Words like “left” and “right” no longer have any clear meaning. But if there is a central theme, historically, people “on the left” have focused on issues of inequality of power. This has been interpreted in many ways, sometimes contradictorily, but always, power and its abuse by the powerful seems to be the central concern. I argue that Hayek’s general framework offers a better understanding of institutional and systemic power than alternatives of which I am aware. And it leans left.
Over several decades my study of Hayek diverged fundamentally from the mainstream classical liberal and libertarian scholars who claim inspiration from him. Whereas I treated Hayek’s fundamental insights as a research program, exploring where ever they led, the mainstream treated him as an intellectual ammunition box useful for advocating their ideology. They focused on a selective interpretation of his conclusions rather than seeking to understand how he got to them.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between what I call “Left Hayekianism” and that promulgated by rank and file Hayek scholars is my strong concept of civil society. I argue civil society is the optimal framework for individual freedom and flourishing in the modern world. In civil society’s ‘pure’ form, all people enjoy equal legal rights and status, based on traditional liberal principles of freedom of speech, organization, and belief. In practice, this reality is approached most closely in actual liberal societies, although perfectly realized in none of them. But civil society cannot be reduced to the market.
While the market is an essential part of civil society, it is accompanied by at least two other spontaneous orders in Hayek’s sense: science and democracy. Taken together these represent liberalism’s institutional expression within social orders characterized by individual freedom of action, private property rights, equality of legal status, and purely procedural rules for structuring cooperation. (A procedural rule does not tell you what to do, only how to do it.)
Each spontaneous order embeds particular values within its rules, and so shapes the kinds of individual projects most likely to succeed within its framework. Because the coordination process within spontaneous orders requires standardized feedback signals, these institutional values are simpler than the values motivating human beings acting within them. I might run a business for complex reasons, but its success depends on earning an adequate money profit. I might become a scientist hoping to make money from my discoveries, or seeking Truth, but my success is based on other scientists’ recognition of my contributions to a common field of increasingly reliable knowledge.
The rules generating a spontaneous order shape the institutions most likely to flourish within them. Profit-seeking organizations are not optimal institutions for conducting scientific research, and scientific research teams are not optimal institutions for running a business. Consequently, spontaneous orders are distinct from the values and motives of those acting within them in two fundamental ways. First, the feedback on which they depend need not be the same as those acting within them most value. Second, the rules shaping an order influence what kinds of organizations will flourish within them.
Civil society is not a spontaneous order because it is shaped by many different feedback systems geared to different values. A variety of such orders, combined with individuals’ freedom to pursue the plans they wish, enable the greatest degree of freedom within society. Think of a weaving. The warp supplies the vertical threads that collectively hold the whole together. The weft can be a variety of different threads and colors of varying lengths that create the larger pattern. Spontaneous orders are a society’s warp, uniting it, whereas the weft would be the individual plans making greater or lesser use of individual threads in the warp. From this perspective Alexis de Tocqueville was the first and in many ways the most important theorist of civil society.
Over time, sometimes rules generating a spontaneous order can change. The abstract rules of science are applied in different ways in different fields. Distinct scientific communities apply these principles differently in astronomy and biology, for example. Communities are free to employ whatever rules they want, but to be considered science they must be acknowledged by the larger scientific community as a whole.
Markets are different because their rules must apply to all cases where legitimate exchanges can be made and contracts enforced. Sometimes the rules of property right and dispute adjudication needed for maintaining viable markets need to be changed, and a fair means for considering possible changes needs to be employed.
Democracy is the most just means for doing so and, as a spontaneous order, democracy is not majority rule, but rather a discovery process through which civil society can find and improve basic rules followed by its members. While normally no specific rule adopted will be supported by everyone, a constitutional framework, creating the larger context within which such changes are considered, can approach or reach a “practical consensus.” We can agree on how to determine rules even if we know our most preferred alternative will not always be chosen. This reasoning is in harmony with Hayek’s argument that the rules of the market are akin to those of a game where some will win and others lose, but all players recognize the rules are fair.
At the most abstract level, Hayekian spontaneous orders are characterized by the same dynamics of positive and negative feedback and lack of deliberate control that we see in biological ecosystems. No one controls science, the market, or democracy, yet each manifests common patterns assisting those acting within them to know what plans are likely the most viable. So does civil society as a whole.
In biological ecosystems reproductive success or failure provides the same kind of signal. Organisms acting within any such system shape, and are in turn shaped, by it, with the general pattern that emerges not controlled by any of them and its details unpredictable. These principles apply to rain forests and coral reefs, to Arctic tundra and tall grass prairies. All are varieties of ecosystems, and takem together, they constitute the most complete biological ecosystem: life on earth.
What we call spontaneous orders in society are also subsets within this larger group of complex adaptive systems. While biological beings act within them, what distinguishes them is that the rules generating coherent patterns are cultural rather than biological. Taken together, all these social ecosystems comprise civil society, the most complex cultural ecosystem.
“Left Hayekianism” – the institutional challenges
Social ecosystems are not reducible to biological ecosystems because they are shaped within the realm of ideas, whereas biological ones are shaped by biological processes. Organisms within biological ecosystems can either adapt or decline when faced with environmental challenges. Within social ecosystems, people and organizations have an additional alternative: seek to change the rules. Within a spontaneous order, successful organizations and people can use their resources to shape the rules in their favor, reducing the need to adapt. And many do.
This third alternative is particularly important in democracy and the market, Political parties seek to manipulate electoral rules to cement their hold on power, businesses seek to use their wealth to manipulate governments from Main Street to Wall Street to shield them from competition, and both often ally because such alliances increase the power of them both. We find the same phenomena expressed far less powerfully in science, when specific schools of thought seek to control funding or research institutions.
Because the interests of currently successful people and organizations are not in harmony with the long run impact of neutral rules facilitating the coordination of independent actors, this dynamic exists in all spontaneous social orders. It is particularly troublesome when a means of improving the fairness of established rules applying to all needs to exist. The existence of such means also creates opportunities to increase their unfairness.
Finally, human society is ultimately subordinated to natural ecosystems. Here arises another problem. Social ecologies adapt with the speed of thought whereas biological ones do so with the speed of reproduction. In the short run the social world adapts far faster and so exerts more power than the biological world, except for organisms such as bacteria. But in the long run social ecosystems are immersed in and dependent on biological ecosystems. This disconnect is the cause of cases where societies have undermined the basis of their own prosperity and longevity through degrading their environment.
To summarize this second section, first, there is a conflict of interests between successful members of a spontaneous order seeking to maintain that success and the vitality of the discovery process it exemplifies. Secondly, social ecosystems adapt and coordinate more rapidly than natural ones whereas in the long run they are dependent on them. Therefore, the greater the short term power of social ecosystems in relation to natural ones, the more important the task of harmonizing the two.
The above focuses on power to a much greater degree than mainstream Hayekian analysis. This is what makes it most “left.” Rather than proceeding at such a great degree of abstraction that most power differentials disappear, I emphasize the power of systems, including spontaneous orders, to override and subordinate the values of those acting within them. I also emphasize the power of organizations within these systems to seek to subordinate systemic power to their power. Finally, I focus on the power differences between cultural and biological ecosystems, where the greater short term power of the former can degrade the latter, on which the former ultimately depend.
To take the market as an example, the specific property rights enforced in the market shape the society within which it exists, including the institutions that rise to dominance. Thus, the ultimate issues from this perspective are two: what property rights most harmonize the market order with a strong civil society and what property right regimes most harmonize the market with its being situated within a biological ecosystem?
Compared to traditional approaches to Hayek, I am concerned with authority relations in businesses, and support those organizational forms that flatten hierarchies, such as the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain. Organizations such as Mondragon also interest me because they are able to perform well in competitive environments without subordinating every decision to maximizing profit and organizational growth. they are therefore very compatible with civil society. In terms of sustainable relations with the natural world, I am focused on organizations able to put ethical values above profit, such as Land Trusts, especially democratic ones. In terms of democratic reform, I am focused on how to minimize the role of economic inequalities in shaping public debate and decision-making, and in ways to make public bureaucracies more immediately accountable for misbehavior.
All these concerns are given short shrift, or completely ignored, in traditional understandings of Hayek, although I believe they are implicit in his work.