Hayek and the Scots on liberty.

Author:O'Driscoll, Gerald P., Jr.
  1. Introduction

    If one were to trace the intellectual influences on F. A. Hayek's economic analysis, one would look first to Carl Menger, Friedrich von Wieser, and Ludwig von Mises. Menger was the founder of the Austrian School of economics in which Hayek's intellectual development occurred (Hayek 1973b). Wieser was his teacher. And Mises was a dominant influence in economics in 1920s Vienna. Hayek was certainly also well-steeped in British classical political economy. The first lecture of Prices and Production is an excursion through classical economic thinking on the relationship between money and prices (Hayek 1935). (1) On technical economic issues, however, the Austrian influence is strongest.

    Not so for Hayek's legal and political theory. Here, Hayek was heavily influenced by eighteenth-century writers in the British Isles, such as Adam Ferguson, Dugald Stewart, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke. Scotsmen dominated discourse in this area. (2) Hume was a major influence on Hayek. (3) Menger certainly influenced Hayek's thinking on social and political philosophy as well, an influence that I detail later on.

    In this paper, I trace the Scottish influence on Hayek's thinking. In many cases, we have Hayek's own words. I look at the Scots through Hayek's eyes to understand their influence on him. My purpose is to present this important strand of classical liberal thought and its influence on the Hayekian political and legal framework for liberty. Except in passing, I will not contrast it with other approaches. Related articles in this issue will develop alternative philosophies of liberty.

  2. Hayek on Hume (4)

    In a 1963 lecture, Hayek offered an appreciation of Hume in the form of a public lecture at the University of Freiburg. Hayek told a German audience of Hume's primacy over Kant for liberty, a difficult idea to sell. In Hayek's view, Hume's chief contribution was that he produced "above all a theory of the growth of human institutions which became the basis of his case for liberty and the foundation of the work of the great Scottish moral philosophers, of Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith and Dugald Stewart, who are today recognized as the chief ancestors of modern evolutionary anthropology" (Hayek 1963, p. 111).

    Hume began with his well-known theory of morals as "artifacts." By that, he meant that our moral beliefs "are not natural in the sense of innate, nor a deliberate invention of human reason" (Hayek 1963, p. 111). Rules of justice are necessitated by scarcity and by the selfishness of men. The rules are not consciously created, but are, in the words of another Scotsman, Adam Ferguson, "the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design" (Ferguson quoted in Hayek 1967b, p. 96, n. 1). The rules are indispensable for the development of modern civil society, but are neither inevitable nor the product of reason. They might never be discovered, and hence complex society might never evolve.

    The "narrow bounds of human understanding," as Hume would phrase it, or the "inevitable weakness" of men's minds, in Hayek's preferred phrasing, would, in the absence of fixed rules, lead to chaos. Or, in Hume's words, "this would produce an infinite confusion in human society, and the avidity and partiality of men would quickly bring disorder into the world, if not restrained by some general and inflexible principles" (Hayek 1963, p. 115).

    So, for Hume, as for Thomas Hobbes, pursuit of individual self-interest, unconstrained by rules, leads to disorder, or in the Hobbesian formulation, the "war of all against all." For Hobbes, only a rationally constructed order, in the form of a Leviathan government, can produce an order. In Hume's analysis, men stumble upon an order. (5)

    Hume wrote that "'the necessity of human nature'" gives rise to "'three fundamental laws of nature.'" These are "'the stability of possession, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises" (Hayek 1963 [quoting Hume], p. 113). The laws of nature are not the product of government, but antecedent to it; but once established, "'government would naturally be supposed to derive its obligation from those laws of nature'" (Hayek 1963, p. 114). As a matter of history, Pipes (1999) confirms the priority of property over government. Hume was also a historian, the author of the History of England, which "did probably as much to spread Whig liberalism throughout Europe in the eighteenth century as Macaulay's History did in the nineteenth" (Hayek 1963, p. 110). He had a historical basis for his assertion of the historical priority of the "three fundamental laws of nature."

    Hayek establishes Hume's accomplishment in presenting an evolutionary theory of morals and legal institutions, and observes that "Hume may be called a precursor to Darwin in the field of ethics" (Hayek 1963, p. 111). "Precursor" is not quite right. As Hayek (1967c, p. 265) noted, "the idea of evolution [was] a commonplace in the social sciences of the nineteenth century long before Darwin." Economists have not learned evolution from Darwin; Darwin learned it from economists.

    Hayek (1963, p. 119) described "Hume's doctrine as the theory of the growth of an order which provided the basis of his argument for freedom." Hayek (1963, p. 109) credited Hume with giving us 5 "probably the only comprehensive statement of the legal and political philosophy which later became known as liberalism." That is a strong statement. Many would look to J. S. Mill's On Liberty for at least the political case for liberty. As Bruce Caldwell (2004, p. 297, n. 9) observes, however, "Hayek had reservations about Mill." Hayek was particularly uneasy about Mill's ideas on social justice.

    Ten years later, in an essay ("Liberalism" in translation) for the Italian Enciclopedia del Novicento, Hayek revisited the importance of the Scottish moral philosophers in the emergence of liberalism. They contributed to the "Whig doctrine of government limited by general rules of law and severe restrictions on the powers of the executive branch" (Hayek 1978, p. 124). "Hume not only laid in his philosophical work the foundation of the liberal theory of law, but in his History of England (1754-62) also provided an interpretation of English history as the gradual emergence of the Rule of Law which made the conception known far beyond the limits of Britain" (Hayek 1978, p. 124).

    Several issues in Hume's philosophy need to be addressed, if not definitively resolved. First, was Hume a utilitarian? Second, what is the role of self-interest in Hume's morals? Third, was Hume an anti-rationalist? Fourth, does Hume belong in the natural law tradition? Particularly in Hayek's rendering of Hume's ideas, they are all legitimate questions.

    Hayek quotes a lengthy passage from Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature to support his view that Hume was not an act utilitarian but a rule utilitarian (though employing different terminology). (6) The passage ends, "But, however single acts of justice may be contrary, either to public or private interest, it is certain that the whole of the scheme is highly conducive, or indeed, absolutely requisite, both to the support of society and the wellbeing of every individual" (Hayek 1963, pp. 115-16). Hayek himself was comfortable with a rule-utilitarian justification for his own theory of law. (7) As in his presentation of Hume's views, Hayek focused much more, in his own analysis, on the origin of institutions rather than their justification. Like Hume, he presumed that an understanding of the benefits made possible by an evolved order would be accepted as its justification. That presumption is not a conflation of ought and is, but a basic rule-utilitarian justification. Or perhaps not, as I will question shortly.

    Was Hume's theory of justice based on self-interest? Self-interest suggests a deliberateness and consciousness of reason at odds with Hume's analysis. In Hayek's words, Hume "stresses that in all his references to utility he 'only presuppose[s] those reflections to be formed at once which in fact arise insensibly and by degrees'" (Hayek 1963, pp. 113-14). Man may offer a utilitarian justification for existing institutions, but their existence did not come into being as a consequence of conscious, self-interested reasoning. More importantly, men adhere to the rules even when they do not benefit them in a particular instance. "Single acts of justice may be contrary, either to public or to private interest" (Hayek 1963, p. 115). The rules are beneficial overall, but not in every instance. That justification comports with rule utilitarianism.

    Hayek at one point described Hume as an "anti-rationalist" (Hayek 1963, p. 108). He later recanted that characterization, substituting Popper's terminology of "critical rationalism" (Hayek 1967c, p. 263). Quoting another author, Hayek stated his ideas more clearly: Hume "'turned against the enlightenment its own weapons' and undertook 'to whittle down the claims of reason by the use of rational analysis'" (Hayek 1963, pp. 106-07). As Hayek (1973a, p. 29) put it years later, "the so-called anti-rationalists insist that to make reason as effective as possible requires an insight into the limitations of the powers of conscious reason." And he went on to say that "if the desire to make reason as effective as possible is what is meant by rationalism, I am myself a rationalist." A fortiori, Hume was a rationalist in Hayek's...

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