Hayek and the Left

This is the draft of a piece whose definitive, edited version has been published on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog as Friedrich Hayek and the Left: A Response to Simon Griffiths.

Friedrich Hayek’s ideas, once inalienably associated with the particular brand of new-right trickle-down economics espoused by Thatcher and Reagan, have for some time been building up a degree of broader appeal. After all, Hayek’s analysis and reasoning are highly persuasive, even if one’s ideological or normative conclusions tend in other directions. Simon Griffiths’ recent post on the LSE’s Politics and Policy Blog summarises some of the elements of Hayekian thought that might be put to use by the political left. But to what extent can Hayek’s analysis be divorced from his conclusions? Can the left really learn from Hayek’s thought without being persuaded by it?

Giving a flock: does the left get something out of the idea of spontaneous order?

Griffiths writes that three key Hayekian ideas might be engaged-with by the left: knowledge distribution, spontaneous orders and the significance of individual liberty. While all of these overlap in significant ways, the first two – Hayek’s epistemology and theory of catallaxy – are deeply integrated with each other, and are probably best dealt with together.

(Some of) Hayek in a Nutshell

Hayek articulated an epistemology that was marked by thoroughgoing scepticism and fallibilism. Most people, by his account, lack the opportunities and the the incentives to attain anything approximating expertise in a given area, let alone the holistic expertise that might be required for good governance, effective political reform or centralised control of an economy. Rather, knowledge is highly localised, contextual, and widely distributed throughout a given population.

Of the various systematic ways of aggregating the widely-distributed ‘bits’ of information in a society, Hayek viewed markets as being the most effective, due to their capacity for non-coercively producing a unified price signal – a ‘marvellous’ package of information based on the cumulative effect of small-scale individual decisions of buying and selling. Because this process needs no particular centralised orchestration, no coercive or authoritarian influence for its implementation, and approximates resource-efficiency without any human design at the macro scale, it could best be understood as an emergent, spontaneous order or catallaxy.

From here, Hayek develops a whole worldview, where three types of order (designed, evolutionary and catallactic) are weighed against each other. There’s a lot to write about here, and many misconceptions persist in the interpretation of Hayek’s work (lots of people conflate catallaxy with evolution, for example). There are also questions to be raised about the realism, the pragmatism and the normative desirability of spontaneous orders in real politics (some of which will be raised in future posts on this blog). But, for now,are there leftist conclusions that can be drawn from Hayekian analysis?

A Response to Griffiths

Griffiths writes:

Understood socially, knowledge can be shared by people taking action to overcome the limits of their individual perspectives. … Hayek’s argument over the dispersed nature of knowledge can be used to support a form of radical social movement politics, not simply a scepticism about socialist planning.

It’s certainly right that a critique of the epistemic limitations of central bureaucracy does not, by itself, add up to a one-sided argument for the priority of markets. However, the “radical” grass-roots politics described here would necessarily be engaging with highly specific, contextual problems, and would necessarily lack the knowledge required to safely take action at larger scales, or to wholly understand the range of possible consequences even at a local level. If Hayek is right, this agency limitation effect would effectively mean that the likelihood of messing up – that is, disturbing or distorting the spontaneous order – would increase in direct correlation with the scale and significance of the political movement (or problem) in question. For Hayek, the conservatism of his response wasn’t optional, but a rationally risk-averse response to the fact of limited human knowledge.

Griffiths moves his focus to the kinds of state action that might be most beneficial given the reality of spontaneous orders:

[T]hose at the centre could set the framework and help point institutions in particular directions. For Gamble, the idea of spontaneous order results in the state taking a more experimental approach, using trial and error to establish new types of organisation that disperse power as widely as possible in order to make the most efficient use of the knowledge that these orders contain. Cultivating spontaneous orders can be as important in the growth of a good society as building new ones.

Is the conclusion here a realistic one? At first blush, the idea of “cultivating spontaneous orders” seems to be a contradiction in terms. It is unlikely, within Hayek’s epistemological world, that such an effort at cultivation will do much more than disrupt existing spontaneous orders. Certainly we can dispute Hayek’s epistemology – but if we are willing to do this, then why particularly value spontaneous orders in any case?

The experimentalism described by Andrew Gamble may also prove to be problematic. Hayek seems to have been in broad agreement with Karl Popper on the point that societies are not functionally laboratories, and so the potentially dire social ramifications of an experimental process would make ‘piecemeal social engineering’ the only responsible course of action.

Liberty and the Left

However, the third Hayekian insight brought up by Griffiths – his emphasis on freedom – may be more fruitful for the left. After all, freedom is an essentially contested concept, and Hayek’s insistence on the importance of individual liberty need not be wholly incompatible with the various underpinning functions of the state, and the careful design of policies that are designed to maximise human flourishing in the difficult trade-off between positive and negative liberty. The rest of Hayek’s work serves as a warning about unintended consequences that should be heeded by left and right alike, necessarily placing limits on the reach of such policies. But Hayek’s is not the only legitimate notion of freedom, just as spontaneous orders are not necessarily the only producers of desirable outcomes in the social world.

Where this debate leaves the UK’s parties of the left is anybody’s guess. Beyond peripheral and academic interest, the name Friedrich Hayek is likely to remain toxic for the Labour Party – and, indeed, for the modernised Conservative Party – for years to come.

– Simon Kaye

Political Ignorance and the British Public

This is the draft of a piece whose definitive, considerably better final version has been published on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog as On the Complex Relationship Between Political Ignorance and Democracy.

Public ignorance is a central consideration in my academic work, which encourages the idea that politics, at least in part, is best understood as throwing up considerable ‘knowledge problems’; problems that are pervasive at every level of participation and administration in contemporary democratic states. The justification of democracy must, if it is to have meaning, take the political ignorance of democratic citizens seriously.


The media occasionally pick up on and discuss the depth and significance of the most obvious kind of political ignorance – that displayed by would-be voters. Naturally enough, these concerns can make for attention-grabbing headlines as our minds are concentrated by the rapid approach of a general election. The Independent‘s buzzfeed-imitating ‘i100’ site recently pointed out some recently-accumulated evidence:

46% of respondents were unaware that a general election is taking place this year

57% of respondents were unaware of what a general election is

59% of respondents could not name the current British Prime Minister

How trustworthy is this evidence? Well – not very trustworthy at all, methodologically. As i100 noted, the 1900-odd respondents were an unweighted sample, quizzed via email by a voucher codes website. We’re learning a lot about the political ignorance of the savings-savvy with a bit of time on their hands, perhaps, but should be wary of extrapolating such information into a generalised indictment of the state of public political knowledge.

But are these statistics outliers? Do they fail to correspond with existing (more sound) empirics on similar questions? Would an expert on public opinion be surprised by these findings?

Absolutely not. While most research around public ignorances arises from surveys conducted in the USA, there’s a growing body of work concerned specifically with the UK context as well, and the majority of such evidence confirms the realism of the statistics set out above.

For example, Denver & Hands have found that 77% of British 18-year-olds cannot reliably differentiate between the policy platforms of mainstream political parties. When the survey is limited to those who are students or former students in politics, this figure only improves to 50%.

More recently, a survey for the Royal Statistical Society and KCL provided a widely-reported embarrassment of riches in this area, including:

  • the general belief that under-age pregnancies are  25x more common than they actually are
  • the over-estimation of the severity of benefit fraud by 24x
  • 29% of those surveyed thought that Jobseekers’ Allowance is more expensive to the taxpayer than pensions, when the latter costs about 15x more
  • The generalised belief that crime and violent crime rates were rising, when in fact they have been falling for decades
  • The systematic over-estimation of immigration rates

These findings are particularly interesting in that they seem to indicate a kind of pessimistic bias in British political ignorance. Is it possible that many of these areas imagine things to be worse than they actually are because of the media and cultural landscape in which we find ourselves? In a more balanced informational environment, would we cease to be wrong, or simply cease to be wrong in a systematically pessimistic way?

For now, we can at least say that there’s no need to turn to i100’s dodgy sources if we want to get a sense of the ‘knowledge problems’ at work in British democracy – but we needn’t dismiss those findings as unrealistic, either.

The next, fascinating challenge is to offer meaningful and relevant political theory in response to such evidence. Cynicism – or, at least, simplistic cynicism – need not be the only response available to us. Within the British context, the extent of public ignorance may even have the surprising effect of helping us to make peace with the various systemic and electoral features of our political establishment that make the public far less influential than they might imagine or prefer themselves to be. After all, what’s the value of a more responsive electoral system – of more democracy – if the wider citizenry is incapable of voting well?

My own research strikes a more positive note than this, and tries to offer a more encouraging justification of democracy. More on that in future posts.

Just as most empirical work on public ignorance comes from the USA, so too does most of the theoretical consideration of its implications. To those interested in reading a critical perspective on democracy due to the extent of political ignorance, I’d say that this (plentifully controversial) book by Ilya Somin is a really great starting point.

Finger Lickin’ Voting: Apathy, Nando’s and Clegg

Here’s something my students are probably sick of hearing me say: a metaphor isn’t an argument. Even the most evocative, appropriate-seeming and intuitively persuasive metaphor or analogy might not, in the end, make very much sense at all. Political communication is rife with arguments-from-metaphors (and there’s quite a lot of it in political academia as well). It’s a dependable fall-back position in politics because it relies upon an ancient form of reasoning, and one that requires no expertise or careful thought on the part of your audience in order to seem wise.

I'll flame grill your chicken

Example: Nick Clegg, making a generally pretty charismatic appearance on a comedy TV show, being asked to make the case for voting – this, obviously, in the aftermath of Russell Brand’s well-publicised argument that voting is basically a big waste of time – made an interesting comparison:

[I]f you go to Nando’s and get someone else to go up to the counter and order for you, you can’t complain if they come back with a meal you don’t want.

Does this really strike us as being similar to voting in some important way? It certainly seems to have done the trick for the show’s presenters, one of whom took to the New Statesman to write up Clegg’s performance in glowing terms:

It was the single best description of the value of voting I’ve ever heard. And according to the electronic wall of scribble known as Twitter, it was a very convincing one. And all because there was no bullshit.

Casting a vote, however, is not very much like placing an order in a restaurant. To receive a meal different to the one you ordered is an error; to end up with a government controlled for a party that you didn’t vote for is a by-product of the procedural norms of democracy. There is no agentic similarity between these two situations: my vote, unlike my food order, is neither the necessary nor the sufficient condition for the arrival of my desired outcome. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, our votes carry far less objective value than the opportunity costs we incur by taking the time to cast them, which is why political scientists have spent decades puzzling over the paradox of voting. Given that in the UK’s particular electoral system the narrow chance of having an ‘influential’ vote is literally ruled out for many by the accident of their geographic location only deepens the quandary – quite a lot of us are voting, but none of us are right to be doing it on the grounds that we think it will change any outcomes.

Even if we grudgingly agree, for the sake of argument, that Clegg’s statement is basically sound, it doesn’t come across as a strong justification of voting. Voting, by this account, is a practice that we should value on the grounds that it licenses us to complain about political outcomes. Our political objections become meaningful, then, because we participated in the system that brought about the outcome to which we object.

But this idea contradicts what would seem to be the most persuasive reason to value voting: that it generates not the grounds for agreement with final outcomes (since the eventual outcomes will be undetermined by my vote), nor the grounds for legitimating my disagreement if the outcome is not to my liking, but rather because it signals personal consent to the procedural norms of the democratic system itself. If democracy produces an outcome that I do not like, I will be more inclined to tolerate it if I feel that the system that produced such an outcome was fair in some basic way. Voting would therefore not give me a reasonable basis from which to complain, but rather create a reasonable basis for my political obligations to a government that I did not choose.

In any case, Clegg is again demonstrating a talent for political communication, and he can hardly be blamed for not articulating a strong case for voting, since for most of the political class voting appears to be a self-evidently virtuous activity.

But I might recommend a better, more appropriate analogy between Nando’s and UK politics: after all, no matter what you order, you’re very likely to end up eating chicken again.