Bryan Caplan  

Ronald Hamowy, RIP

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The great libertarian scholar Ronald Hamowy died yesterday.  I only met him once, but I read most of his work while I was an undergrad.  Though he had a long and productive career, I'm fondest of his early writings for the New Individualist Review.  Econlib puts the full run of the journal online

My favorite Hamowy piece probably remains his critique of Hayek's Constitution of Liberty.  Though Hamowy was a Hayek student, he runs circles around his mentor's concept of coercion in the first issue of NIR.  Hamowy begins with Hayek's microethics:
Professor Hayek states: "Coercion occurs when one man's actions are made to serve another man's will, not for his own but for the other's purpose." (p. 133.) But he goes on to make explicit that such coercion can occur only when the possibility of alternate actions is open to the coerced. "Coercion implies . . . that I still choose but that my mind is made someone else's tool, because the alternatives before me have been so manipulated that the conduct that the coercer wants me to choose becomes for me the least painful one." (p. 133.)

[...]

Now, the first difficulty arising out of such a definition is that of determining just what particular actions are coercive. Professor Hayek attempts to distinguish coercive acts from "the conditions or terms on which our fellow men are willing to render us specific services or benefits," in the following way: "So long as the services of a particular person are not crucial to my existence or the preservation of what I most value, the conditions he exacts for rendering these services cannot properly be called 'coercion'." But it would seem that this lends little if any clarity to the distinction between coercive and non-coercive acts, since we are still left to define and make precise Hayek's qualifications for characterizing an action as a coercive one; namely, being "crucial to . . . existence" and "preserving what one most values."

Let us take an example which Hayek himself uses. Suppose that the condition for my being invited to a certain party, which I had previously indicated I wanted very much to attend, were my wearing formal attire. Could it be said that my host, by demanding such an action on my part, was acting coercively towards me? It would appear, and so Hayek concludes, that the answer is clearly "no." ... Yet, perhaps we are drawing our drawing our conclusion too hastily. It might be that I am a very social-conscious person, and not being invited to this party would greatly endanger my social standing. Further, my tuxedo is at the cleaners and will not be ready for several days. I do not have time to order a new one, and I am assured by my tailors that the fitting and altering involved will take at least a week and the party is this Saturday. Under these conditions, could it be said that my host's action in demanding my wearing formal attire as the price of access to his home is, in fact, a coercive one, since it clearly threatens the preservation of one of the things I most value, my social prestige?

[...]

On p. 136, he presents a case of "true coercion" of this same type. "A monopolist could exercise true coercion . . . if he were . . . the owner of a spring in an oasis. Let us say that other persons settled there on the presumption that water would always be available at a reasonable price and then found . . . that they had no choice but to do whatever the owner of the spring demanded of them if they were to survive: here would be a clear case of coercion." We assume that Hayek means that a contract entered into by the owner of the spring and the purchaser of water which allowed for renumeration to the spring-owner of any but a "reasonable price" would be of a coercive nature. But here we are faced with a difficult problem; namely, what constitutes "a reasonable price." By "reasonable," Professor Hayek might mean "competitive." But how is it possible to determine what the competitive price is in the absence of competition? ...
 

But we must face yet a further difficulty. Is the owner acting coercively if he refuses to sell his water at any price? Let us suppose that he looks upon his spring as sacred to his gods and to offer up its holy water a gross sacrilege. Here is a situation which would not fall under Hayek's definition of coercion, since the owner of the spring forces no action on the settlers. Yet, it would appear that, within Hayek's own framework, this is a far worse situation, since the only "choice" left open to the settlers now is dying of thirst.

These microethical issues may seem unimportant.  But Hayek's position has big, statist implications.  Hamowy:

Let us now turn to Professor Hayek's use of the term "coercion" within the context of state activity. Here, just as many difficulties seem to arise. On p. 153, he states that "the conception of freedom under the law that is the chief concern of this book rests on the contention that when we obey laws, in the sense of general abstract rules laid down irrespective of their application to us, we are not subject to another man's will and are therefore free." The inference is, of course, that these abstract rules, when applied impartially without regard to person are non-coercive, despite any qualification as to their content. And Hayek himself says this: though "taxation and the various compulsory services, especially conscription . . . are not supposed to be avoidable, they are at least predictable and are enforced irrespective of how the individual would otherwise employ his energies: this deprives them largely of the evil nature of coercion." (Italics Hamowy's).

Now, in a book dedicated to an investigation of the theoretical and historical groundwork of freedom, particularly within the context of a state structure, it is of the utmost importance that the boundary between coercion and non-coercion, as applied to the actions of the state, be clearly drawn. For how else are we to know when the state is exercising its legitimate functions or coercing its citizens? Hayek differentiates these two categories of actions by applying the concept of the Rule of Law. "Law," Professor Hayek asserts on p. 149, "in its ideal form might be described as a 'once-and-for-all' command that is directed to unknown people and that is abstracted from all particular circumstances of time and place and refers only to such conditions as may occur anywhere and at any time." We see, then, that the Rule of Law is the governance of society under a set of abstract rules which in no way discriminate among the citizenry and, hence, are equally applicable to all. An instance of such a law would be taxation (although not progressive taxation* ) which applies equally to all those falling under the jurisdiction of the state. Having thus been robbed of either privilege or discrimination as regards "the classification of persons which the law must employ," such state action does not fall under the scope of coercion.

But we are forced to question the validity of this conclusion which rests on what is, in fact, a mistaken distinction between legitimate and illegitimate state actions. It would, for example, be perfectly consistent with the Rule of Law, as Professor Hayek presents it, to allow for the passage of legislation prescribing the enslavement of each male citizen for a period of two years, such enslavement to fall during the period of his prime (say, between the ages of 18 and 36). This is, in fact, the case with conscription, which Hayek explicitly states is consonant with a free society...

Hayek graciously responds in the next issue, seemingly oblivious to Hamowy's Rothbardian subtext.

Another not-to-miss gem: Hamowy's exchange with William F. Buckley.  It's far less cordial than Hamowy's exchange with Hayek.  It violates my principle of libertarian friendliness.  But it's still a hoot.

I'll leave personal reflections on Hamowy's passing to those who knew him better.  Sorry for your loss, my friends.


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Downsize DC writes:

Stephen Cox at Liberty has a great piece on the man: http://libertyunbound.com/node/892

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