Hayek on Rawls

In the second volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty Friedrich Hayek explained that he saw little point in engaging with Rawls’ Theory of Justice since "the differences between us seemed more verbal than substantial…" Many of his supporters find this surprising.

I’ve often wondered what Hayek would have said if you asked him directly about Rawls. Now I know.

Here’s a longer quote from Hayek’s The Mirage of Social Justice (Law Legislation and Liberty v2):

I have come to the conclusion that what I might have to say about John Rawls’ A theory of Justice (1972) would not assist in the pursuit of my immediate object because the differences between us seemed more verbal than substantial. Though the first impression of readers may be different, Rawls’ statement which I quote later in this volume (p. 100) seems to me to show that we agree on what is to me the essential point. Indeed, as I indicate in a note to that passage, it appears to me that Rawls has been widely misunderstood on this central issue (p xiii).

14 thoughts on “Hayek on Rawls

  1. I’ve often wondered what Hayek would have said if you asked him directly about Rawls.

    Me too. [watch to the end]

    He’d probably say he prefers Dostoyevsky.

  2. With his usual intellectual dishonesty, Hayek seeks to confound ‘people don’t know what they mean by social justice’ with the idea that ‘social justice cannot have any meaning’. His justification for the latter claim is that justice is only an attribute of particular human actions and cannot be an attribute of systems. Tell this to anyone considering the features of a system of civil and criminal law, compared to other systems.
    It is meaningful to talk of a system as just in comparison to another system that is unjust: and of course all Hayek’s absurdities derive from a claim of justice, that property gives as a matter of justice power to the property holder that should not be fettered or limited by obligations to those without property.
    The justice of any system in operation will depend on particular human actions by particular humans. That doesn’t elide considering the justice of the system.
    His disregard for Rawls suggests that he would be no more happy with Amartya Sen’s views in A Theory of Justice, directed as they are not to absolute principles but to ways of finding common conclusions where many competing principles apply. Hayek objects to Rawls for having fundamental principles different to the totalitarianism of property for which Hayek himself stands: he would object no less to Sen for having a developed way of bringing different and competing principles to bear in arriving at common agreement on what justice requires in particular cases.

  3. Chris – yes.

    I think his claim that they wouldn’t disagree about anything but terminology is a cop out – an admission (of sorts) that he can’t actually formulate a decent rebuttal, because none is available.

    In other words, I think he’s slyly putting the shoe on the other foot of linguistic determinism, suggesting that ‘mere’ terminology is all that separates their positions, when in fact language and its relationship with our understanding of the world precludes him being correct.

    So yeah, “many of his supporters would find this surprising”, but only those who think the sun shines out of his arse.

  4. This is arsehattery.

    People don’t know, in the narrow sense that Hayek is talking about, what’s meant by democracy or freedom either. That’s not to say we can’t use what John Ralston Saul would describe as a common-sense or intuitive, practical and non-utopian series of decisions to move towards something that people agree (again in a common-sense/intuitive way) resembles democracy, freedom, or social justice.

  5. I have a feeling you’ve posted this before Don, but either way it is interesting
    http://bigthink.com/ideas/40809?page=all

    “The justice of any system in operation will depend on particular human actions by particular humans.”

    No, it will depend mainly on opinions about what is just. Something that varies mightily. It is easy to get broad agreement about broad concepts, but that often disappears when you try to be more specific. For example, I think there is broad agreement with the idea that a progressive tax system is socially just. The level of agreement changes when you try and specify a tax scale. The other thing is that we have no way of establishing the actual level of agreement about various policies. Instead we have mandate theories. For these reasons I think nobody should get to carried away with ideas as to what is and is not socially just.

  6. Pedro,

    That’s not wrong, but ‘not getting carried away’ is an entirely different kettle of fish from saying: it can’t be done, don’t bother deliberating/trying.

  7. Great comment Chris,

    Thanks.

    I must say I was very disappointed by Hayek in this clip. Don’s ‘discovery’ of Hayek’s ‘Rawlsian turn’ turns out not to be the discovery of some deep symmetry, which would have been of great interest, but of a rhetorical ploy by Hayek. I have quite a high regard for Hayek’s basic ideas, but as he suggested himself, most of Hayek boils down to a single – and strong – idea that of the importance of distributed information.

    The rest is a construct that is largely rhetorical and based on privileging some things – pretty arbitrarily – over others.

  8. @Pedro: mea culpa indeed! I guess your hairsplit is to point out that you’re down with people getting somewhat carried away with working on notions of social justice, marginally strengthening my point. Cheers.

  9. With his usual intellectual dishonesty, Hayek seeks to confound ‘people don’t know what they mean by social justice’ with the idea that ‘social justice cannot have any meaning’. His justification for the latter claim is that justice is only an attribute of particular human actions and cannot be an attribute of systems. Tell this to anyone considering the features of a system of civil and criminal law, compared to other systems.

    It is meaningful to talk of a system as just in comparison to another system that is unjust: and of course all Hayek’s absurdities derive from a claim of justice, that property gives as a matter of justice power to the property holder that should not be fettered or limited by obligations to those without property.

    And blah, blah, bloody blah. And yet not once do you sit-down face-to-face wid da ‘S’ word – SOCIAL!

    Hullllloooooooooooooooooooo!?

    Hayek is still bitching ya, 1-0, toots.

  10. @Peter

    Far from it. A moment’s reflection would tell you that all justice is both social and individual (and all meaningful analyses of justice reflect those two levels of analysis). Hayek didn’t even make it onto the field.

  11. Dan, so how has Chris succeeded in beating Hayek, if Chris not even mention the ‘S’ word himself in his reckon dunking of Hayek? Even Hayek confronts the ‘S’ word head on.

  12. What Chris said made perfect sense in terms of a takedown of Hayek’s position; the latter used the word ‘social’ only to say he wasn’t really able to conceptualise justice that way.

    I’ll leave further defense of Chris to Chris, but my view is that he would have no trouble not only saying ‘social justice’ but moreover taking the possibility of the notion seriously.

  13. @Peter Patton:
    Hayek argued that ‘social justice’ could have no meaning because justice is not an attribute of systems but only of particular individual actions. I thought, and said, how this was a wrong and a bad argument.
    Peter Patton offers no reason why Hayek’s argument is good, and no reason why my objections to it are unsound. He says that I had to mention ‘social’ justice to deal with Hayek’s contention.
    But Hayek contended against any meaning of justice as applied to anything but individual actions, and that was the contention I dealt with. It was the unsound ground of Hayek’s attack on any notion of social justice: but if the contention was valid it was an attack on any notion that a system of any kind can be described as more or as less just than another.
    Perhaps ‘Hayek is still bitching ya, 1-0, toots’ is a contention. It isn’t an argument capable of exposition or of intellectual consideration.

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