Hayek, Joas and the Ends of Value — Part One

Burning Man Festival (photo Victor Habchy)

A few years ago, professor of political science Corey Robin published an essay on the Austrian school of economics called “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children”. (Recently republished in a new edition of his book The Reactionary Mind.) Robin makes the case for an “elective affinity” between Nietzsche’s ethical philosophy and the Austrians’ appropriation of the marginal revolution in economics for conservative ends. He highlights that one of the most important and influential thinkers of this school, Friedrich Hayek, wrote that it was entirely legitimate for the wealthy elite, even in a modern, liberal-democratic society, to establish the values by which the rest of society ought to live. The wealthy were, in effect, the aristocratic “free spirits” of Nietzsche’s philosophy; while those on the left who advocate egalitarianism and social justice give expression to a form of “ressentiment” — Nietzsche’s term (not I believe explicitly used by Hayek) for a morality motivated by feelings of inferiority and revenge.

Robin’s interpretation of Hayek met with strong resistance among libertarian commentators. While nobody, I suspect, is really under any illusion about the correlation between right-wing views and libertarianism, libertarians themselves are nevertheless very sensitive about the way in which such views are expressed. Crass elitism just won’t do; one has to articulate prejudices against the left and admiration for the rich in ways which make them academically respectable. Hence the virulence with which Robin was attacked for supposedly distorting Hayek’s views. (Robin’s response to critics, with links to their criticisms, can be found here.)

Unfortunately for the libertarians, one only has to read the chapters Robin cites from Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty to see that there cannot be any doubt about the validity of Robin’s interpretation. Hayek is not subtle about his views on the rich; he does not attempt to qualify the conclusions he draws and there is no additional subtext to muddy the waters. The wealthy elite, according to Hayek, possess the “attitudes and modes of life” appropriate to those who take economic responsibility, show initiative and solve problems; in contrast to the employed, for whom “work is largely a matter of fitting himself into a given framework during a certain number of hours.” (p. 106) The rich establish the goals of society by making visible, from their “advanced position,” the “next range of desires and possibilities” which will preoccupy society (p. 40); they live “in a phase of evolution others have not yet reached,” and it is by virtue of their “experimenting with new styles of living not yet accessible to the poor” that progress is made. (p. 41)

To leave the discussion about Hayek’s values at this, however, would be a mistake. As Robin emphasises, Hayek’s views are very influential today. We can learn a great deal about the background to the current intellectual climate by examining more closely Hayek’s claims about the origins of social values. To do this, I will look at his essay “Three Sources of Human Values”, published as an epilogue to his book Law, Legislation and Liberty. I will be contrasting Hayek’s argument with the German philosopher Hans Joas’ treatment of the philosophy of value in his book The Genesis of Values. Joas not only surveys the key thinkers who have discussed the concept of value over the last one hundred and fifty years; he also puts forward a compelling (if preliminary) pragmatist account of value. The ground covered by Joas’ book helps put into a theoretical context Hayek’s claims and illuminates some of the confusions which plague Hayek’s thinking on the topic.