Friday, March 13, 2009

A Terrible Oversight in Mill and Hayek

I find myself in the uncanny position of defending liberty more stridently and absolutely than two giants of libertarianism. You see, Mill and Hayek overlooked something important: a person's right to liberty.

I'm referring to On Liberty and The Constitution of Liberty. You can find a few posts below regarding the former. As for Hayek's book, I'll have a few more thoughts on it in subsequent posts.

They are both wonderful books. They both make enormously important arguments for liberty from considerations of utility. One of the most important of these is that people who would control others (the various statists, tyrants and totalitarians) don't have enough information to know what is good for others. It is better to leave each man to his own devices since he will best be able to tell what is good for him. Moreover, Hayek makes quite clear the fact that there is a tradition which we need to preserve, which has evolved over a lengthy and vast field of individual experience and discovery, and compared to which the knowledge of those who wish to control others is tiny. Hayek is startlingly eloquent on that point, to the extent that there is no use in my discussing it here. Go and read the first two chapters of his book.

However, besides Mill the avowed utilitarian, we have Hayek tarnishing his brilliant case about human cognition with this howler:

If there were omniscient men, if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our present wishes but also our future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty.

If there were omniscient men, no one would have a right to liberty? Hardly. Let me state the obvious.

You have a right to liberty because your life is yours.

In an undergraduate philosophy class you might convince yourself that an omniscient man's advice was binding since he would know what's best for you. You might conclude that a person should do what the omniscient man said and would have no right to make up his mind for himself what to do. But beyond the sophomoric level it is easy to see that the omniscient have no right to control others. It is wrong for me to control my neighbor, even though he is a fool and it is obvious to any reasonable person that the decisions he makes are bad for him. The reason is that his life is his. That's an airtight argument and I'm surprised the champions of individual liberty missed it. As important as the utilitarian argument from lack of knowledge is, it is no more important than this one.

But there is more to the story. It is too simplistic to leave it with these two arguments, one utilitarian and one based on basic rights to be left alone. There is a place where the right to be left to one's own devices blends together with the considerations of utility. At that point we can see that being left to one's own devices is inseparable from the good life and happiness taken so seriously by those overly concerned with considerations of utility.

The point is this. A human being's good is found partly in winning for himself his way of life by coming to understand himself and becoming able to control himself in accordance with that understanding. Self-control and self-directedness are important components of a good life and not just because they enable one to do what one wants but because they are excellences in themselves and therefore to be coveted and prized upon being obtained. Part of what's good about a good life is that it has been of one's own making and created through one's own experience and discovery.

So, not only is the utilitarian case of Mill and Hayek incomplete and, in the instance of the Hayek quote, incorrect. It is also mistaken about the nature of the good that is promoted by preserving individual liberty.