The Guardian had a ‘long read’ a couple weeks ago on “neoliberalism” by Stephen Metcalfe. I want to comment on the piece’s interpretation of Hayek. Although I don’t share Hayek’s politics, I think it important not to misrepresent what he said. (See also this earlier post on neoliberalism, and this post on the issue of the fairness of reward by contribution).
This past weekend I attended the inaugural conference of the PPE Society in New Orleans – an excellent event, with lots of interesting papers on related themes. My presentation was based on my paper ‘Markets, Desert, and Reciprocity,’ Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 16, (2017): 47-69. It was called The Free Market Critique of Desert, and its Relation with Justice as Fairness; the text of the talk (lightly revised) is available on my academia.edu site, via the link above. “Free-market critique of desert” is misleading; it should really be “the free-market critique of the desert-based justification of capitalism” but that’s too long. Another possible title for the talk would be “the neoliberal foundations of liberal egalitarianism,” but that would generate too much confusion.
A few years ago I wrote a paper on Hayek and Rawls (ungated early version here). This, plus teaching a course on libertarianism, led me to the early 20th century University of Chicago economist Frank Knight. One of the points of commonality between Hayek and Rawls is their scepticism about desert as the basis for social institutions. This scepticism owes much to Frank Knight. Rawls cited Knight’s 1923 essay “The Ethics of Competition” in the discussion of desert from A Theory of Justice, and in an earlier essay cited Hayek, who in turn cited Knight. Knight is remembered as one of the founders of Chicago economics, and thus indirectly one of the fathers of free market fundamentalism. He was indeed a teacher / colleague of both Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Yet Knight was a fierce critic of what he took to be bad, simplistic arguments for laissez-faire, chief among them the view that by distributing income according to marginal product the competitive system rewards the deserving. Knight didn’t deny that marginal productivity explained the distribution of income, he just denied that reward according to marginal product was ethically important, in itself. Hayek and Friedman had essentially the same view. The virtue of reward by marginal product is efficiency, not fairness. It’s surprising, then, to read that neoliberalism teaches that markets reward the deserving. I posted about this earlier, but now I have a paper on the topic forthcoming in PPE. It’s called “Markets, Desert, and Reciprocity,” but its subtitle could be “Knight, Hayek, Friedman, and Rawls (vs. Bell, Nozick, Sandel, etc.)” The final section includes some discussion of the reciprocity objection to proposals for an unconditional basic income.
This week in my course on liberalism we’re reading Milton Friedman. I’m really enjoying watching the PBS documentary “Free to Choose.” Here is a bit where Friedman discusses gambling, and the benefits of risk-taking:
The corresponding text from the book Free to Choose:
“Still another facet of this complex issue of fairness can be illustrated by considering a game of chance, for example, an evening at baccarat. The people who choose to play may start the evening with equal piles of chips, but as the play progresses, those piles will become unequal. By the end of the evening, some will be big winners, others big losers. In the name of the ideal of equality, should the winners be required to repay the losers? That would take all the fun out of the game. Not even the losers would like that. They might like it for the one evening, but would they come back again to play if they knew that whatever happened, they’d end up exactly where they started?”
Of course one issue is that people choose to visit Las Vegas and play Baccarat; they don’t have a similar choice about whether to play the economic game, in daily life. Also they don’t necessarily start out with equal piles of chips, if children are being raised in private families. In addition, however, people may object to competition itself, to economic life being organized so that they have to compete against others in order to flourish. Milton Friedman’s teacher Frank Knight captured this sentiment in a very nice passage from his essay “The Ethics of Competition”:
“Turning to look for motives attached to production as an activity rather than to the product, the most obvious is its appeal as a competitive game. The desire for wealth takes on more or less of the character of the desire to capture an opponent’s pieces or cards in a game. An ethical criticism of the industrial order must therefore consider it from this point of view. In so far as it is a game, what kind of game is it? There is no doubt that a large amount of radical opposition to the system arises in this connection. The propertyless and ill-paid masses protest not merely against the privations of a low scale of living, but against the terms of what they feel to be an unfair contest in which being defeated by the stacking of the cards against them is perhaps as important to their feelings as the physical significance of the stakes which they lose. In a higher social class, resentment is aroused in the hearts of persons who do not like the game at all, and rebel against being compelled to play it and against being estimated socially and personally on the basis of their successor failure at it.”
That’s from pp.603-4 of the version that’s in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 37, No.4, 1923.
Knight was no fan of socialism, but he showed a keen understanding of the sources of opposition to capitalism.