Berlin on Hayek

April 15, 2010

by Chidem Kurdas

Reading a volume of Isaiah Berlin’s letters – Enlightening Letters 1946-1960,  edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes (London: Chatto & Windus, 2009) – I came across a puzzling comment on Friedrich Hayek.

It is not obvious that Berlin and Hayek, both of them critics of communism and in particular of the Soviet Union, belong to diametrically opposite political camps. But apparently Berlin thought so. Then he read Hayek’s 1952 book, The Counter-Revolution of Science.

Here is what he wrote: “There is a curious book I am reading now by Hayek, who is accounted reactionary by everybody and indeed to some extent is and yet the strictures he has to pass on the indiscriminate application of scientific analogies beyond their proper sphere seem to me to be exaggerated but just, that is to say just in principle, exaggerated in his particular application of it.”

What does Berlin mean by reactionary? Presumably that Hayek wanted to turn back the clock to the era before the modern welfare state. But in fact, a safety net that applies equally to everybody fits Hayek’s framework—-like the negative income tax Milton Friedman advocated as a better alternative for existing entitlement programs.

Such distinctions were probably lost on Berlin, who had little or no understanding of economic topics, as he himself owns in his letters. Perhaps he’s merely repeating others’ attacks on Hayek. He saw Karl Popper in the same light: “Hayek and Popper were the two, as it were, reactionary liberals who have somehow put on sheep’s clothing.”

But he goes on to say that he sympathizes with people who deviate from the standard of their “camp”, both “crypto-reactionary progressives and crypto-progressive reactionaries.” But Hayek was not crypto anything; his arguments are consistent with his politics.

Berlin is the one who’s between and betwixt. Or simply confused. Murray Rothbard argued that Berlin’s famous argument about two types of liberty was muddled.

Where Berlin shines is in summing up the Marxist project. Thus he wrote to Joan Robinson, who followed Keynes but had a soft spot for Marx: “I think the old boy really did pour a lot of light on dark places up to about 1910 say,” but after that people who stick to him have unpleasant reasons for doing so.

For instance, they want to be in a “wild and impenetrable jungle where … nobody can get at you at all and you can shout and snap to your heart’s content.”

The letter collection includes intriguing tidbits but 844 pages mostly of Berlin’s travels, publishing decisions, career moves and cattiness to people who are now forgotten get tedious.

20 Responses to “Berlin on Hayek”

  1. Greg Ransom Says:

    Typically, Berlin is just displaying his ignorance again — Popper was a socialist well into his adulthood, and evolved from that into a standard social democrat, mostly under the influence of Hayek. Popper was never anything close to being a “reactionary” — unless anyone who opposed communism gets that label.

    Could it be that Berlin was embedded in a hard left community of British communists and labour Marxists — if he was, I wasn’t aware of that before. But intellectual and university Britian had moved fairly hard left in the 1940s .. how much a part of that was Berlin?

  2. Greg Ransom Says:

    One wants to know what original thought derives from Berlin …

  3. Danny Says:

    Greg, I typically think of Berlin’s most important contributions as having to do with value pluralism.

  4. chidemkurdas Says:

    I always thought his main contribution is two concepts of “liberty”–distinguishing freedom from economic entitlement, which lefties like to describe as “freedom from want”. However, Rothbard’s argument (cited in the post) that Berlin missed the key distinction is persuasive.

  5. chidemkurdas Says:

    Grey, it is a good question, what exactly his original contribution is. In the context of criticizing the Soviet Union, he argued that any strong faith is dangerous, whether Marxism or a religious belief, because it can easily lead to despotism. After all, if your values are so good, then everybody should hold them, and if they don’t….

  6. chidemkurdas Says:

    From these letters, it is clear that many of his friends were leftists, some of them Marxists. In fact the Cambridge spies were part of his milieu–when this came to light, he and his associates found themselves in an awkward situation. But he also worked with the UK and US governments during WWII and afterward. There are quite a few letters from him to people at the State Department.

  7. Greg Ransom Says:

    This distinction pre-dates Berlin. Hayek traces it to Hegel and then to Hobhouse. Others have identified the distinction in the work of various authors pre-dating Berlin, Green, Hobson, etc.

    “I always thought his main contribution is two concepts of “liberty”–distinguishing freedom from economic entitlement”

    Here’s an article on the “positive liberty” tradition, 1880-1914:

    http://www.jstor.org/pss/1953101

  8. Greg Ransom Says:

    It is just me, or is this a terrible argument?

    “he argued that any strong faith is dangerous, whether Marxism or a religious belief, because it can easily lead to despotism. After all, if your values are so good, then everybody should hold them, and if they don’t….”

  9. Pietro M. Says:

    “It is just me, or is this a terrible argument?”

    I totally agree. It’s moral relativism in its purest and indefensible form: it proves that a serial killer full of doubts is less dangerous than a pious man 100% sure that homicide is a crime (I would object with Goldwater’s dictum “Extremism in pursuit of justice is no vice” as cited by Karl Hess on the pages of the important journal of political philosophy known as “Playboy”).

    That argument puts all values on the same point of the value scale, from “don’t steal” to “slay all the jews”, and then uses an utility function which discriminates in terms of the convinction with which a value is upheld. Moral pluralism is strongly overrated, and with it the notion of moral neutrality. No political philosophy can avoid discriminating among values and having doubts is not the only dimension of value judgement, and not even the most important.

  10. Roger Koppl Says:

    Pietro,

    Does Berlin’s remark express some sort of lexicographic preference? I don’t really see that. The content of your values matters. Of course. But I think the ferocity of your attachment to them also matters. I think Goldwater/Hess got it wrong and I have the authority of none other than David Hume on my side.

    Hume warned us against putting “philosophy” ahead of a “reverence” for current political institutions. He said, “a regard to liberty, though a laudable passion, ought commonly to be subordinate to a reverence for established government” (Find that @ Vol. VI, p. 533 of the Liberty Press edition of his History.). Hume’s History of England includes a harsh condemnation of Cromwell’s regicide, which he seems to have thought extended the civil wars another 30 or 40 years. If Hume’s interpretation is about right, then we should fear “extremism in the defense of liberty.” The history of the French Revolution suggests that Hume may have been on to something.

    Epistemics are an essential part of the issue here. K. Vela Velupillai’s “computable economics” includes a theorem on “The impossibility of an effective theory of policy in a complex economy” (In M. Salzano & D. Colander (Eds.), Complexity hints for economic policy (pp. 273-290), 2007, Milan: Springer.) The theorem basically says computability problems plague policy making. Excess zeal for an ideology may cause the powerful to neglect their epistemic limits, to the detriment of their fellow humanity.

  11. Pietro M. Says:

    I had read Berlin’s statement as “what was wrong with the Soviet Union was that it was based on a strong faith”, which however on a second reading seems a forced interpretation.

    I intuitively agree that perfectly rigid principles cannot be really realized in the world of ethics. My “having doubts is not the only dimension of value judgement, and not even the most important” recognized a positive value for doubts, although I was considering the content of principles (what the Soviets really did, not how much they believed in it) to be a more important focus.

    The tension between rules and discretion is at present resolved with the triumph of discretion. That’s my reason for stressing rules, but of course I didn’t mean to deny that this stress cannot be carried too far.

  12. chidemkurdas Says:

    Roger, Vela Velupillai’s policy impossibility theory embodies a major insight. Thanks for pointing it out. It would fit with Berlin’s perspective. Berlin’s dislike of excess zeal shows up largely against the Marxist-Soviet claim that what they were doing was consistent with the direction of history, as revealed by “science”. So if you were against them, you were “unscientific” and going in the opposite direction of history. Opponents were thus cast as both foolish and stupid.

  13. chidemkurdas Says:

    I should add that these notions meant different things to the 1917 revolutionaries who fought to establish a communist society, who believed in the stuff, and the apparatchiks who consolidated and defended the system, for whom these were convenient tools with which to beat opponents.

  14. chidemkurdas Says:

    The key question is whether people who believe strongly try to impose their values on others by force. As long as you limit your attempts to non-violent persuasion, there is no downside to passionate belief–in fact many of humanity’s great achievements required strong confidence, initially not backed by facts, that something very difficult is worth doing.

    However, Pietro M, your example does not apply. You wrote re moral relativism; “it proves that a serial killer full of doubts is less dangerous than a pious man 100% sure that homicide is a crime.” But serial killers are not proponents of a value or belief system, which is the issue here. They kill presumably because they enjoy the activity. Similarly, a thief steals because he wants money, not because he subscribes to a philosophy that says stealing is a great thing. The exception to this are groups like the Black Panthers, who saw crime as a way to express their politics.

  15. Pietro M. Says:

    “Pietro M, your example does not apply. You wrote re moral relativism; “it proves that a serial killer full of doubts is less dangerous than a pious man 100% sure that homicide is a crime.” But serial killers are not proponents of a value or belief system, which is the issue here.”

    My example with serial killers applies also to Black Panthers, Kaki shirts, Bolshevicks, Red Brigades, Al Qaeda, Sturm-Staffeln, Ku-Klux-Klan, Red Khmer, Fascist squadrists… if their problem were the strength of their belief in their “values” and not the substantive content of these “values”, then they were only as dangerous as Rothbard or Leo Tolstoy or St Francesco of Assisi.

    I’m reading Human Action again and will try a more formal answer: political ideologies (e.g. communism) and perverse preferences for murder (e.g. serial killers) are basically value judgments, and thus logically consubstantial. The issue was whether skepticism is a more important determinant of moral value than the content of these values.

    I made a mistake to interpret Berlin’s statement so strongly, but my argument applies in general: epistemology is neither a substitute nor a foundation for ethics. I’ve had the impression in the past, reading Popper and Hayek for instance, and many discussions about “libertarian neutrality”, “moral relativism” and similar issues, that some people believe that bad ethics is mainly an epistemological problem, i.e., an intellectual error.

    I prefer, a priori, a libertarian fanatic to a communist skeptic, although coeteris paribus I prefer a skeptic to a fanatic.

  16. Pietro M. Says:

    “As long as you limit your attempts to non-violent persuasion, there is no downside to passionate belief–in fact many of humanity’s great achievements required strong confidence, initially not backed by facts, that something very difficult is worth doing.”

    I haven’t read the paper that Prof Koppl linked, but probably the argument applies to any rigid principle, because being epistemic in nature the argumentt cannot discriminate between violent and non-violent actions. However, I’m convinced that the use of violence is a more important determinant of moral acceptability than the strength of the underlying belief.

    I’d highlight that the tension betwen the possibly great constructive power of strong beliefs and their more common destructive power is an important theme. For instance, in Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer” the nastiness of mass movements is well depicted, but also their potential relevance in movements like civil rights or abolitionism. Violent or not, mass movements have some inherent moral defect, like herding and potential fanaticism. However, to the extent that it may be irrational to solve a prisoner’s dilemma (which is quite common in political problems), fanaticism may help, although normally it makes things worse.

  17. Roger Koppl Says:

    Pietro,

    Certainly, again, the content of one’s ideology is important. But I don’t know if we should say ideologies “are basically value judgments.” Liberalism is first a theory of society. While you do have to make the value judgment of beneficence, mostly it’s a matter of how you think society really works. Most (all?) other ideologies would fall apart if you accepted liberal social theory. The strictly scientific angle is vital. That’s why economics is deadly serious and a matter of life and death.

  18. Pietro M. Says:

    I completely agree.

  19. chidemkurdas Says:

    The question is, does excess zeal makes people more likely to impose on others who do not share their values? Perhaps the difference is whether you strongly believe your values are universally applicable. If you think they are, whereas I don’t share them, you will want to make me behave by your values. If you have the power, then you can compel me. But if the content of your value is that you should not compel anyone, then I’m safe. So that particular belief is an exception.

  20. chidemkurdas Says:

    This argument is about values or political systems, not about personal goals. Somebody who is zealous, say, in pursuing a business project may make mistakes or take risk, but unless the project has a political dimension, it will not involve compelling people.


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