Tuesday 8 May 2012

Varieties of idealism and Hayek's 'true individualism'

The election of Francois Hollande has been a moment of revelation for a number of reasons. Of course, the hope is that it is a relief for France and perhaps for Europe, but I think that is unlikely in the short-term. The revelation I am most interested in is not actually something that is going to make anything better in the short-term, but may help us to think through the real challenges Europe faces in the medium term. The revelation is one of conflicting idealisms: where there was before only the idealism of 'responsible' monetary control most clearly seen in the  German position, Hollande represents the more obvious (almost traditional) idealism that is associated with socialism. Of course, the surprise is that with Hollande's victory and his overt socialist idealist rhetoric, we look to Merkel and see a similar idealism - the hope for a rational governed exit from the crisis, if only everyone would play by the (German) rules.

It has often been remarked that for all her championing of Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek (neither of whom particularly appreciated her endorsement!), Mrs. Thatcher (whose ghost is clearly with Merkel), was also this kind of idealist: the idealism that the market works on rational principles, that tight monetary control, limited government and the logic of the market will create opportunities and distribute wealth. Of course, that was an ideal which was predicated on the uniformity, rationality and inherent fairness of human action. But (to allude to the work of another of Mrs. Thatcher's favourite philosophers), the crooked timbers of humanity don't work like that.

Hayek's commentary on this kind of idealism - the idealism of what he calls 'false individualism' is particularly telling. He identifies false individualism with an overtly rationalistic approach to the individual. The establishment of 'equality' amongst human beings becomes a function of a rationalised individual: Hayek quotes Descartes as an illustration of the priority that was given by French philosophy to the rational individual:
"there is seldom so much perfection in works composed of many separate parts, upon which different hands had been employed, as in those completed by a single master."
The rationalistic individual is the expert. With a world run by experts with total knowledge about it, individuals may be "free and equal" (so the experts will tell us!). [I'm thinking about the privileged role of 'experts' in the European projects I am currently involved in - if Hayek could see it!] But this of course leads to the familiar theme, not just of the Hayek of the "Road to Serfdom", but also of Popper in "The open society and its enemies" and in the work of Isaiah Berlin.

Hayek's point about this dangerous nonsense is a technical (and almost cybernetic!) one. The point concerns the amount of knowledge any individual is privy to in order to make a judgement. With this kind of idealism, all individuals are assumed to possess perfect knowledge and to act with self-interest. However, Hayek points out of any individual that:
"He cannot know more than a tiny part of the whole of society and that therefore all that can enter into his motives are the immediate effects which his actions will have in the sphere he knows. All the possible differences in men's moral attitudes amount to little, so far as their significance for social organisation is concerned, compared with the fact that all man's mind can effectively comprehend are the facts of the narrow circle of which he is the centre; that, whether he is completely selfish or the most perfect altruist, the human needs for which he can effectively care are an almost negligible fraction of the needs of all members of society."
Looked at like this, Hollande and Merkel are the same. Hollande is an 'expert' - he believes his grand plan for the people of France will rescue the French economy. Merkel also has a grand plan, but unlike Hollande (who frankly appears as a saint in comparison!), her plan is not for her own country so much as for the citizens of other countries to obey.

The people of Greece (and probably not in much time, the people of Italy and Spain) with their imperfect knowledge but raw concerns, unsurprisingly object to the experts. It wouldn't be much of a surprise if the people of France soon object to the grand plan of Hollande. But the deep problem is that the economic abstractions which form the bedrock of these idealisms have a one dimensional human being at their heart.

It might be tempting to suggest that the medicine for this requires richer models of the person. However, this would still be a variety of idealism; the experts might have acquired a better psychology, but their politics might be even poorer (and possibly more dangerous!) as a result. But the suggestion highlights the fundamental problem with idealism: it is abstraction itself - that 'conceptualising' of the world which is designed by a single mind and which can be beheld by another single mind; abstraction which is immediately tied-up with the idealised individual. And how can we escape abstraction? What I believe is needed is for abstraction to be replaced with process; for concepts to be replaced with pedagogy and for pedagogy to be grounded in principles. But I (and Hayek) must be careful - for this begins to sound like my own 'blueprint'! Hayek argued for a general principle for an individualistic system is
"that it uses the universal acceptance of general principles as the means to create order in social affairs. It is the opposite of such government by principles when, for example, a recent blueprint for a controlled economy suggests as "the fundamental principle of organisation .... that in any particular instance the means that serves society best should be the one that prevails"
It is a serious confusion thus to speak of principle when all that is meant is that no principle but only expediency should rule; when everything depends on what authority decrees to be "the interests of society"
As a cybernetician, there are criticisms here of 'planning' which I know will sit badly with many of my friends. Yet, I think Hayek is right in his criticism. He may have been wrong in arguing that the 'market' is one of the core principles that matters (although I am re-assessing this currently). But the power of his analysis is impossible to ignore. The ends of a society governed by Hayek's principles would be to address in a fair, open and serious manner, the observation of Edmund Burke:
I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observation of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business

1 comment:

Scott said...

I think we have currently two versions of the same story.

Growth has gone, and we need to get it back. We need to recover the lost growth.

From the right the solution is a penitent one - our suffering will return the growth to us once we've paid for our mistakes.

On the left the solution is more animistic, that if we act as if the growth never went away, maybe it will come back.

However whats missing in the political narrative is any discussion of prosperity without growth. I'm surprised the Green contingent hasn't made a bigger deal of this. Particularly as such a direction is material rather than abstract as it focusses on resources to hand.

Of course that itself is based on another form of idealism...