Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty (Part One)

This is the first in a series of notes from my reading of Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty. I'm working on something about the culture of meritocracy.  And so I'm dwelling in some theory I haven't read in a while.

1. Hayek would be outraged at the Tea Party and its constituents.
  • One of his chief critiques of liberalism is that progressives fostered a transition of defining liberty as individual liberty to liberty as power. In other words, infringements on liberty became more about people being prevented from doing things rather than being made to do things. Hayek wants to focus on coercion and constraints and thinks liberalism caused us to focus on restraints. Hayek would need look no further than the contemporary conservative movement for proof of a movement that is super-focused on restraint over constraint. The Tea Party was initially about being "taxed enough already," supposedly about the constraints the current tax code places upon citizens. But look at the language of most Tea Party protests and we can easily see that taxes are viewed not as a constraint but a restraint.
  • I don't think it's too difficult to recognize that Tea Party members are more than willing to accept specific constraints, being made to do things, in order to receive fewer restraints. White conservatives, in particular, are power obsessed. It's an old bargain they make with Capitalists.
2. I'm not at all comfortable with Hayek's introduction to the book, which reads like he set-up the discussion to prove liberalism flawed rather than to honestly explore liberty and freedom. But we'll see. I'll reserve judgment until the conclusion.

3. In particular, I don't like the transition between points 4 and 5 in Chapter One, "Liberty and Liberties". He writes:
4.  (. . .)Such recognized intellectual leaders of the "progressives" as J.R. Commons and John Dewey have spread an ideology in which "liberty is power, effective power to do specific things" and the "demand of liberty is the demand for power," while the absence of coercion is merely "the negative side of freedom" and "is to be prized only as a means to Freedom which is power."
5. This confusion of liberty as power with liberty in its original meaning inevitably leads to the identification of liberty with wealth; and this makes it possible to exploit all the appeal which the word "liberty" carries in the support for a demand for the redistribution of wealth.
This transition permits him to assign left wing association of liberty and power a desire to accumulate wealth. In my opinion, this is Hayek at his least self-critical, least self-aware. His desire to denigrate the left wing (often hidden as a critique of liberalism and/or progressives) is apparent as he implements insipid anti-progressive propaganda in the important foundations of his argument. Built-in to his definitions is the implicature that liberalism is wealth-obsessed, that what the left actually wants is the wealth, that what progressives do is radically redistribute wealth, that what liberals will do, if liberalism is heeded, is to come for your money.

When I go on about how libertarianism is horseshit, this is what I'm talking about. I find Hayek to be utterly insincere here. His arguments are so well-composed, I cannot think that this was a mistake. It's one thing to criticize liberalism. Indeed his observations about the way we think about and use the words free, freedom and liberty are instructive and useful. But this uncritical transition from liberty as power to the identification of liberty with wealth is problematic. Not because it hasn't ever been the case, but because of how it permits him to suggest that it leads to a call for redistribution of wealth. Never mind the use of a very old trope about radicalized poor people organizing to come for your money, what we can say of the left wing is that any calls to redistribute wealth result from a poorly defined sense of liberty. It seems wrong to me. And I think he knew it.

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