chapter  2
34 Pages

Justice and complex adaptation

Reading Hayek’s thought as an articulation of and response to the knowledge problem in both its economic and cultural manifestations, and particularly as it reveals an account of the tradition-or practice-bound semiscient self, enables us to address the challenge of the cultural turn in political theory from an epistemic standpoint. At the same time, we have noted how this epistemic perspective leads to a reformulation of the task of distributive and cultural justice in which complexity and the socially constituted but nonetheless subjectively held knowledge of individuals assume a special importance. Here it is the degree to which different theories of justice facilitate economic discovery and cultural evolution within the constraints imposed by a complex society’s knowledge problem that becomes the evaluative yardstick by which they are to be judged. Of course, claiming that for epistemic reasons justice is properly conceived in such procedural terms is in an important sense insufficient, for it gives no indication of what type of procedure is most appropriate. To complete the project of laying the groundwork for an epistemic liberal response to the cultural turn we need now to investigate and build upon Hayek’s epistemic defence of individual liberty, private property rights and free markets in the economic sphere and see how, if at all, his arguments may lend themselves to a similar response to that problem in its cultural manifestation. At the beginning of the paper ‘Individualism: True and False’ Hayek claims that individualism ‘is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society’.1 What, then, does the account of the semiscient self imply for distributive justice rather than social theory? In other words, given that from the epistemic perspective distributive justice ought to be concerned with identifying the terms upon which economic discovery under complex conditions may take place, it becomes necessary to ascertain just who is to do the discovering and on what basis. Hayek’s normative response to society’s economic knowledge problem is

centred upon the need for knowledge to be communicated both by and

between semiscient agents. More specifically, he defends a regime of individual liberty as the most appropriate response to the economic knowledge problem insofar as it makes possible a discovery procedure for what ought to be done with resources under complex conditions.2 Unsurprisingly, given its epistemic premises and in line with accounts such as that defended by J. S. Mill, Hayek’s defence of individual liberty protects freedom of thought, expression and conscience. Without these liberties, he claims, the chances of our learning from the experience of others are greatly reduced.3 Crucially, however, liberty needs to secure significantly more than this. Thus also similarly to whatMill has to say in On Liberty about experiments of living, central to Hayek’s argument is the extension of individual liberty from thought, conscience and expression to action. To be sure, in contrast toMill who defends liberty of action on the ethical grounds that it promotes both individual and social development and serves our permanent interests as progressive beings, Hayek’s argument is based upon the epistemic and coordinative role individual liberty of action plays in the economic discovery procedure of a complex society. Moreover, in this Millian connection Hayek does not only defend experiments of living. He also claims that, in order for them to be worthwhile, individuals need to enjoy the economic liberty to make these experiments realisable. For this we also require experiments in production where we enjoy the liberty to buy and sell not just finished goods but also the ways and means of making them and bringing them to the market. Hayek’s epistemic case for individual economic liberty as a discovery pro-

cedure can be understood as having two aspects that centre upon its epistemic value to individuals and upon its wider social value. Moreover, and with respect to the first, we can identify three further senses in which he values individual economic liberty, each of which reinforces its vital epistemic role. Firstly, the individual needs liberty to act upon his subjectively held knowledge – of preferences, resource availabilities and of production possibilities – so that he may adapt himself to changes in circumstances as he pursues his individual projects. Central here for Hayek is the idea that, without economic liberty, individuals would be unable to bring their projects to fruition because they would be unable to adjust the means by which they are pursued to changes in the wider distributive context within which they act. Indeed, granted that it is not only subjective knowledge, but subjective knowledge of often fleeting and local circumstances that only the individual actor has access to, without the liberty to act upon it the individual would not be able to adjust himself to changes in local conditions – for example when the price of a good changes because of some unforeseen event, or when the actor notices a change in the tastes of the people in his local area. Similarly, in the case of tacit knowledge, without economic liberty the individual would not be able to act upon his most deeply held commitments in virtue of which he formulates the projects and preferences that he wishes to pursue. Crucially, Hayek’s case for a regime of individual liberty is more subtle

than this. It is not just based on the value of the liberty of individuals to use

their own knowledge as they see fit. Indeed, given the knowledge problem that lies at the heart of his argument, to leave things here would in a crucial sense be to miss the point. ‘There still remains’, he writes in ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, ‘the problem of communicating to [the agent] such further information as he needs to fit his decisions into the whole pattern of changes of the larger economic system’.4 This demands that we have knowledge, if not of what these changes are then at least of their effects upon the availability of goods and the means to produce them. Thus, bearing in mind the important sense in which the success of our own plans is inescapably implicated in what others (including distant unseen and unknown others) do, it is clear that Hayek’s defence is not just a defence of individual liberty but a defence of equal individual liberty. Central here is the idea that each individual needs all the rest to enjoy liberty so that he may adjust his decisions to the constantly changing catallactic circumstances that all help to bring about. Again, the reason for this is epistemic in character and relates to the way in which in a catallaxy the parallel processing of mutually ignorant but nonetheless interconnected agents brings about constant realignments in the wider constellation of resource availabilities, production processes and finished goods to which each in turn must adapt his subsequent decisions. It is, therefore, precisely because each individual needs economic liberty not only to make use of his own unique knowledge but also to make use of that of others in order to act successfully under circumstances that are not and never can be entirely known to him, that for Hayek it is of such great value. The benefits the individual derives from economic liberty are ‘largely the result of the use of freedom by others, and mostly of those uses of freedom that I could never avail myself of ’. Indeed, Hayek claims it is, therefore, ‘not necessarily freedom that I can exercise myself that is most important for me’. ‘What is important’, he adds, ‘is not what freedom I personally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things beneficial for society. This freedom we can assure to the unknown person only by giving it to all.’5

Third, and conversely, it follows from this that each individual’s own economic liberty is vital to the successful fulfilment of the plans of all the rest. Thus, granted that it is not only subjective knowledge, but subjective knowledge of often fleeting and local circumstances that all the rest would not otherwise have access to, but upon which the successful execution of their plans at least in part depends – such as a change in the availability of a particular resource, or an insight into how previously uncombined factors of production may be utilised to make an already desired good more cheaply or more desirable still – without the individual liberty to act upon it, the impact of the change would not be registered. More challengingly still for those that would assume that questions pertaining to resource use could be decided in the absence of individual liberty, this knowledge is also tacitly held by different agents. As Gray comments in his reconstruction of Hayek on this point, ‘liberty permits knowledge to be used which we never knew (and could never have known) we had’.6 By contrast, he adds, a centralised regime ‘would

necessarily exploit only a small part of the stock of knowledge – that small part which is expressible in statements or propositions’.7