Features, Philosophy

Is Hayek’s Moral Vision Compatible with Democracy?

One of the most extraordinary intellects of recent times, F. A. Hayek’s ideas of individual liberty and free markets are embedded in modern discourse. His economic and social theories helped unite social conservatives, free market proponents, and anti-communists who crafted an alliance on both sides of the Atlantic during the last half of the 20th century. His innovative thought was vital to contemporary idioms like deregulation, globalization, and right sizing government. Today there are well over one hundred “market oriented” institutes that promote Hayek’s theories and social philosophy and even present day governments and political parties still acknowledge his contributions. Yet, ironically, the great economist was uncomfortable with the label ‘conservative’ — always describing himself as a classical liberal.

Friedrich Hayek

Despite so much public acclaim, little known features of the professor’s social thought are especially relevant to today’s political and cultural controversies. Although Hayek is celebrated by conservative activists and institutes as a bulwark for traditional values, many well informed people would be surprised to learn that his beliefs concerning morality and its role in a free society are hardly conventional. In fact, much of Hayek wrote about human culture makes him, in some respects, an insurgent within the classical tradition. On closer inspection Hayek’s ideas played a pivotal role in refashioning conservativism; creating yet another route to a society where religious faith is considered entirely a personal matter.

As a young man the great economist was influenced by positivist circles in his native Austria. He expressed no faith or belief in God, and adopted a scientific materialism. While agreeing that worship is everyone’s right he wrote that religion including belief in God have become outmoded superstitions. Addressing the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand in 1976, Hayek stated — “However much we dislike it, we are again and again forced to recognize that there are no truly absolute values whatever. Not even human life itself.” Writing in The Fatal Conceit, he avows that such beliefs can often be dangerous and divisive, and he felt they have no place in public life.

It is not surprising that these views on spiritual ideas are central to Hayek’s approach to morality as well as his view of liberty in a democratic society. In his widely acclaimed book, The Constitution of Liberty (1976), Hayek contends that both common law and morals have developed slowly in a gradual process in every culture over countless generations. His argument follows the thinking of philosopher David Hume and British statesman Edmund Burke. However, Hayek turns to Charles Darwin’s biological theories of gradual change and natural selection to account for how human morals originated. Writing in Evolution, Knowledge and Society, the economist claims that Hume demonstrated that morals are derived from sentiment or feelings, and that man’s reason can play little or no role in moral behavior. As such, he labels morals “a social instinct” and states that, as with Darwinian evolution, morality develops without the need for any conscious process or even rational intent by the members of a society. Morals, says Hayek, exist as an “artifact” of culture; they originated through a process “analogous to the process of biological selection,” and facilitate the survival of its members. Thus, morals are not the result of man’s intelligence — and this fact, he adds — “explains why we all so much dislike them.”

While certain social instincts, he says, were vital to the success of “primitive” cultures, the economist reiterates the often repeated assertion that Christian culture and the Medieval Church upheld a host of regressive moral attitudes that obstructed modern economic development for an entire millennium and stifled the emergence of free trade, commercial enterprises, and modern Capitalism. Although a number of scholars maintain that Hayek was a firm advocate for Western laws and moral behavior, what is certain is that he championed his own moral vision which he named ‘commercial morals.’ His alternative differs significantly from the classical conservative or natural law outlook.

To be sure, Hayek endorsed a wide range of laws that sustain public order, private property, honesty in business activities, making contracts and determining prices. No doubt, everyone would seem to benefit by adopting such standards, but they are minimal and beg for a more comprehensive approach. Instead, Hayek suggests that in the modern era a number of formerly esteemed virtues need to be abandoned. It seems that a Christian based moral outlook harbors several moral ‘instincts’ that are outmoded. Among those ‘instincts’ are solidarism (a concern for the overall welfare of a community) and altruism (a charitable and self-sacrificing attitude toward one’s neighbors). Writing in The Fatal Conceit, Hayek says, “It is these two instincts, deeply embedded in our purely instinctive or intuitive reactions, which remained the great obstacle to the development of the present market economy.” He contends that free trade and modern Capitalism emerged in the 18th century only after such virtues were superseded by self-interest. This explains, he says, why Capitalism is maligned by ill-informed people who wrongly insist that it’s vital for a well governed society to actively promote policies that insure fairness, equity, and social justice.

Most traditional thinkers are convinced that such moral virtues underlie the concept of a moral order and of the common good. Solidarism and altruism, both forms of charity, are often rendered by the Greek word ‘agape.’ The two virtues are central to the Gospels, the Ten Commandments and have always been a core component of a Judeo-Christian culture. Nonetheless, true liberty for Hayek requires replacing them with self-interest and individualism. As with utilitarians and most progressives, he was convinced that Christian — or natural law-based ideas of moral virtues are passé in a liberal democratic order. According to Hayek, all that is essential for a good society is that the state enforce public order and lawful contracts, and promote economic free markets based on individual self-interest and uninhibited competition. This abstract arrangement he calls the ‘spontaneous order’ or ‘Great Society.’ Within such an order, justice exists as a product of a historically evolved ‘rule of law,’ coupled with a free, unrestricted market. His ideal paradigm has no need for a tangible moral order — because an individual can apprehend only his own ideals and values — such universal standards are meaningless and sow confusion.

In public policy, Hayek did favor retaining long established institutions and was a persuasive advocate for private initiatives. Aside from minimal help for the destitute, Hayek repeatedly warned that all public assistance, welfare or social insurance provided by the state had to be quickly and efficiently phased out. Such endeavors, he wrote, not only destroy liberty by imposing a particular moral viewpoint on everyone, they will shepherd us to national bankruptcy! This austere philosophy has attracted many sponsors. To remedy what they feel are ill-advised, utopian initiatives promoted by progressive activists, a number of self-styled conservatives reject a role for the state in promoting an equitable or sustained moral order, claiming morality must remain exclusively a private matter. For Hayek, true liberty is defined as the absence of restraint — a law-abiding person has unlimited choice to act as he or she may please or, as the saying goes, do your own thing. Lacking any definite morals, virtues, or transcendent source of truth, Hayek appears to enshrine material progress and personal gain as the ultimate good or summum bonum.

Today a materialist paradigm, also accepted by liberals and progressives, has displaced a natural law view of morality where definite principles and laws can help explicate right and wrong actions. Approaching society from a one-dimensional empiricism has led to moral relativism and ultimately a society where individual privileges take precedence over community interests or the common good. In such an impoverished culture, democracy is steadily devolving into a struggle of individual egos where those with vast riches, status, and power subjugate the helpless and weak.

We owe Hayek our admiration for his dedication to preserving individual liberty and his free trade insights which helped to establish a more productive and successful business environment. In addition, he played a prominent role in discrediting the fatal flaws of a planned economy which helped the West defeat the Soviet menace. However, his legacy includes another significant feature. Whether intentional or not, his ideas facilitated a kind of naked public square where religious faith and the vital concept of Christian virtue are pushed into the shadows. We now must contend with living in a Western society where the notion of a moral order with transcendent virtues is rapidly disappearing — something with a variety of unforeseen consequences.


David J. Peterson is a teacher living in Chicago. He has contributed articles to the New Oxford Review, Social Justice Review, Mercatornet.org and other publications. He is also the author of Revoking the Moral Order.


  1. There may be no rational explanation for actions such as the presidential election in this country or the Brexit vote. The current or ongoing health insurance situation may be partially explained by Hayek followers. Likewise the economic and income disparity might also allow the rich to claim Hayek as their all knowing god-like figure. Your description of an impoverished society more accurately depicts our direction and perhaps the unintended consequences of Hayek. Thanks for the insight.

  2. Samedi says

    In my view we are still coming to terms with the scientific revolution. Many of our old metaphysical assumptions have been demolished. To me it feels like we are in the adolescence of our species, we know that the superstitions of our childhood aren’t correct but we haven’t yet formulated an adult view. It doesn’t help that our language still carries the baggage of an obsolete metaphysics. I’m optimistic that we will eventually find our way to new codes of conduct that perhaps won’t be so different from the old ones but will be based on a deeper understanding of nature and the human brain.

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