The Libertarian Economist Friedrich Hayek Gets a Makeover

Rethinking the concept of laissez-faire and complexity

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By David Sloan Wilson

My Evonomics article titled The Road to Ideology: How Friedrich Hayek Became a Monster resulted in a barrage of criticism from those who hold Hayek near and dear. In my own mind, these critics missed my main point. They should be joining me to defeat the ideologues who use Hayek for their simplistic “Market good! State bad!” worldview. Hayek’s ideas were far more complex and sophisticated. Moreover, they also need updating. If you think Hayek can’t do wrong, this post isn’t for you.

Thankfully, amidst the clamor came an invitation from Peter Boettke, Director of the famed F.A. Hayek Center for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, to give a seminar. If I was going to be tried and found guilty of profaning Hayek, at least it would be by a distinguished jury.

My seminar was delivered on February 11 2016 and guess what? Here I am, alive to tell about it. As one person tweeted after the event, “We agree: the problems w/ modern econ require outsider thinking.” To be precise, they require the latest ideas from evolutionary and complexity science. That’s one of the main objectives of Evonomics.

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I am pleased to provide a recording of the seminar with the slides to readers of Evonomics.

It runs 52 minutes -a bit long for the twitter generation – but that’s what it takes to swim in the deep end of the new economic thinking pool. Here’s a short summary:

1. Hayek was a true pioneer by basing economic theory on genetic and cultural evolution rather than enlightenment ideas about reason and the “physics of social behavior” that underpins orthodox economic models.

2. His position was heterodox in every way—for evolutionary biologists of the period in addition to economists.

3. Unsurprisingly, his ideas need to be updated based on advances in the study of genetic and cultural evolution in relation to human affairs.

4. Evolutionists revere Darwin but they have also gone way beyond him and don’t consult his writing in their current research. The same goes for Hayek. The answers are to be found in contemporary research, not Hayek’s writings.

5. Currently, there is very little overlap between the sphere of economic thought centered on Hayek and the modern study of cultural multilevel selection. Something must be done to remedy this situation.

6. A brief tutorial on multilevel selection and its implications for human genetic and cultural evolution.

7. Updating Hayek on the nature of small-scale human society.

8. How cultural group selection led to the relatively democratic mega-societies of today.

9. The central importance of Elinor Ostrom’s work—something that is shared between economists influenced by Hayek and modern cultural evolutionists.

10. How Ostrom’s “core design principles” approach relates to multilevel selection theory.

11. Small-scale policy applications of Ostrom’s core design principles approach.

12. On the scale-independence of the core design principles.

13. On scaling up the core design principles as the primary challenge of large-scale governance.

14. Rethinking the concept of laissez-faire in terms of proximate and ultimate causation.

15. On the role of intentional planning efforts compared to blind cultural group selection and the need for “activist laissez-faire”.

16. On Norway as a nation that succeeds by implementing the core design principles at a national scale.

17. On how even Norway can turn selfish at the planetary scale, illustrating the iron law of multilevel selection: Adaptation at any level requires a process of selection at that level and tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels.

It was a pleasure to address such a distinguished and well-informed audience and to get such an open-minded reception. I hope that the dialogue continues. The best way to honor Hayek is to make sure that his vision of placing economic theory on an evolutionary foundation remains updated.

2016 February 22

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  • Aldous Mina

    faceconomics, made Mr.Hayek’s theories obsolete. Not discuraging the merits of his arguements in his time, but simply stating the fact in our time.

  • Andre Levy

    Hayek spent the whole second half of his career from Road to Serfdom onwards demonstrating the fundamental difference between (classical) liberalism and libertarianism for #this?? 0.o

    I’m sure Prof Boettke read Hayek, but did you? Ever?

    • Hannes Radke

      There seems to be a tendency for people to elevate ideas and great personalities above reality and place them on a pedestal. Isolating them and themselves from critical discussion. This is the difference between ideas and ideology. I think a call for critical rereading and updating of valuable, yet outdated ideas is the right thing to do.

  • Peter Smaill

    Hayek, who I met, would wholly agree that his writings provide a frame of reference and not a prescription for all time coming. In the Internet age his thesis on the distributed nature of knowledge becomes more, not less, relevant compared to the fantasies of command- and- control which are the usual tools of hyper interventionist thinking. A fair critique, asking the productive questions on spontaneous collaboration …….

  • destinal

    Some today seem to treat the entire Austrian school of economics as if it only contained Hayek. I’d love to see some modern analysis of the work of other Austrian economists such as Mises and Böhm Bawerk.

  • Pedro Romero

    totally in agreement with you

  • Brian Gladish
  • bampbs

    It is amazing how Hayek’s support for comprehensive, government funded social insurance, including health care, is conveniently ignored. It’s in The Road to Serfdom, Chapter IX. Here’s a quote:

    “Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance— where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks—the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong.”

    Hayek was also early in the work on complexity, and was involved with the Santa Fe Institute. In 1964, he wrote a paper, The Theory of Complex Phenomena: A Precocious Play on the Epistemology of Complexity – no doubt that he was well past the conventional views of social phenomena.