Brooks channels Hayek

by Russ Roberts on May 5, 2009

in Complexity & Emergence

David Brooks, in this provocative critique of Republican Libertarianism, uses the insights of Hayek without mentioning him. Brooks's theme is that Republicans emphasize the market and freedom without realizing that these are means not ends. He argues that people care about community and order, not freedom per se. The key part is the last paragraph of this excerpt:

….Democrats have been able to establish themselves
as the safe and orderly party. President Obama has made responsibility
his core theme and has emerged as a calm, reassuring presence (even as
he runs up the debt and intervenes rashly in sector after sector).

If the Republicans are going
to rebound, they will have to re-establish themselves as the party of
civic order. First, they will have to stylistically decontaminate their
brand. That means they will have to find a leader who is calm, prudent,
reassuring and reasonable.

Then they will have to explain that
there are two theories of civic order. There is the liberal theory, in
which teams of experts draw up plans to engineer order wherever
problems arise. And there is the more conservative vision in which
government sets certain rules, but mostly empowers the complex web of
institutions in which the market is embedded.

Maybe it's a quibble but I think it's misleading to talk about the market being embedded in the "complex web of institutions" Brooks calls civic order. The market is one of those institutions and they all work together.

Civic order in the classical liberal vision is a bottom up emergent order that takes advantage of knowledge that the top down engineering approach misses. This is true in pecuniary activity such as buying and selling but it's also true in non-pecuniary activity–who I want to associate with religiously or in my hobbies or how much time I have for my children or my parents. Freedom doesn't just mean the right to be selfish. It's the right to associate with whom I choose. The classical liberal prescription for the good life isn't about making as much money as possible. It's about the freedom to choose. It's about voluntary rather than coercive solutions, decentralized rather than centralized solutions, bottom-up emergent solutions that are the result of many actions and actors rather than top-down solutions by experts.

Unfortunately, economists and Republicans and columnists often use "the market" as short hand for economic freedom. But most people take it to mean the stock market or at most, the pecuniary parts of our lives. This mistake is why people ask how poor people can possibly survive if there is more liberty. Or the argument that the market "delivers the goods" but alas, it produces inequality. Some respond by trying to argue that economic freedom does indeed help the poor. They're right but that doesn't comfort the skeptic who is worried abot today's poor person. But freedom doesn't mean poor people starving. Freedom means that the government doesn't try to solve the problem of poverty, but rather it leaves the door open to voluntary community rather than coerced community.

Brooks understands that while pocket book issues are important, they don't inspire. Freedom is important not because it makes us rich but because it makes our lives more meaningful. Not because freedom lets us prosper–it does–but because freedom lets us express all that is important about our humanity. Top down approaches deaden that humanity.

I talk about these issues in The Invisible Heart and The Price of Everything. The Invisible Heart deals with the free-riding problem that arises with voluntary aid to the poor.


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