All Commentary
Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hayek’s Tolerant and Pluralistic Liberal Vision

Disagreement is the basis of tolerance and progress.

I write this on the 113th birthday of F. A. Hayek, perhaps the most important economist and social philosopher of the twentieth century. So much has been written about Hayek and his contributions that it is sometimes hard to find a point of entry to say something both new and valuable. But that challenge hasn’t stopped me for the last 25 years, and it’s not going to stop me now.

While much has been said about Hayek’s economics, political theory, and theory of knowledge, not nearly as much has been said about his broader vision of a liberal society. It’s one thing to talk of constitutions and spontaneous orders and the use of knowledge in society, but what is the vision behind it all? What kind of world is the liberal order, what Hayek called the “Great Society,” at the more personal level?

I want to argue that Hayek’s vision of the liberal order is built on the fundamental values of pluralism and tolerance, both of which are forwarded by important properties of market economies. As Hayek puts it in volume two of his trilogy Law, Legislation, and Liberty, “A free society is a pluralistic society without a common hierarchy of particular ends.” He means that the market, like other social institutions (such as language), is an “ends-independent” process for social coordination: No matter our particular ends, we can all use the market process to achieve them. I might like Mexican food, you might like Indian food, but we need not make one decision about what we both will eat. We each can achieve our different ends through the market.

No Need to Agree on Ends

Here’s the important thing: Once we agree on the rules, we need not agree on the ends to live peacefully with one another. The liberal society is “means-connected” and not “ends-connected.” Markets enable us to disagree peacefully while each pursues his or her own way.

But notice that to sustain this kind of society, we must be willing to tolerate differences with others. We have to recognize that our freedom to achieve our ends comes at the cost of allowing others the same, even if we find those ends distasteful. In the words of FEE’s founder, Leonard Read, we must be willing to accept “anything that’s peaceful.” This is what Hayek means when he says a free society is a “pluralistic society.

Compare this to socialism or fascism. These systems require a single hierarchy of ends; according to the theory, the collective decides which ends will be pursued and which not. When resources are allocated centrally, pursuing our own individual ends is impossible. Our particular ends must be subordinated to the priorities of the State or collective. The result is not the peaceful disagreement and tolerance of the liberal order, but constant fighting over the reins of power in order to achieve one’s ends at the expense of others. We turn the positive-sum game of the market into the zero or negative-sum game of State power.

Encourages Engagement

Although the tolerance and pluralism that liberalism requires is minimally characterized as the refusal to use coercion to prevent “anything that’s peaceful,” liberalism powerfully encourages us to engage with those who are different from us. As Hayek points out on the page before the quote given above, the Greek word for “to exchange” also means “to admit into the community” and “to change from enemy to friend.” Exchange in a market-based society exposes us to new people with different ends, and brings them into our set of social relationships. We might choose to ignore those differences, but our exposure might lead us to make new and different choices in the future, or at least make us more sympathetic to the variety of ends that people pursue.

Exchange, in other words, can help us appreciate the pluralism of the liberal order.

For Hayek, the liberal society is a pluralist one, where the pursuit of anything that’s peaceful is limited only by our imagination and our tolerance of the similar pursuits by others.  His vision is not narrowly economistic, but broadly humanistic.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.