion. In effect what he is saying is that such freedom of action to dispose of and employ one’s property rights is also a form of speech and has the same properties (pun unintended) as speech to which we have accorded a protected status against incursions on liberty insofar as it embodies ideas, which, upon subject to further testing yield us new insights.

Indeed in some respects he goes further than that because he would probably say abstract ideas that form the basis of protected speech (protected against incursions on its liberty not protected from challenge) are in turn really foundational on tacit knowledge or second order reflections of some underlying knowledge which is ultimately tacit. And from where does this realm of the tacit emanate? Further down he writes:

Though the conscious manipulation of abstract thought once it has been set in train has in some measure a life of its own, it would not long continue and develop without the constant challenges that arise from the ability of people to act in a new manner, to try new ways of doing things, and to alter the whole structure of civilisation in adaptation to change. The intellectual process is in effect only a process of elaboration, selection and elimination of ideas already formed. And the flow of new ideas, to a great extent, springs from the sphere in which action, often non-rational action, and material events impinge upon each other.

Many interesting comparisons can be made between the ideas embodied in these passages and Marx’s materialism as well as Popper’s theory of the three worlds.

To reiterate:

The institution of several property (a more accurate term than private property) is important because it facilitates the kinds of benefits that we see in the later more refined stage of freedom of speech and discussion – it allows people to form firms, communities, civil societies which embody different ideas and subject them to ‘testing’. There is something analogous to the ‘speech process’ that Hayek thinks can be simulated via a process of selection (e.g. through exit from particular structures and entry into other, or in the context of a firm, the growth of one type of firm compared to another), emulation and eventually ‘precedent’. This does not mean that all spontaneous orders are equally optimal – indeed this is precisely where Hayek reconfigures the terms of debate as his idea implies that the task of the liberal is to cultivate the sort of generic institutional setting that generates a spontaneous order in this free speech-analogous crucible of ‘experimentation and debate via several property’ that ensures maximal coordination of human needs and wants. Interventions in this vein were what Hayek understood as ‘purpose independent’ interventions and therefore allowable under his system.

Furthermore it is worth noting that his argument only appeals to the notion that other peoples’ freedom should be as important to you as your own even if you don’t exercise the same freedoms they exercise – this provides a stronger principled footing for freedom than one based on simply listing the freedoms each person has as if it were a shopping list.

Finally it is worth saying a little about the idea that Hayek was anti-rationalist. The passages above clearly reveal that this is not the case but that he had an integrated picture of theory and (to use the high falutin word) praxis. Hayek’s so called anti-rationalism is actually more rational than the naive rationalism of anti-naturalistic rationalists who believe there is a ‘ghost in the machine’. It is only anti-rationalist insofar as Wittgenstein’s idea of intrinsic limits to criticism with which his ideas about the impossibility of a ‘synoptic’ view of the social world have much in common is anti-rationalist.

The reason Hayek sounds anti-rationalist at times was because he was an evolutionist (thus the hedging about whether there is such a thing as free will in The Constutution of Liberty). He believed the mind itself is an emergent order like the spontaneous order of the market (e.g. A ‘beehive mind’, an idea now popular among some computer scientists and complexity theorists – see his early book on psychology The Sensory Order, which has a model of a mind that basically anticipates the idea of neural networks), and it was formed in interaction with the surrounding culture. His emphasis on tradition stems from this picture of the mind which is that underlying ‘ideas’ – there is no little homunuculus or ghost in the machine manipulating these ideas – only a nested hierarchy of feedback-response mechanisms embodying ‘tacit knowledge’ whether in the minds of individuals who participate in a culture, or the markets and complex of exchanges within that culture and finally the culture itself.


Written by Admin

November 28, 2006 at 8:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses

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  1. Hayek sometimes sounds like an anti-rationalist when he argue against the particular kind of rationalism that he called constructivist rationalism that is blind to its own assumptions. He is a critical rationalist which means making the best use that we can of reason while we realise that we are all the time making assumptions that may turn out to be wrong.

    Oakeshott make similar criticisms against rationalists but he may have gone too far and Popper argued against him in a paper on the rational (critical) approach to tradition.

    Interesting the way that the target of criticism (or the rhetorical requirement of the situation) can convey a misleading impression.

    When Hayek targets constructivist rationalists he sounds a litlle bit like a conservative apologist for tradition. When Popper targetted Oakeshott he sounded a little bit like the wrong kind of rationalist.

    Rafe Champion

    November 28, 2006 at 11:11 am

  2. His argument about evolutionary epistemology I think largely holds, however, and that ties in with his respect for custom (not tradition – the two are different). This is something that interests me (and I’ll be doing further research on it next year all other things being equal).


    November 28, 2006 at 4:22 pm

  3. Funnily enough, Rothbard came at this from what seems to be the other direction: that property rights are the basis of free speech.

    Jacques Chester

    November 28, 2006 at 7:52 pm

  4. actually Jacques this is what Hayek is saying as well. But in addition he is saying that the arguments for freedom of speech apply just as much to freedom to exercise property rights.

    Jason Soon

    November 28, 2006 at 7:55 pm

  5. Jason, on the subject of individual freedom, did you see the extract from Peta Seaton’s speech in Cut and Paste (today’s Australian)? She raises the issue of whether true liberals should be running moral agendas. You once said that the Christian Right did not worry you as much as the Christian Left (a point I challenged you on). So I wonder what you think of her view of freedom. I concur wholeheartedly with Seaton’s perspective myself – as indeed with much of what small l liberalism stands for.

    Fred Argy

    November 29, 2006 at 10:56 am

  6. Fred, if can rudely interrupt with some Mill quotes that might answer some questions – I’m sure Jason will amplify as necessary.

    Peta Seaton quotes Mill, a slightly fuller quote is,

    That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

    This, of course begs the question, ‘what is harm to others?’ Libertarians interpret this narrowly, while social democrats and left Christian interpret this broadly. As Mill asks later in the book,

    WHAT, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?

    And his answer,

    A person should be free to do as he likes in his own concerns; but he ought not to be free to do as he likes in acting for another, under the pretext that the affairs of the other are his own affairs.

    In modern terms, this means ‘no busybodies’, or even ‘mind your own business’. Yet Mill warns us that

    It would be a great misunderstanding of this doctrine to suppose that it is one of selfish indifference, which pretends that human beings have no business with each other’s conduct in life, and that they should not concern themselves about the well-doing or well-being of one another, unless their own interest is involved. Instead of any diminution, there is need of a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the good of others. But disinterested benevolence can find other instruments to persuade people to their good, than whips and scourges, either of the literal or the metaphorical sort.

    This really translates into working harder, increasing the size of the market, and allowing Adam Smith’s invisible hand to do its work. Specialisation, hard work and trade does more for the good of society than either social democrats or left Christians.

    Sinclair Davidson

    November 29, 2006 at 11:50 am

  7. Sinclair, you seem to raise a number of interesting issues without directly addressing the one I raised.

    II may be out of my depth here because I am not as familiar with Mills and Hayek as you guys are but let me try to respond to your comments as best I can.

    I see no incompatibility (either logical or in terms of empirical evidence) between specialisation and trade, as indeed most other forms of economic liberalism, and the Christian Left’s belief in social justice (ensuring they share in the incremental benefits of economic liberalism). Of course, too much social justice damages economic performance but within limits it is neutral or even good for the economy if the right methods of redistribution are used.

    Nor do I see any incompatibility between individual freedom and pursuit of the Christian Left’s social justice agenda through the state. Redistribution to the poor (in moderation and effiiently implemented) diminishes one person’s freedom – the property freedom of taxpayers. But, in the right form, it can enhance another person’s freedom by increasing their capability to achieve their maximum human potential and contribute more effectively to society. In Hayek’s words, they are better able to ‘do things that are beneficial to society’. So we are merely exchanging one form of freedom for another.

    As for “hard work”, that ‘s fine if it is voluntary. Compelling workers to work long and unpredictable hours which they dislike because it interferes with their family and leisure is just giving one person more freedom and taking away another person’s freedom.

    Turning now to the Chrisitain Right. Their moral authoritarianism, if it is translated into laws and regulations as most of their advocates want, is completely incompatible with Mills’ and I suspect Hayek’s view of freedom.

    Fred Argy

    November 29, 2006 at 2:06 pm

  8. Lets deal with Peta first:
    Liberals should not run ‘moral’ agendas. most liberatrians can be happy with Mill’s definition of liberty narrowly defined.

    ‘Social’ justice is incompatible with the liberty described by Mill and Hayek. Alleviating absolute poverty (preferably through private charity) is compatible with this form of liberty (Jason will disagree on this point – he’s happy to pay tax so the government takes care of this). The state uses coersion to achieve its goals, the the extent coersion must be minimised in a free society social justice through the state is inconsistent with liberty.

    Nobody is compelled to work long hours. They may resign their jobs, or find other jobs that better suit their lifestyle choices. The State is not compelling anyone to do anything, they are enabling individuals to exit the union – dominated EB arrangements.

    Both the Christian Right and Left’s moral authoritarianism, if translated into laws would be inconsistent with liberty – at the moment, however, I’m not sure how much of the Christian rights agenda is likely to be legislated (does Australia really have a Christian right?). The Christian left – along with their social democrat allies – are more likely to have their agenda legislated.

    Sinclair Davidson

    November 29, 2006 at 2:39 pm

  9. Alleviating absolute poverty (preferably through private charity) is compatible with this form of liberty (Jason will disagree on this point – he’s happy to pay tax so the government takes care of this

    I know this is off-topic (slightly) so feel free to ignore.

    I agree that alleviating poverty through private charity is optimum but the success of such a model is predicated on the development of a ‘philanthropic culture’ where the affluent will give to the sorts of private charitable institutions that can do this work. This may well work in the United States but I’m not sure that we have such a culture in Australia. Therefore, I wonder how libertarians propose that this sort of cultural change is effected? Is it the case that if the switch was flicked on the State’s social security apparatus that people would become more philanthropic?


    November 29, 2006 at 4:42 pm

  10. Is it the case that if the switch was flicked on the State’s social security apparatus that people would become more philanthropic?

    I don’t know that it would be a quick, or as simple, as flicking a switch. Levels of philathrophy are very high in the US compared to most (OECD) economies. Australian levels are about average (excluding the US as an outlier). The average tax burden for ‘rich’ Australians is a lot higher than it is for ‘rich’ Americans. Consequently, wealthy Australians can legitimately say, ‘I gave at the (tax) office’.

    Sinclair Davidson

    November 29, 2006 at 4:53 pm

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