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Open Societies and Spontaneous Orders

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Popper, Hayek and the Open Society by Calvin Hayes (London/New York: Routledge, 2009); 284 pages.

Friedrich A. Hayek and Karl Popper were two of the most influential and internationally recognized critics of totalitarian collectivism in the 20th century. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (1944) and Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) helped change the intellectual climate at a time when it was presumed that various forms of socialism would soon completely triumph over limited government, free markets, and individual freedom.

Both Hayek and Popper were Austrians by birth, were almost the same age, and graduated with doctoral degrees from the University of Vienna in the 1920s. But they never knew each other in the relatively small and interconnected intellectual circles of interwar Vienna.

Hayek left Austria in 1931 for a teaching position at the London School of Economics, and heard about Popper only when his fellow Austrian economist Gottfried Haberler suggested in 1935 that he read Popper’s recently published book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery. With the darkening clouds of Nazism over Central Europe, Popper left Austria in 1937 for a teaching position in New Zealand. After corresponding during the Second World War, Hayek helped arrange a teaching position for Popper at the London School of Economics.

In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek tried to show how the rise of socialist ideas in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had prepared the political and economic foundations for the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s; and how similar socialist trends in Great Britain and the United States might, likewise, threaten those countries with political and economic tyranny.

Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies traced the origins of collectivist despotism to its ancient philosophical roots in the writings of Plato, whom Popper considered to be the intellectual father of both communism and fascism. He also argued that Marx’s materialistic determinism closed the door to any political system of freedom.

Calvin Hayes’s recent book, Popper, Hayek and the Open Society, analyzes what he sees as the strengths and weaknesses of their respective defenses of human freedom. Popper and Hayek, each in his own way, made a case for liberty on the basis of the limits of man’s knowledge.

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, Hayes explains, Popper became disillusioned with his earlier attraction to Marxism. What bothered him was the fact that no matter what happened, the clever Marxist theoretician always seemed to be able to show that it “confirmed” and “proved” Marx’s predictions of the coming collapse of capitalism to be correct.

He was also bothered by some of what were then current trends in the philosophy of science that the truth of a hypothesis was corroborated by the method of verification. That is, the more times a hypothesis passes the rigor of scientific testing, the more we can be confident that it is correct.

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934) and Conjectures and Refutations (1963) Popper argued that no matter how many white swans one may search for and see, it in itself does not prove the hypothesis that all swans are white. The discovery of one black swan would prove the hypothesis to be wrong. Hence, the proper scientific method should be based on the construction of conjectures that are open to refutation and falsification.

That, by necessity, must result in our accepting the fact that all of our knowledge and beliefs are tentative and, in principle, open to being proven wrong or less than fully correct at some point in the future. The “open society,” Popper reasoned, must be one that allows for error, reconsideration, and a multitude of minds at work in the pursuit of always incomplete knowledge. The collectivist social engineers, Popper insisted, suffered from an arrogance of presuming to know the truth required to reconstruct society “according to plan,” with little thought that their conceptions of a “good,” or “just,” or “perfect” society might be flawed or incorrect.

A “negative” case for liberty

Hayek’s focus in essays collected in Individualism and Economic Order (1948) and The Counter-Revolution of Science (1955), and in his two master political works, The Constitution of Liberty (1960) and Law, Legislation, and Liberty, (in three volumes, 1976-1979), was the fact that matching society’s division of labor is an inescapable division of knowledge. Hayes summarizes Hayek’s argument that human knowledge is multi-layered, often difficult to measure or fully articulate, and dispersed among the members of humanity in a way that cannot be collected, integrated, or coordinated even by “the best and the brightest” of human minds.

Hence, Hayek concluded the only successful manner in which all this knowledge can be brought to bear so that all in society may benefit and take advantage of all that other human beings know and can effectively apply in productive ways is to coordinate their actions through the competitive price system of an open and functioning market economy. This, he insisted, is why socialist central planning is inherently unworkable.

Hayes also emphasizes that both Popper and Hayek considered that it is impossible to understand or analyze either natural or social phenomena without taking some aspects of the existing order as “given.” These serve as the starting points for studying nature or society. Thus, both of them argued that science and the study of society could not do without “tradition.” In the study of nature, it is the “taken-for-granted” theories and hypotheses of science that form the starting points for critical investigations, including any new conjectures and attempted refutations challenging parts of the existing body of scientific knowledge.

Societal traditions, Hayek argued, represent the cumulative experience and wisdom of countless generations out of which have evolved the “rules” and patterns of human association. They incorporate more knowledge than any one man or one generation could ever possess or understand. They form the basis of the foundational elements of the “spontaneous order” of society, in the context of which each new generation lives, acts, thinks, and innovatively changes in incremental ways that transform those human institutions, but often in a manner that will be appreciated or fully understood only long after those changes have been at work.

A central element to Calvin Hayes’s analysis of Popper and Hayek is to ask how it can be that a “positive” case can be made for limits on government control, intervention, or redistribution on what are primarily “negative” arguments about the limits of human knowledge, in the way that both Popper and Hayek basically presented their defenses of freedom.

Hayes suggests that if it can be shown that limits on human knowledge and knowing are inescapable to the human condition, then it might be justifiable to reason from an “is” to an “ought.” If, as Popper insisted, it is a fact that man cannot be certain of what he may learn tomorrow that might falsify what he believes today, then it would be wrong to replace an “open society” with a “closed” one that imposed a single totalitarian plan on society, under the presumption that some can know enough today to centrally direct everyone’s lives into the future.

And if, as Hayek strongly argued, society is a spontaneous order that no one with his inescapably limited, individual knowledge can ever fully understand or successfully redesign without leaving out much of the knowledge possessed by others that the planner can never hope to possess or appreciate, then it would be wrong to impose economic central plans or try to redistribute wealth according to some presumed godlike wisdom and knowledge of what would be “fair” in terms of some standard according to which each is given his “just rewards” by a paternalistic government.

Thus, Hayes concludes, “negative” insights into the inherent limits of man and his mind, may provide a “positive” case for political and constitutional restrictions on the powers, duties, and responsibilities of governments. And it may be shown, even more strongly, how insightful and important Popper and Hayek have been in the modern battle of ideas.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).