chapter  1
34 Pages

Liberalism and the knowledge problem

Recent history has witnessed an upsurge in the normative significance of notions of culture and identity to politics and to political theory. In the words of Jürgen Habermas, political theory has witnessed a shift ‘from “issues of distribution” to a concern with “the grammar of forms of life”’.1 At the same time, and writing with respect to the contemporary significance of Hayek’s epistemic brand of liberalism, John Gray has argued that the collapse of Communism, of which this Austrian School economist’s critique of central planning offers at least one powerful explanation, has rendered obsolete the central arguments of his corpus. There are, then, at least two difficulties that one faces when seeking to connect epistemic liberalism to issues of culture and identity in the theory of justice. First, the contemporary terrain of normative discourse now includes debates about justice, culture, identity and the legal and social positioning of the members of society’s diverse groups and communities to which epistemic liberalism’s largely distributive concerns appear tangential. Second, the kinds of institutions most susceptible to the economic arguments thinkers such as Hayek did make are for the most part no longer extant and the prospect of their reintroduction seems remote. Indeed, even in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, our political choice still remains largely one between varieties of liberal market order, and this too is a choice which theories such as Hayek’s may not be able to help us with. One way to respond to these difficulties would be to follow egalitarian liberals

such as Barry who argue that the consequences for political theory of the post-socialist paradigm shift are not to be welcomed. As we will see in Chapter 5, central to Barry’s thesis is the claim that the cultural turn in politics and political theory is not only a distraction from more important distributive concerns. In what is little more than a twenty-first century version of the politics of divide-and-rule, he claims that multiculturalism plays into the hands of those wishing to perpetuate economic inequality by enticing the most vulnerable to engage in divisive and internecine political conflict.2 Rather than be unhelpfully preoccupied with culture and identity, Barry suggests that we devote attention to economic distribution, particularly unequal economic

distribution. However, despite what we will see is the merit of much of what Barry has to say in this respect, it would be overly hasty to disregard the concerns of culture and identity insofar as they relate to justice. This is so not least because there are a host of issues, ranging from the social and legal positioning of members of vulnerable groups and the status of the values and traditions that give content and expression to their identities, to the question of the most appropriate response to social processes of discrimination and marginalisation, that are relevant to justice and therefore to which any adequate theory of justice needs to respond. Rather than following Barry’s approach it will be argued that the appropriate way for epistemic liberalism to respond to the cultural turn is to directly address its concerns. Crucially, however, doing this successfully requires reading Hayek in the appropriate way, and central to this is his conception of and approach to the economic knowledge problem.