A FINE EXAMPLE OF TRUE IRONY: FRIEDRICH HAYEK ON CONSTRUCTIVIST RATIONALISM
(Rodrigo Peñaloza, july 2015)
Before I say what it is, let me first draw some background. In the first volume of his masterpiece “Law, Legislation, and Liberty”, Hayek argues that many human institutions are not the result of deliberate will put into action for the sole purpose of deliberate ends. These institutions are social norms that come to light in an evolutionary way and our compliance to them can even be unconscious. This is called spontaneous order. Unfortunately, simple as this idea is, many scholars still don’t understand it clearly. Indeed, it makes absolutely no sense to claim that primitive humans started to bury their dead together with their belongings because some enlightened individual enforced this behavior upon them as an act of law in the first place. Archaeology shows this behavior to have arisen simultaneously in different places and independently through time. The invention of writing is another case in point. It began with the drawing of some pictorial symbols. The first human to do it had certainly no intention of creating a whole alphabet and a written language. In addition, there were actually many people who did it for the “first time” in different places and through time. The most obvious example, however, is trade. The exchange of objects among people is not the result of a deliberate purpose. I have to be clear on this. It was not the will of some neanderthal chief to impose trade as an act of law.
What Hayek says is, there are institutions created deliberately for some end, but there are also social norms. The idea of social norms has been the object of much research in Economics, specially by game-theorists. The main conclusion is that a social norm enforces itself as a Nash equilibrium in a dynamic game (this is called a subgame perfect Nash equilibrium). This is one step towards Hayek, though there still remains a fundamental difference not easy to overcome: for Hayek the submission to social norms may not be entirely based on rational grounds, in the sense that it is indeed impossible to gather all the elements to substantiate a rational syllogism or even a rational epistemic introspection, which is a fundamental key to game-theoretical reasoning; a big chunk of it is simply tradition, not-thought-of habit. It is just a matter of fragmented knowledge.
On the other side of the spectrum there are those who naïvely believe that any institution and social norms alike are the sole creation of some powerful mind who thoroughly thought so deeply about it and who was so divinely capable of foreseeing their consequences, and so broadly, that the institution be so created for the ends he foresaw, as if society, with its millions of people, were just a machine under his control. These are the constructivist rationalists. Theirs is an old belief in the intellectual world. The idea of spontaneous order is much newer, it is from the XVIII century. In the following excerpt from Hayek’s treatise he explains it further:
“The great thinker from whom the basic ideas of what we shall call constructivist rationalism received their most complete expression was Rene Descartes. But while he refrained from drawing the conclusions from them for social and moral arguments, these were mainly elaborated by his slightly older (but much more long-lived) contemporary, Thomas Hobbes. Although Descartes’ immediate concern was to establish criteria for the truth of propositions, these were inevitably also applied by his followers to judge the appropriateness and justification of actions. The ‘radical doubt’ which made him refuse to accept anything as true which could not be logically derived from explicit premises that were ‘clear and distinct’, and therefore beyond possible doubt, deprived of validity all those rules of conduct which could not be justified in this manner. Although Descartes himself could escape the consequences by ascribing such rules of conduct to the design of an omniscient deity, for those among his followers to whom this no longer seemed an adequate explanation the acceptance of anything which was based merely on tradition and could not be fully justified on rational grounds appeared as an irrational superstition. The rejection as ‘mere opinion’ of all that could not be demonstrated to be true by his criteria became the dominant characteristic of the movement which he started.” (Hayek: “Law, Legislation and Liberty”, chapter 1).
It is clear that Hobbes and other social-contractarian thinkers extended the cartesian rationality to fields not previously intended to: the social and moral field. I don’t have much more to say about it, other than exposing the source of confusion many people fall into regarding the meaning of spontaneous order. Reason either can do anything or does not. We either believe human beings act solely on conscious reasoning, never on the basis of unconscious habits and traditions, or we believe that some human behavior is not thought of and is not thought of that it was not thought of. I am not repeating myself: “not thinking of” of “not thinking of” is epistemological formal language. Brake this infinite chain and you are bound to be irrational or a game-theoretical player with bounded rationality.
The irony? I only need this: “The great thinker from whom the basic ideas of what we shall call constructivist rationalism received their most complete expression was René Descartes. But while he refrained from drawing the conclusions from them for social and moral arguments, these were mainly elaborated by his slightly older (but much more long-lived) contemporary, Thomas Hobbes”. Hayek was smart enough to explain the flaws of constructivist rationalism in the previous section of the chapter and how it is a little older intellectual belief. He also shows it has received extra injection of life in our era. When he says that Hobbes is slightly older than Descartes but lived much longer, he was using Hobbes’s age and long life as a metonimy for the idea Hobbes elaborated upon.
This is a fine piece of irony indeed. We simply can’t be sure weather he was only writing a grammatical apposition or really making a metonimy out of Hobbes. I have given irony some thought recently and came to the conclusion that irony is undecipherable. At least I am bound to define it so. We can never be fully secure about its meaning. This is what differentiates irony from debauchery. Debauchery is obvious. We see debauchery everywhere, specially on the social media nowadays. Somehow people think that debauchery is an expression of intelligence, not of grossness. No way! Only truly intelligent people like Hayek are able to be ironic.