David R. Henderson  

Hayek on Case for Freedom

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As mentioned in my previous post, I had forgotten how good Hayek's Chapter 2 of The Constitution of Liberty is. A large part of his case for freedom is based on ignorance and uncertainty. He makes the case well, but, in the following two passages, he badly overstates.

First, on p. 29, point 4:

If there were omniscient men, if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our present wishes but also our future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty.

Second, on p. 31, point 5:
If we knew how freedom would be used, the case for it would largely disappear.

Imagine that you, I, and everyone else know all our future wants and desires and how exactly we would use our freedom. There's still a strong case for freedom. Why? Because without freedom, we would be subject to government force. There is no reason on earth to think that a government that knows exactly what we want and exactly how we will use our freedom will give us what we want.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy




COMMENTS (5 to date)
Maximum Liberty writes:

David, you might be overreading him. I think you are reading him to mean:

If there were omniscient men, if we [each] could know not only all that affects the attainment of our [own] present wishes but also our [own] future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty.
and
If we [each] knew how [our own] freedom would be used, the case for it would largely disappear.

I think the more charitable reading is:

If there were omniscient men, if we [each] could know not only all that affects the attainment of our [own and every other person's] present wishes but also our [own and every other person's] future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty.
and
If we [each] knew how freedom would be used [by every person], the case for it would largely disappear.

In this post, the idea of "making the case for liberty" stands out to me. That idea suggests a mindset: a mind set in a democratic polity. True, one who lives in a democracy frequently needs to make a case to others before getting what one wants. But notice that you never need to make a case for something where trade exists and property rights are secure; you only need to appeal to one other person, a seller, with what you offer in exchange.

In a 2003 paper I have argued that liberties, such as we have enjoyed in the US and other relatively-free nations, grew spontaneously as a consequence of still poorly-known processes. Our liberties have not been attained because anyone "made a case for" those liberties — as the democratic mindset suggests. Rather, liberties only seem to diminish where a democratic mindset prevails.

RL Styne writes:

Hayek is well-known for his work on the knowledge problem and its implications, but he seems to throw it all away when talking about universal health insurance. Weird.

Fred_PA_2000 writes:

Aren't we trapped in the conundrums of time travel here?

If we knew, and chose to change, the future; then wouldn't the future we could see change to reflect our actions today? If there were no time lag in our sequence of see f1, change1, see f2, change2, see f3, etc., then wouldn't we only see the final fn that results from the complete sequence of changes we had enacted? Unless, perhaps, the process never converges. Maybe we could "blow up" the future (whatever *that* means).

But if it did converge, then wouldn't the future we'd see match the future we'd want? Hence there would be no need for freedom, since presumably we'd never choose to use it.

interesting. (But headache inducing.)

DR Jensen writes:

The "omniscient men" argument was never compelling.

Assuming we knew how liberty would be used (and misused), then we would also know what would happen when there is no liberty.

The problem is not that governments don't know what the people want or want to do, the problem is governments don't care about what the people want or want to do and, worse, want the masses to do only what the enlightened elite think is best.

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